PHOENIX — Jackson County should implement stricter laws regarding stray and pet cats, advocates and private citizens told an animal shelter advisory committee Monday.
During the hourlong meeting, which was sometimes punctuated with tears, residents suggested instituting mandatory spay/neuter laws, licensing cats, increasing accountability for both cat owners and those who trap nuisance animals, and extending mandatory holding and assessment times for cats who end up in the shelter.
The Animal Control Advisory Committee meets every other month at the Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center.
More than 32 states have mandatory spay/neuter laws, with a minimum requirement that all animals adopted from a shelter be spayed or neutered, said Lisa Frost, an Ashland attorney and shelter volunteer.
Frost urged the committee to move forward in implementing a mandatory spay/neuter program to help curb pet overpopulation and reduce the numbers of feral, stray and abandoned animals who are euthanized.
Citing county statistics, Frost said the shelter euthanized 41 percent of the 2,212 dogs it handled in 2010. Conversely, 80 percent of 2,945 cats were humanely destroyed during the same period. Of the 2,364 cats killed, 244 were euthanized by owner request, and 2,120 were feral or unclaimed felines, Frost said.
"Why not license the cat?" Frost asked. "People might start paying attention. We have to look at the big picture."
Frost said money raised by fees or fines could be used to help pay for spay/neuter programs.
"The bottom line is resources. But we all have it as a priority to make it better," said Mark Vargas, a committee member, adding it's county policy that all impounded cats or dogs must be spayed or neutered before their release.
Recent news stories about Max, a microchipped pet that was taken to the shelter, mistaken for a feral cat, then euthanized within hours of his arrival, has caused backlash against both shelter policies and cat owners who allow their animals to wander off their property.
Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith said he is a cat owner and a cat lover. But he, too, has faced issues with feral cats on his property. When Smith's chickens started disappearing, he initially blamed other predators. Then Smith spied "a big, gray, unneutered male cat," he said.
"They're the best little hunters in the world," Smith said.
Be it snatching up chickens, using gardens for litter boxes or spraying on private property, unattended cats are posing a problem in cities and counties, Smith said.
"Pet owners should be responsible for their cats. It is not this organization's responsibility to take care of other people's pets," said Ted Birdseye, another committee member.
"We have leash laws for dogs. Why do people feel like their cats should be turned out at large?"
There is no county ordinance forbidding cats to be "at large," said Colleen Macuk, shelter director. But owners are responsible for their animals' actions. It is also legal for others to bait and trap "nuisance" cats and take them to the county shelter. In fact, it is required that trapped cats be taken to the shelter to prevent the possibility of animal abuse, said Macuk.
"We don't turn them away because of the alternative," Macuk said.
Macuk said Priscilla Farrel's neutered orange tabby was not checked for a microchip by shelter staff 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.
Per state law, Macuk said feral cats are euthanized by lethal injection, which is administered by a long pole-type syringe.
In order to scan animals for microchip identification, the hand-held scanner must be passed over the animal while in contact with the fur, which requires the cat to be held by staff members, she said.
With the county's resources, wild and aggressive cats cannot be safely or humanely held to perform this task without putting staff at risk of bites or scratches or injury to the cat, Macuk said. Adding to the problem is the lack of manufacturer uniformity regarding chips and scanners. The shelter has two scanners, which are capable of reading all but two types of chips, she said.
In 2011, the shelter received 2,883 cats. Only eight were microchipped, Macuk said.
"One thing we've committed to is that we're going to scan them all after they've been euthanized," Macuk said, referring to cats that were deemed unsafe for staff to handle.
Macuk and shelter volunteers Peggy Moore said Dianne Quarg said the numbers are overwhelming. Up to 50 cats have been brought into the shelter in a single day, they said.
"We're talking sheer numbers and safety issues for staff and the animals," Quarg said, adding the shelter staffers list incoming cat as "adoptable," "treatable," or "feral."
Sally Mackler, head of Jackson County's all-volunteer Spay and Neuter Your Pets program, said people who trap cats in residential neighborhoods should be required to notify potential owners, and the shelter needs a mandated holding period, Mackler said.
"Give the animal and the owner and management a chance," she said. "With a better system we can do a better job."
Medford resident Pam Weber choked back tears as she recounted the euthanization of another cat named Max.
Weber's cat also was trapped by a neighbor, deemed unmanageable by shelter staff, and euthanized before she could reclaim the fearful cat Weber said she'd raised since it was a feral kitten.
"Max was very timid and afraid of strangers," Weber said, adding Max would have been behaving aggressively at the shelter because he'd been trapped.
"He was fighting and scared," she said.
Weber offered to help the county implement changes to its policies regarding trapped cats. Weber wants to see an extension of the holding hours and photos of the cats placed on the shelter's website along with the neighborhood the cat was picked up in, she said.
"This has to change," Weber said. "It is heartbreaking to lose a pet in this way."
Weber praised Macuk for her compassionate response when the two spoke after Max had been destroyed. Macuk also wept over the fate of Weber's cat as the two briefly clasped hands over the meeting table.
"My heart breaks for you," Macuk said.