Even Nine Lives May Not Be Enough
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2000 Countless cats are on the prowl each night from the back alleys of the nation's capital to the beaches of San Diego.
Some are lean, mean predators born in the wild. Others are frightened, abandoned pets, scavenging to survive. No one knows for sure how many free-roaming cats there are. Animal welfare groups estimate 60 million to 100 million, but they admit it's hard to tell.
A seemingly empty alley in Washington, D.C., for example, can reveal a dozen or more when a local cat lover arrives with food. A thousand or more cats may live under the boardwalk at Atlantic City, N.J.
About 66.2 million cats live in households in the United States, said Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. Despite public awareness campaigns by the society and other animal welfare groups, she said, many pet owners fail to neuter or spay their cats. This human failure leads to countless unwanted litters of kittens and ultimately to vast overpopulation in the wild.
When too many free-roaming cats become a nuisance, animal control officials have to step in. The cats are usually trapped and most are killed. Humane Society officials estimate 6 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year.
The exact number of cats euthanized each year is unknown, but many of them are kittens. Pullen said it wouldn't be unusual for the death toll in kitten season, March to November, to be as high as 100 kittens a day in some shelters.
"It depends on the area. It depends on the population. And it depends on how aggressive that shelter and that community have been to educate and to provide reduced-cost spay and neuter programs and how effective their adoption programs are," she said.
"You still see litters of kittens come into shelters during peak months, and you literally have to look at them and say, 'This is six. I have room for two,'" Pullen said. "It's not the fault of the shelter. It's the fault of the community for not addressing the problem."
To stop the killing, cat lovers have taken matters into their own hands. Volunteer rescue leagues, adoption agencies and foster care groups are working to find homes and care for the cats. Their impact depends on the cooperation of facilities in their community, Pullen said. But there's still too many animals and not enough homes, she stressed.
It doesn't matter how many groups are out there trying to find homes for animals if the general public ignores or aggravates the problem, she said.
"In many instances, people start feeding stray and feral cats, but they stop there. They're feeding these cats, but they're allowing them to breed, to inbreed, and to carry viruses and things like that," she said. Alley Cat Allies and other cat control advocate groups have been working with traditional community animal shelters to educate the public into taking "the next step": neutering, she said.
Neutering has reduced the free-roaming dog population, Pullen remarked, but cat owners generally don't think about the subject. "They don't want to spend money on the cat, because they're so readily available," she said.
"If you're going to be putting food outside for these kitties, you need to be trapping them, neutering them and releasing them or taking them to a shelter," Pullen stressed. In other words, "stemming the problem."
In 1991, the American Humane Association became the first national organization to endorse the early spaying and neutering of kittens and puppies for population control. Now, more and more shelters and leading animal welfare, veterinary and breeders groups endorse sterilizing puppies and kittens at about six weeks of age.
Some shelters now spay and neuter animals as a condition of adoption. This ensures the animal will not contribute to overpopulation.
Editor's Note: This is one article in a comprehensive special report at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/cats/.