New initiative weighed to tackle overpopulation

By Kim Barto Meeks

The Martinsville-Henry County SPCA may soon have “paw-sitive” news for local cat lovers.

A long-running partnership with a national animal rescue group has dramatically cut down on the number of homeless dogs and puppies in the area, said interim SPCA Executive Director Leslie Hervey. Now, they hope to do the same for homeless cats with a project they’re calling “Sweet Tea Kittens.”

The SPCA has worked with North Shore Animal League, a no-kill rescue and adoption organization, since 1992 to increase spay and neuter rates and relocate animals from Virginia to North Shore’s headquarters in New York for adoption.

As a result, “the puppy problem is virtually solved in Martinsville and Henry County,” Hervey said.

Not only have North Shore’s transports freed up space in the shelter to take in more animals, the SPCA has also worked to reduce overpopulation at the source. They began requiring people who brought in litters of puppies or kittens to have the mother and father animals sterilized. The two organizations shared part of the cost, making it more affordable for the pet owner. Then, when the puppies or kittens were old enough, they were spayed or neutered before being made available for adoption.

Hervey, who served as the SPCA’s executive director from 2004 to 2013, recalled, “We used to get a litter of puppies once a day, or even more. Now, it’s maybe once a month. We’ve ‘graduated’ with North Shore’s help.”

Encouraged by this success with dogs, the SPCA is ready to tackle the even bigger problem of cat overpopulation.

“With the board’s blessing, we have approached North Shore with a proposal to do the same with cats and kittens,” Hervey said. “If we are able to make the Sweet Tea Kittens initiative possible, it could be replicated across the country.”

The proposal is awaiting approval by North Shore’s board of directors. If given the green light, they could start taking more cats and kittens from Henry County in early 2020, she said.

The project’s name came from an inside joke during one of North Shore’s visits to the SPCA. Years ago, Hervey was at dinner with some visiting North Shore staffers. They told her they liked kittens from this area because they were “sweeter” than others. That, combined with the popular Southern drink, led them to start calling SPCA kittens “Sweet Tea Kittens.”

In North Shore’s service region, there are fewer homeless pets because spaying and neutering is more widespread. Therefore, they have the capacity to take in adoptable animals from other states where overpopulation remains more of a problem and find them permanent homes.

Soon, North Shore will be able to rescue even more animals with the addition of Bianca’s Furry Friends Feline Adoption Center. The 14,000 square foot cat-centered facility has been under construction and is slated to open later in 2019, according to North Shore’s website.

The SPCA sends about 40 animals per week to New York via North Shore’s mobile adoption unit, a large climate-controlled trailer. While some felines have been part of these transports, their efforts have focused mainly on dogs until now.

In 2018, for example, statistics reported to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services show that the SPCA of MHC sheltered 1,835 dogs and 967 cats. Of those, 1,181 dogs and 132 cats were transferred to rescues out of state.

The reason has to do with supply and demand. Shelters across the country have a harder time adopting out cats because there are so many who need homes.

“Everyone has a cat and kitten problem,” Hervey said, especially at this time of year.

March through October is typically known as “kitten season” because of the large numbers flooding shelters, and the local SPCA is no different. Director of Operations Catherine Gupton said Saturday that they have a list seven pages long of community members who have found litters of kittens and are waiting for space to open in the shelter.

With so many kittens available at this time of year, the shelter is not always the primary source for adoptions, Hervey said. “People tend to get kittens by various means – your neighbor’s cat had kittens, or a pregnant cat showed up and had kittens under your porch.”

However, those “free” kittens are not really free of charge when you consider all the health costs, she said. Animals from the SPCA are vaccinated, microchipped, spayed or neutered, and tested for any diseases they may have before adoption. The organization spends about $350 to care for each animal, according to the SPCA website, so the adoption fees of $20 per cat and $100 per dog do not reflect the true costs.

The short reproductive cycle of cats also contributes to overpopulation. The ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) states that a kitten can go into heat and become pregnant as young as four months old, and produce two or more litters of kittens every year. This adds up to an estimated “tens of millions” of cats living outdoors across the U.S., according to the ASPCA.

To cut down on cat overpopulation, not only should cat owners spay and neuter their pets, but outdoor cat colonies need to be addressed, as well. Some of these cats are feral, meaning wild, while those that interact with humans but do not have an owner are known as “community cats.” Left unchecked, these cats continue to reproduce and add to the epidemic of unwanted kittens.

The local SPCA wants to help more of these outdoor cat colonies in Martinsville and Henry County receive vet care and spaying/neutering services.

“We are interested in finding people who are aware of community cats. They may be feeding them or trying to trap and fix them,” Hervey said. “We want to create a network of these colony keepers so that the SPCA can be a source of information and concentrated services.”

Some communities or local governments deal with outdoor cats by killing them, or trapping them and taking them to shelters where they are likely to be euthanized. The ASPCA and American Humane Society state that not only are these methods costly and inhumane, they do not solve the root of the problem. These and other national rescue groups endorse the “trap-neuter-release” method instead: Humanely trapping the cats, taking them to a vet to be fixed, and then releasing them back into the colony.

“Legally our hands are tied – the SPCA cannot trap and release,” Hervey said. However, colony caretakers who do trap and release can find low-cost veterinary services through the SPCA.

The SPCA has been offering pet wellness clinics four to six times a year for the public to bring cats and dogs for reduced-cost exams, vaccines, and more. Veterinarian Dr. Eric Lorens provides the services. At the most recent clinic on Saturday, August 31, about 95 animals received care in six hours, Gupton said.

“It’s a dream to have the clinic monthly,” Hervey said. “We feel there is more need in the community, but it would require additional vets or maybe a traveling service.”

To make the services more affordable, the veterinarian charges a reduced fee, and the SPCA absorbs costs for staffing. “We actually lose money on providing clinics,” Hervey said, but they believe the benefits to the public are worth it.

“I do believe wellness clinics have greatly improved the health of animals in our community,” she said. “Heartworm used to be everywhere, but now we find heartworm is the exception. Parvo is almost gone. This improves the overall health of the animals, as well as the people who interact with them.”

For more information on the Martinsville-Henry County SPCA, visit www.spcamhc.org or call (276) 638-7297.

The Martinsville-Henry County SPCA is working with the North Shore Animal League, a no-kill rescue and adoption organization, on “Sweet Tea Kittens,” a new initiative to address the overpopulation of cats and kittens. (Photos by Kim Barto Meeks)

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