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The Cat Situation

i Oct 6th 5 Comments by

When it comes to marketing at the ARL, we have a few mottos:

  • #1 is “Do Not Engage”
  • #2 is “Be Honest”
  • #3 is “Be Transparent”

The motto has served this Marketing Director well in my 2+ years with the ARL. A very large part of my job of issuing a formal response to complaints, accusations, and naysayers. So, I say what needs to be said in any given situation on behalf of the ARL and then I walk away.  Often times our “fans” come to our defense, but at the very least, our stance is noted for all of the internet and history forevermore.

GeorgieAnywhoo.  A very unfortunate situation occurred early last week involving two cats left in our stray building on Sunday morning with no identification or note.  One of the cats was friendly and easy to handle, the other was striking out at staff from behind its cage door.  As we try to do with every cat, both were held for 24 hours.  The friendly cat continued to be friendly and the aggressive cat continued to be aggressive.  As we had no information about the cat, didn’t know it was bonded to the other cat, didn’t know it had come from a home, the latter of the two was euthanized on Monday morning due to its behavior.

On Monday afternoon the owner and his daughter came to the ARL looking for his “lost” cats with no mention that he’d left them in the stray building the day before.  He was reunited with the friendly cat, but we couldn’t locate the second cat as they hadn’t told us the cats they were looking for were the ones left in the stray building.

Late Wednesday evening, the daughter of the owner posted on our facebook page that they had lied to our staff, but were desperate to find their other cat.  Here is an excerpt from the post (which has since been deleted to protect the identity of the family involved):

“Stupidly we lied and said his cats were lost. We looked around the facility only to find one of our cats. So now we are just beside ourselves with guilt. We just don’t understand where [cat] is. Please, please, please find it in your hearts to forgive us for our lie and give us some answers…We’re sorry for being untruthful. Please help us.”

Upon arriving at the office on Thursday morning, we looked into the situation immediately and then had to deliver the tragic news to the owner.

When we spoke with the daughter on the phone we mentioned that her father should have followed the 20151001_140342clearly posted signs to surrender an owned animal during normal business hours; however, it was not an appropriate time to issue a lecture, place blame, or make her feel guilty so we quickly moved on, apologized profusely for the awful mistake and offered to privately cremate the cat and return the ashes to the owner at no charge.  A small, practically negative, consolation, but the only thing we could offer.

Shortly after the phone conversation, the owner’s daughter chose to post to a local Facebook page “Berks County and Beyond Cat Search.”  Here is an excerpt from the post (that has since been deleted):

“RIP (cat name), I hope you left some lasting scars on the people that put you down. To only give a cat 24 hrs. to adjust is ridiculous. Keep her separated, sedate her, something, anything except death. You put my cat to death for being scared. If you would have just given us a few more hours our cat would not be dead now.”

So we did what we always do and issued a formal response from the ARL page. It was deleted.  We posted it again.  The post was deleted and this time the ARL was blocked from said page. I finally opted to post from my personal FB page WITH a disclaimer of who I was and why I was posting as myself and not as the ARL because I was not going to lose an opportunity to convey the importance of telling the truth when surrendering an animal. Here is our response (that has since been deleted from the page):

