What to do about feral cat problem?

The prevention of unwanted litters of kittens that grow up into feral cats struggling to survive is the aim of the Wallowa County's spay/neuter initiative. Photo by Molly Hollenbach

Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series about feral cats in Wallowa County and what local people can do to prevent the problems that come with too many hungry cats producing too many litters of kittens.

"We're starting a major fund-raising effort to trap, spay, and neuter as many feral cats as we can," Humane Society President Shirley Preso says. "Lots of people do try to help them and find homes for them, but there are so few homes out there, compared to how many cats are being born."

Feral cats are the strays, the wild ones, but they are genetically the same as the family pet. They struggle to survive in the alleys and backyards of town, and while some people feed them, others would like to see them gone.

The local Humane Society folks believe it's far better to prevent the unwanted litters than to abandon them to their fate - to feed predators, starve, or die of dehydration where there are no natural sources of water.

To encourage people to spay and neuter their animals, Humane Society discount coupons will be increased to $10 for cats - all cats, whether they are pets or feral - during the month of March. The coupons, normally $5 for cats or dogs, are available at all local veterinarians' offices.

"We've got great vets here," volunteer Carol Vencill says. "They're compassionate. We rely heavily on the vets in the area to help us with the health needs. Sometimes a cat is injured, and that adds to the cost."

The Wallowa County Humane Society doesn't have an office, a shelter, or a large budget. It receives no money from the National Humane Society.

"We're strictly local," says treasurer Mary Pillar. "When you make a donation, it stays on the local level, and that's where you see the results."

What the group does have is dedicated volunteers who, together, accomplish large tasks in service to the community and the goal of humane treatment of animals. Humane Society volunteers are men, women, young and old, retired and working. They share a love of animals and a desire to keep them healthy.

When the Humane Society puts up a dog or cat for adoption, they also spay, neuter, vaccinate and worm the animal. This costs money, of course, and that's why they ask for a donation from the new owner. In addition, while in foster care, the animal may receive some behavioral training to make it a better companion and pet.

Dealing with stray, feral, or abandoned animals takes the bulk of the group's time. They also respond to requests from the Sheriff's office when there are cases of possible abuse or neglect. They help out the County if the animal control officer is not available. Humane Society volunteers have been called upon to feed or look after dogs at the small County dog pound upon occasion, and have donated a kennel so the officer can put the dogs outside while cleaning their quarters.

Preso, a retired Joseph rancher, handles most of the calls or referrals from the sheriff's office.

"Sometimes people lose their job and it's hard to feed the family, much less pets," Preso says. "Or if they're hit with illness. We try to help out with food and other means so people don't have to lose their pets."

"Because there's no shelter for cats, we're limited to foster homes," Preso says, "and we're always looking for more people willing to foster. When you foster an animal, we provide the food and vet care. But that's not the only way to get involved - there are lots of things volunteers can do."

Volunteering doesn't have to take a lot of time, Preso adds. "You can give one hour a week or a few hours once a year. We have fundraisers, mailings, booths, and paperwork such as a newsletter. We're very open to new ideas for fundraising, too. One year we had a float with animals on it, and we were in all the parades in the valley. It was lots of fun and lots of work, but certain people were doing it. At present we don't have the manpower."

The Humane Society's mission is not just to take care of the animals, but also to educate the public.

"We all need to take responsibility for our own pets," Vencill says. That includes providing proper food and water, but also considering the animal's needs for exercise, attention, affection, and appropriate training.

Shirley Preso and Carol Vencill met about 10 years ago when Preso leased some land for her cattle next door to Vencill's White Tail Farm between Joseph and Enterprise.

"Shirley said something about the Humane Society," Carol remembers, "and I thought, oh yeah."

The rest is history. Between the two of them, they have trapped, rescued, fostered, and found homes for hundreds of dogs and cats.

The volunteers get a little frustrated at public attitudes toward cats. "They are domesticated animals and they are pets," Preso says, "and I think they deserve the same consideration as dogs."

Wallowa County doesn't have any facilities for stray cats. In fact, says the County's Animal Control Officer, Don Holum, "As far as the county's concerned, cats do not exist." What he means, he explains, is that there are no Wallowa County ordinances regarding licensing or control of cats.

The widespread practice of dumping kittens by the side of the road or in some neighbor's haystack is against state law, Holum adds. "Cats are covered by state statutes regarding abandonment, cruelty, abuse, or neglect."

In an agricultural community such as this one, working dogs may be the preferred pets. But cats can make an important contribution too.

"It's a misconception," Vencill says, "that if you feed a cat it's not going to be a good hunter. I know it for a fact! My cats hunt - They're my little helpers. Cats are a really good way to control rodents. Rodents can get into the grain and they carry diseases. A well-fed, healthy animal is going to be a better rodent killer than one spending all its energy just trying to survive."

The Wallowa County Humane Society welcomes new volunteers and donations to its spring spay/neuter campaign.

"We've got a great small group of people who get along well," Preso says. "We just want people to join in with us."

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