Animal welfare officials, feral cat lovers and neighbors bothered by straying felines say it is time for Jackson County to adopt new policies regarding cats.
The recent tales of two orange cats — one burned, likely by an abuser, the other mistakenly euthanized by officials — have spiked community outrage and shed light on the county's lack of definitive policies regarding how to humanely care for stray, abandoned and feral cats.
Spay/Neuter Your Pet, Jackson County's nonprofit spay/neuter referral and assistance organization, acts as a referral service providing information on low-cost spay/neuter programs in Jackson County. Call its helpline at 541-858-3325 for information.
In mid-December, Max, a 4-year-old pet cat with a microchip, was euthanized by Jackson County Animal Care and Control staff members who didn't scan for the chip, citing safety concerns because the animal was unmanageable.
A neighbor had trapped Max and several other feral felines and taken them to the shelter, where they were killed.
A week later another orange feline was found severely burned in Eagle Point and taken to the Best Friends Animal Hospital in Talent by county shelter staff. The year-old stray, whom Best Friends workers named Meshach, suffered severe burns to his ears, face and beneath his tail.
The veterinary staff who examined Meshach's injuries said they don't appear to have been the result of a house fire. The pads on his paws were untouched, and he had no respiratory issues, making it appear some kind of a flammable liquid got on him and then ignited, said Lori Slate, Best Friends manager.
The Jackson County Sheriff's Department has launched an investigation, and the Humane Society of the United States has offered a $2,500 reward for anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the abuser. Sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said anyone with information about what might have happened to Meshach is asked to call 541-774-6800.
On Wednesday, veterinary staff members said Meshach was responding to the treatment and had not suffered any permanent vision damage. He was off pain medication and will be taken to Sanctuary One, an animal care farm in the Applegate Valley.
Meshach will join a cadre of special-needs cats there, including Lily, a female cat who was also a burn victim, Boo, a three-legged cat, and Bubba, a cat who survived having his hip crushed, said Robert Casserly, executive director of Sanctuary One.
Scot Beckstead, senior director of the Oregon chapter of the Humane Society of the U.S., said he has been contacted multiple times by local citizens concerned over the county's lack of a "humane proposal for care of feral or pet cats."
"It seems to me there is a real concern about feline welfare that is not currently being met by the actions of the county," Beckstead said. "It seems it's time for a new approach and a new attitude."
But what would that be if neighbors can't agree on what defines responsible care?
Max's owner, Priscilla Farrel, and other family members said they now regret letting Max outside. But Farrel said she depended upon her pet's microchip to bring him home safe from a shelter. She said it was unfair that Max was killed within hours of his arrival at the shelter, without proper assessment or reasonable chance of recovery from his owners. The same fate could happen to anyone's pet, she said.
Shelter director Colleen Macuk said Max was not checked for a microchip because he acted and was assessed by staff as feral and unmanageable. It is county policy to euthanize all feral cats upon arrival at the shelter, she said.
Macuk said the shelter's policies are consistently under review. But she has neither the funds nor the legal mandates from the county to provide more services for cats. Unlike dogs, cats are not restricted by law from running loose. They are also not licensed and bring in no revenue stream for their care, she said.
Medford resident Nadine Crowder, 79, read about Max and expressed sympathy for Farrel's cat-trapping neighbor. Max should have been kept indoors, Crowder said, adding owners who allow their cats to wander outside their home and/or property put not only their animals at risk, but also infringe upon their neighbors' rights.
"I don't have a problem with cats," Crowder said. "I have a problem with the damned people who aren't responsible."
Crowder, who said she has had pet cats of her own in the past, currently has a neighbor who insists upon feeding stray and feral cats.
"One lady had a cat and moved away, and the neighbor started feeding it," Crowder said, adding the population has grown to the point where she has videotaped up to 25 cats trespassing in her carport, damaging her property with urine, feces and claw marks.
Crowder said she has resorted to trapping cats herself.
"I've probably caught 10 or 12. They go right to the pound," Crowder said, adding the neighbor sometimes comes and releases the trapped cats before she can take them to the county shelter.
Crowder is angry with the county for failing to create ordinances that force cat owners to keep their animals in their own homes or at least on their own property. If the county needs more funds to enforce the laws, they should require licenses on cats, she said. Crowder said she went to a recent county commissioner meeting that dealt with chickens and other animals, hoping to speak about her frustrations with cats. But she was told the topic would not be considered at that meeting, Crowder said.
"I'd sure like to meet that man who was trapping cats in Medford. Maybe we could get something done about this problem," she said.
Sally Mackler, head of Jackson County's all-volunteer Spay and Neuter Your Pets program, said the county shelter should not be supporting the property interests of citizens over the welfare of animals.
Mackler takes issue with the county's failure to hold trapped cats like Max until they can be safely identified. If the shelter won't take measures to ensure it is not euthanizing people's pets, it should not be accepting trapped cats, she said.
"Someone is trapping randomly and indiscriminately in a residential neighborhood filled with domesticated pet cats that go outdoors. There is no law against letting cats outdoors. Although it may not be the safest practice, it is very common," Mackler said.
Macuk said the county shelter does not trap feral cats. But it does provide a safe drop-off point for those who do.
"It is our job," Macuk said. "Especially when it becomes a public health issue of feces or cat bites. The main complaint we get is that when you walk outside and it smells like a litterbox."
Central Point resident Maxine Curtis says ownership can be a fluid concept for those who feed stray and feral cats. Curtis, too, has a nearby neighbor who started off feeding an abandoned cat. But she now is feeding dozens of cats — and the felines use Curtis' front yard as their litterbox, she said.
"She feeds them and lets them roam," Curtis said. "If she's going to feed them, shouldn't she be responsible for providing an inside home for them?"
Curtis has heard the cats being attacked by raccoons, she said, adding other vermin are also attracted to the outdoor food source. Sometimes cats and kittens wander into Curtis' yard, where her dogs have caught and killed them, she said.
"I hate to see that," Curtis said. "It's a nerve-wracking, stressful situation."
Curtis said she "doesn't have the heart" to trap the cats. She went to mediation with her neighbor over the cat problem.
"She said she'd come over and clean up after the cats. But now she says they're not her cats," Curtis said. "There ought to be some rules that if you're going to feed them, you keep them in your home, keep them in your yard or keep them in huts."
Beckstead said a properly managed trap, neuter and release program would diminish the county's feral cat populations over time. Feral cats can be vaccinated, then spayed or neutered at a low-cost clinic. Their left ear is notched so that if the cat is captured again, it can be released without adding to the overpopulation problem, he said, adding no cat that is a pet should be euthanized without being properly assessed.
"There is a difference between feral and freaked out," Beckstead said.
Statistics show a female feral cat and her offspring can produce up to 100 new cats in a year. In 2010, the shelter handled almost 3,000 lost, owner-surrendered and feral cats and kittens. More than 1,000 were counted as wild cats, Macuk said.
Macuk said the trap and release program does not work. The feral and stray cats simply return to the area where they were being fed. And the public complaints and the problems continue. Macuk said the county has euthanized several cats with notched ears.
"We don't get as many of them," Macuk said. "But they were causing damage to a public area."
Macuk, Mackler and Beckstead agree on one thing: Cats who are allowed to roam unattended outside are at risk of death or injury from traffic, other animals, disease — and worse.
"Cats present a unique problem to animal control and society in general," Beckstead said. "They are not like dogs. It's sort of the nature of cats to roam. But an optimal situation would be for all cats to be house cats and live inside."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.