“(*I am the  Director of Marketing for the Animal Rescue League of Berks County and am commenting under my personal account because the moderator of this page has blocked our shelter from issuing a formal response to this issue, the following is the response issued earlier, but deleted. I imagine it will be again, but if one person reads it, then that’s better than nothing!) In case anyone is interested in the other side of the story….this situation is an extreme case of unfortunate events. Unfortunately, our posted signs (pictured below) asking that owned animals be surrendered at our front desk during normal business hours were ignored. Unfortunately, the cats had no microchip or collar to indicate that they were owned. Unfortunately, no note was left with these animals letting us know that they were a pair and had lived in a home. Unfortunately, one of the cats showed intense signs of aggression by striking out at staff from its cage and did not change its behavior in the 24 hours we were able to give it due to NO SPACE. Does that time line suck? Yep. Was it probably acting out due to being terrified at being dropped in a strange place after living it’s whole life in a loving home? Absolutely. Did we have ANY idea that was the case? Nope. Does the fact that we take in 500 cats a MONTH, but can only hold 100 at a time suck? You bet. Do you want to help, or do you want to hate? If you want to help come spend a day here. TELL US where we’re supposed to put these cats. Call other rescues and have your heart broken every time they tell you they are full and can’t help. Beg people to foster, only to have your requests fall on deaf ears. Be forced to make the life or death decisions that our staff has to make every day because someone else failed these animals. The bottom line in THIS situation is that if these cats would have been surrendered properly we would have known that the cat had been owned and we would’ve had a first-hand testimonial to the personality of the cats, and this situation might have ended differently, but unfortunately, the owner chose to lie and not give his cat the chance it needed for another life. When we spoke with [owner’s daughter] this morning, we offered profuse apologies and condolences and offered to do the only thing we could do for her. The ARL has NEVER hidden the fact that we are an Open Admission shelter. We believe in honesty and transparency which is exactly why we immediately investigated [owner’s daughter’s] request upon hearing about it and had an answer for her within a half hour of speaking with her. This situation SUCKS and we wish it wouldn’t have happened, but it did, and NOW is the time to remember the importance of being truthful, of trying EVERY SINGLE avenue you possibly can before turning your animals in to a shelter, and being absolutely sure you are ready to surrender your pets before leaving them alone in a stray building. YOU can help solve problems like this by volunteering. Learn more at http://www.berksarl.org/

The comments flew all day Friday and until the thread was completely deleted over the weekend. Here are some excerpts from the more spectacular comments:

  • “You come up with false accusations on a cat or kitten behavior. “
  • “You have over 10 acres of land. With all your fundraising use that to expand.”
  • “I would never recommend ARL to anyone.”
  • “Yes I blocked ARL because it is nothing but lies and always trying to sugar coat or place the blame on everyone else just as you are doing. How do you even sleep at night.”
  • “Stop misleading society”
  • “Excuse me while I go vomit on that note”
  • “You’re not going to like my next step and what I know to go public”
  • “I can’t stress enough how i hate the ARL”
  • And my personal favorite: “A director is just a title, one you surely don’t deserve”

In addition to these love notes, there were moments of constructive discussion and some great questions were posed and since education is a HUGE part of the ARL’s mission, we wanted to jump on the opportunity to provide the public with an honest and transparent look at “The Cat Situation.”

What is an “Open Admission/Open Door” shelter? What is a “No-Kill” shelter/rescue? The ARL is an Open Admission shelter which means we accept any domestic animal surrendered by an owner, or left in our stray building. Because we have space limitations, we cannot guarantee adoption.  We work with a network of foster families and other rescues to assist with overpopulation, but animals are euthanized if we don’t have enough space/money to care for them.

A “no-kill” shelter is a loose term that refers to a shelter or rescue that limits intake and therefore doesn’t euthanize for space.  Most no-kill shelters aim for a 90% “live release rate” which means that up to 10% of their animals ARE euthanized, often due to medical or behavioral issues.  Some rescues are truly no-kill and will not euthanize an animal regardless of adoptability which means an animal may live at that rescue for the rest of its life.  These organizations are sometimes referred to as “sanctuaries.”

I don’t want the cat I surrender to be euthanized.  What options do I have? As the ARL is Open Admission, we cannot guarantee adoption.  Regardless of health or adoptability, if we don’t have space, open foster homes, or a willing rescue, the cats will be euthanized BUT we do make every attempt at keeping healthy and happy cats on site for adoption even if it means turning every square inch of spare space in our building into cat holding areas.  We will absolutely talk to you about these possibilities IF you come in the shelter to surrender owned/stray cats during normal business hours.  If you leave them in the stray building after hours, there is no staff here and we are unable to talk to you about our current limitations.

It should also be noted that once you sign a cat over, OR leave it in the stray building, the animal becomes the property of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County and you have relinquished all rights to the animal and its future will be determined by ARL staff. Again, there is NO minimum amount of time required by the state of Pennsylvania to hold cats.

Should you decide to try and find an alternative placement for the cat in your possession, the very first thing you should do is try to rehome the cat with friends or family.  If you are unable to find a trusted family for the cat, please try calling/taking the animal to:

How many cats does the ARL take in? How do dogs measure up? We’re going to narrow this down and talk specifically about dogs and cats in June, July, and August 2015.  “Kitten Season” or the months from May – October are when things get tough around here and the traditional summer months are when we’re really in the thick of it of the overpopulation problem. (*the below numbers don’t add up to 100% because we’re simply looking at what came in and what went out, not the status of the animals that came in as they could still be in our care today.)

  • June 1 – August 31, the ARL saw a total intake of 1341 cats/kittens (an average of 447/month or 15/day)
  • June 1 – August 31, the ARL saw a total intake of 531 dogs/puppies (an average of 177/month or 6/day)

We’re asked all the time questions along the lines of “Why are dogs treated differently than cats?” Well, because cats are quite literally a different animal.  We are able to house about 100 cats and 70 dogs at any given time.  Owners come forward for their dogs more frequently than they do for their cats (158 owners came forward to claim their dogs, while only 15 onwers came for their cats) and dogs are more often microchipped/licensed/tagged which allows us to locate an owner.  While cat rescues are often full during the summer months, dog rescues are more often able to help by pulling a dog or two of ours into their care.

What happens when a cat is brought to the ARL? In the state of Pennsylvania, there are Dog Laws that require us to hold a dog for 48 hours before assuming ownership.  There is no such law for cats.  In fact, there are NO LAWS for cats at all.  So, once a cat is left in our stray building, or signed over by an owner, the cat immediately becomes our property.

  • During the “busy season” – we try very hard to hold every cat for 24 hours. But do the math on that.  100 cages are available, an average of 15 cats come in every day.  How quickly do we run out of room? In a blink. In late fall/winter/early Spring, space is more abundant and we can offer more cats more time.
  • If the cat is left in our stray building with no identifying information, it is assessed immediately to determine if it is feral. If it is feral, we reach out to our TNR partners to find out if they know in which colony the cat lives.  If they do, the cat is returned to the caretaker.  If they don’t, the feral cat is euthanized as it cannot be adopted from the ARL.
  • If the cat is surrendered by an owner at the front desk (as is the requested protocol) we ask loads of
    questions to determine how adoptable the cat is. A cat-room employee will come and talk to the owner personally and be honest about what the chances are for the cat (these policies are also clearly posted on our website).  Things that reduce the chance of a cat getting adopted are: if it’s not litter trained, if it stops eating/drinking, if it cannot be handled/is aggressive.
  • All cats are tested for feline leukemia and FIV prior to being placed up for adoption.
  • Cats showing signs of upper respiratory infection are placed into quarantine. Unfortunately, we do not employ a veterinarian and this issue, along with fleas/parasites, are the only ones we are equipped to deal with on an on-going basis.  Exceptions to every rule exist! We have treated cats that have been through house fires, been hit by cars, been kicked by horses and many other circumstances.  Our ability to treat these more major ailments depends strictly on the amount of money in the coffer at any given time.  More money + more foster homes = more cats saved.

The bottom line is that we don’t have the space to keep them all and so our animal-loving staff is forced to make decisions about which cats are most likely to be adopted, and those are the ones that make it to the adoption floor.

Why doesn’t the ARL hold cats longer to give them more of a chance at finding their owner? We think it’s pretty obvious by now, but just in case…space. There isn’t enough space to hold every cat that comes to the shelter.

Additionally, cat people know that cats are finicky.  They don’t travel well, and they often don’t adjust to change well.  Bringing a cat to the shelter is often traumatic and terrifying and only a percentage of the cats handle that transition well enough to be adoptable.  Think about it….if you came to the ARL looking for a cat, how likely would you be to take one home that was lashing out from behind its door, or didn’t use its litterbox, or wouldn’t engage with humans?  Now how likely would you be to adopt a cat that is friendly, cuddly, and interactive?

