"Cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats."

"Cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats."

— from "Millions of Cats," by Wanda Gag, 1928

The image of a hillside covered with cats made a delightful image in a charming children's story, but it can be far from charming when a feral cat colony sets up housekeeping nearby. A story in Tuesday's paper cited an Oregon Humane Society statistic saying a single pair of cats and their offspring can produce 588 kittens by the third year, and 4,118 by the fourth year.

In an effort to find the best response to what is a humanitarian and a public health problem, the Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center is considering shifting its policy from euthanizing feral cats to neutering, vaccinating and releasing them.

The idea is that those cats will live out their natural lives but produce no kittens, helping halt the growth in feline population and avoiding the necessity of killing more and more cats every year.

The county shelter has succeeded in reducing the euthanasia rate for cats from about 80 percent in 2010-2011 to 63 percent in 2012. The shelter changed its procedures, accepting fewer animals and improving adoption programs.

But the feral cat problem remains. The difficulty with feral cats is that many are not accustomed to being handled by people, causing them to bite and scratch, which can cause infections.

Because the feral cats are therefore not adoptable, they are routinely killed at the shelter. Proponents of the trap-neuter-release approach say it is more humane to let the animals live but remove their ability to reproduce.

That attitude is not universal, however, even among animal rights activists.

The national group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says feral cats too often die miserable deaths from disease, predators or being hit by cars. PETA doesn't approve of euthanizing feral cats either, of course. Its answer:

"We believe that trap, vaccinate, spay/neuter, and release programs are acceptable when the cats are isolated from roads, people and other animals who could harm them; regularly attended to by people who not only feed them but care for their medical needs; and situated in an area where they do not have access to wildlife and where the weather is temperate."

In other words, Never-Never Land.

The bottom line: There is no ideal solution to the problem of feral cats. Trap-neuter-release appeals to those uncomfortable with euthanasia, but it carries a greater financial cost. Where the money will come from to pay for spaying and neutering operations remains to be determined.

And releasing feral cats means they will still be prowling where they are not necessarily welcome.

The county and its residents will have to decide whether to continue euthanizing feral cats or pay more to sterilize them.