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Fur Factor

Tiny kittens are placed in foster care until they turn 8 weeks old, considered an adoptable age. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven — — — — Working to stop the high number of kitten deaths by euthenasia

Two tries and veterinarian Amy Smith still can't stick a vein.

Truth is, the 4-week-old kitten, no bigger than a can of soda, is probably too small for the test that will determine whether he lives or dies.

But it's not just his fate that hinges on the results of the blood draw at the Best Friends Animal Hospital in Talent.

Back at the nearby Jackson County Animal Shelter, three tiger-striped siblings ' two males, one female ' wait in a wire cage.

They're all part of a litter that arrived July 27 in a cardboard box, the latest in a parade of pets abandoned in a Central Point woman's yard.

— We get so many here on Old Stage Road. They're just dumped, says Donna Shimkus, 80. They drive along and they throw cats out.

It falls to Shimkus, who has eight cats of her own, to find the strays, trap them and bring them to technician Donna Patnesky's counter at the shelter.

We see her weekly, says Patnesky, who is in the midst of a summer boom of unwanted cats.

It's not unusual for Patnesky to take in 30 cats in a day ' and sometimes as many as 50 ' during the height of the season.

In June, 452 cats came into the shelter, up from 357 in the same month a year ago, says Colleen Macuk, director of county Animal Care and Control.

We're up about 300 cats more than we were at this time last year, says Macuk. We are not turning away anything, even when we're full.

year's end, the shelter expects to top last year's total of nearly 3,500 cats.

Nearly a quarter of those animals will be adopted into new homes or returned to their owners.

But most of the rest ' more than 2,500 cats a year, sometimes 20 a day ' must be euthanized, personally, by Patnesky.

We have to put the cats to sleep because someone on the outside is irresponsible, she says.

I want to strangle those people because they're using us to do their dirty work.

It's a heartbreaking task made more wrenching because it's preventable, says Patnesky, 50, who has worked at the shelter for 13 years.

People who ignore stray or feral animals and pet owners who refuse to get their cats spayed and neutered are at the heart of the problem, she says.

Still, Patnesky says she strives daily to save as many cats as possible.

I just love 'em, she says.

Which is why the tiny kitten with the big ears and blue eyes sits mewing on Smith's exam table.

Patnesky recalls a past case of feline leukemia in a cat dumped at Shimkus' farm. If the kitten tests positive for the disease, it's a certain death sentence for him ' and his siblings.

What happens with this test will determine what happens to the rest, says Patnesky.

Disease, illness, wildness, anti-social behavior, excessive stress and destructive habits can preclude an animal from adoption.

So Smith, the veterinarian, tries to find another impossibly small vein.

The kitten squirms and claws as technician Chris Wood grasps him firmly, exposing a span of neck.

Shoot, I don't know how to get into this angle, Smith says, wielding a needle as long as the kitten's leg. There, we got it. We got it.

A syringe of bright-red blood heads for the portable testing machine.

While she waits 10 long minutes for the results, Patnesky sketches the problem.

The county shelter is the last resort for cat control, she explains.

The area's two other shelters, run by the Southern Oregon Humane Society and the Committed Alliance to Strays (CATS), focus solely on adoption and don't euthanize animals.

However, those agencies are free to turn away animals that can't be adopted, notes Hank Collins, county director of Health and Human Services. And, in the rare instances that it's necessary, they send animals to the county to be euthanized.

We're the only people currently dealing with all these dead animals, he says. This is the most gruesome thing that goes on in this department.

Shelter staff are in a no-win situation, Patnesky says. Public perception often paints staff members as callous.

We hear it almost every day: 'You just kill animals,' she says. It's not that I'm proud of the job that we do, but it has to be done.

Still, some local animal care activists argue that the county could do more to reduce the number of animals it is forced to kill.

I don't question whether the shelter does good work, but they have an opportunity to take a leadership position, says Richard Nudelman, an Ashland counselor and board member of the nonprofit group Spay and Neuter Your Pets (SNYP).

County officials could narrow their definition of nonadoptable animals, he argues. They could start paying people &

36;10 apiece to alter their animals.

Those concerns are echoed by John Heaslet, who is about to open an adoption information center and retail store near his wife's veterinary clinic.

In a flurry of e-mails, he and other animal advocates are urging county officials to change the definition of adoptable vs. treatable animals, to publicly post specific reasons for euthanasia and to allow advocates to have a greater say in the county's decisions to put down animals.

We want the public to be a little more involved in the problem, Heaslet says. At JCAC there seems to be a bunch of closed doors.

Further, Nudelman notes that the shelter recently received a bequest of more than &

36;800,000 from the estate of longtime local resident Verne Beebe. Those funds could be used to bolster local efforts to prevent unwanted animals.

It doesn't seem right to complain that we need to do something about this problem when you're sitting on money that would help alleviate it, Nudelman says.

Beebe, the matriarch of a local family who died in March 2003, left much of her &

36;6.2 million estate to groups focused on animal care.

Jackson County was designated as the largest beneficiary, set to receive 40 percent of the proceeds. Another 20 percent went to CATS, 15 percent to Wildlife Images and 10 percent to the Southern Oregon Humane Society, county Circuit Court records show.

Nudelman admits his financially struggling group was disappointed to be left out of the bequest. Now he wants county leaders to contract with other agencies ' including his ' to encourage spaying and neutering.

But Macuk and Collins say the county has an obligation to monitor carefully a gift that nearly equals the agency's annual &

36;930,000 budget.

For now, officials are going to let the Beebe funds accrue interest estimated at &

36;25,000 in the first year, then devise a plan on how best to use the money.

When the Beebe monies were delegated, that was a choice, Macuk says. We're in a position to put it to the best use for the pets and the people of Jackson County.

The toughest problem, however, is changing public attitudes toward animal population control, all parties agree.

In one year, more than 100 kittens will be produced by a single female and her offspring, notes Sally Mackler, president of SNYP.

Feline biology plus human irresponsibility spells a lot of sadness, suffering and death, Mackler says.

Instead of cleaning up the drips at the end of the faucet, we're trying to turn the faucet off.

Back in the vet's office, the timer signals the leukemia test is ready. After a deep breath, Patnesky checks.

It's negative.

Yes! exults Patnesky, stroking the kitten's striped head.

Reunited in the shelter cage, the kitten and his furry siblings swat and play as they wait to be transferred to a foster home until they can be adopted at eight weeks.

the next day, however, their precarious future is apparent. Overnight, one of the male kittens suddenly becomes ill.

the next morning, even with medical intervention, he's gone.

On Friday, one of the remaining kittens begins to fail as well.

Despite the shelter's full cages, Patnesky is worried enough to take the single sick kitten home.

I don't want it to be alone overnight, she says.

Patnesky appreciates the irony of the situation. But she says it's all part of the dichotomy of a job that requires workers to protect life while at the same time doling out death.

I'm hoping we'll be OK with the three, she says. I hope we don't lose any more.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail Fur Factor"jaleccia@mailtribune.com.

Tiny kittens are placed in foster care until they turn 8 weeks old, considered an adoptable age. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune images