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Campaign, efforts hoped to control local cat populations

This year's "kitten storm" exposes a twice-yearly cycle Columbia Humane Society workers would like to rein in


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - The Columbia Humane Society is dealing with a population boom of kittens that started in March. The shelters officials are working with community partners to curb the twice-yearly kitten storm, including the launch of a marketing campaign and plans for a public spay and neuter clinic. Spring and fall are seasons of plenty at the Columbia Humane Society, at least when it comes to kittens and cats.

“There is a bi-annual kitten storm because of the way adult cats come into heat,” says Dean Cox, Columbia Humane Society’s executive director.

This spring in particular has resulted in a litter boom at the nonprofit no-kill shelter — both in the amount of kittens and the need to keep up with their basic needs, such as waste control and food.

As of last Tuesday there were 67 cats and kittens at the shelter, by one employee’s count.

And to get an understanding of how many kittens have been born during the spring boom, which typically starts in March as adult female cats come into heat, first it’s necessary to grasp the shelter’s naming protocol: Litters are alphabetically categorized, and each kitten in the litter is given a name that starts with the same letter as the litter in which it was born. Each litter contains anywhere from two to six kittens, Cox explains.

This spring, the humane society litters reached all the way up to the “X” mark on the alphabet scale.

Moving the kittens out of the Columbia Humane Society’s headquarters at 2084 Oregon St. in St. Helens hasn’t been an easy task. One of the challenges, Cox says, is that the agency is competing with local residents who are giving kittens away for free. The humane society must also wait until the kittens are two weeks old before they can be spayed and neutered, a requirement before they are released. Residents with a fertile female cat are unlikely to bother with spaying or neutering any resultant kittens, instead moving immediately forward with free giveaways, Cox says.

An even bigger problem, he says, is that many of those free kittens are likely to contribute to next year’s spring storm when they breed and become mothers.

Lisa Beggio, Columbia Humane Society’s animal welfare manager, is tasked with sequencing the spay and neuter schedule for kittens and other cats that end up at the shelter.

Beggio surveys a dry erase board prominently located in a small administrative room just outside of Cox’s office. On the board in orange and green highlighter ink are the names of kittens awaiting spay and neutersurgeries and a schedule posted of kittens slated to go under the knife within the upcoming week.

“I think I have five going within the next few days, but I have many more waiting to fill that empty space,” Beggio says.

In 2012, the last kitten resulting from the spring storm wasn’t adopted until December. This year, to hopefully move the process along at a quicker pace, the shelter has expanded its hours to 7 p.m. on the days its open.

Planning the future

Cox recognizes there are few solutions within the current system for breaking out of the cycle that leads to the spring and fall cat population explosions.

There are also very few resources at Cox’s disposal to alter that system.

The Columbia Humane Society’s annual budget is around $225,000, a number arrived at via the combined revenue of adoptions, donations and fundraisers. On the expense side, beyond personnel and facilities, eachanimal rotating through the humane society costs on average $450.

“It’s a dead loss, and every adoption fee is,” says Cox, who joined as the shelter’s executive director in March after nearly two decades working the pet and animal field. He says it’s a mystery to him as to how the humane society has remained in operation for as long as it has. “How did they survive? It should have been bankrupt a hundred times over.”

For that reason Cox and other community partners are working on a plan — a campaign, really — to establish a public spay and neuter clinic at the Columbia Humane Society. The goal is to attract low-income cat owners and, ideally, provide a place where feral cats can be spayed and neutered, hence reducing the spring litter counts. To be successful, Cox explains, will require a willing veterinarian, either from the community or outside of it, to serve as a champion who wants to devote his or her time and expertise to the mission. Cox says he has much of the equipment already to make this vision a reality.

The campaign — which is called “Give it Back,” a name chosen as a way to give back to the community for its support of the humane society — will also include a marketing component. Such efforts will result from the participation of community partners, such as Thad Smith, the local filmmaker and principal in the Portland-based firm XFactor Advertising, who is producing a regional TV ad campaign aimed at getting the word out about Columbia HumaneSociety, its mission and services.

Beyond reducing feral and unwanted cat populations, Cox says a prime goal is to bring Columbia Humane Society up to snuff to have it recognized as a participating member with the Animal Shelter of Portland, which would expands network reach and offer opportunities to reach a larger population for adoptions.

“We’d like to be a part of that,” Cox says. “It gets us accepted by the movers and the shakers to the south.”