Why doesn’t the ARL take photos of every cat and work harder to find their owner? Our protocol for reuniting lost cats is the same as for lost dogs.  The first thing we do is look to see if the animal is wearing a collar or tag.  If not, the animal is scanned for a microchip.  We also check each animal against the lost reports filed by owners who are missing a pet.  If there is CHANCE that the animal is the same, the owner is contacted.

So why don’t we take and post photos of every animal that comes into our care?  For several reasons:

  • The time for this project would require another staff member, or a full-time volunteer. At this time, we have neither.
  • What happens if your neighbor happens to be looking to adopt a Siamese cat, and we happen to post a found Siamese cat, and said neighbor walks in and says he is missing a Siamese cat and provides a description he was able to obtain because he saw the picture on Facebook and we give him the cat? The cat isn’t his.

What does the ARL do to improve the live release rate of cats?                

  • We try to lower our intake in the first place. This involves a mixed bag of education…
    • Teaching the community about TNR in partnership with Fairchild Foundation and No Nonsense Neutering. Feral cats are not adoptable at the ARL because they aren’t able to be handled, have never been socialized, and aren’t friendly.  These are not housecats; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for them.  TNR is the answer to the feral cat problem.  Period
    • We direct owners to surrender their cats during normal business hours. This allows us to get tons of information about the animal AND to tell the owners that surrendering an animal at an Open Admission shelter means it may be euthanized.  Sometimes, this discussion is enough to convince the owners to hang on a little longer and see if they can find a home for their cats on their own.
    • We preach/beg/pray that owners will identify their cats! Microchips are a VERY inexpensive way to ensure that if your cat shows up at the shelter, it will be returned.
  • We work with rescues. In the past few months One By One, Lost Paws of Lancaster, CatWorks and Kitty Cottage have been able to lend a hand by pulling cats from us.
  • We have a foster program. Our ARL Angels foster program has recently been overhauled from a mainly senior dog program to a dogs and cats of all ages program.  We can always, always, always use more foster families.  Fostering helps save multiple lives: the ones you foster and the ones you freed up kennel space for.
  • We offer adoption promotions. We shine a light on our kitty friends by offering promotions throughout the year to give them an extra chance at finding a home. Meowy Hour, Dollar Day, Pay What they Weigh and Cinco de Cato are just a few.
  • We make space. If you came to the ARL this summer you noticed that our lobby had turned into
    IMG_5357

    Our Education Room doubles as a cat holding area in the summer months when we are out of room upstairs, but need space for adoptable cats

    a makeshift adoption floor. What you didn’t see is that our Education Room has also turned into a makeshift cat room.  Adding cages to these two spaces allowed us to house an extra 50 cats at a time.

  • We have our finger on the pulse of national trends. We follow ASPCA Pro and HSUS to find out what other shelters are doing to improve their live release rate, and then we try their ideas.  Our staff attends educational seminars and is constantly learning ways to improve our processes.

Why don’t you just expand so that you can house more cats?

When the ARL opened in 1952 a total of 30 animals could be housed.  Today, we have room for 70 dogs, 100 cats, 20 critters, 6 barn animals and a few dozen farm fowl, so we HAVE expanded.  Our latest expansion occurred about seven years ago when we undertook a massive year-long capital campaign to raise over one million dollars to make it happen.  Would we love bigger, newer facilities?  You bet we would! Can we afford them? Not a chance.  A bigger building not only requires a ton of money to build, but additional funds would be needed for more staff/benefits, electric, water, insurance, phone lines….the list goes on and on.

But, let’s just say for argument’s sake that we added capacity for 100 more cats, giving us a total capacity of 200 cats.  Over the past 12 months, we adopted out an average of 67 cats/month and our adoptables averaged a 28 day stay in the shelter before being adopted. Unlike some open admission shelters, we do NOT have “expiration date” or a “death row” where our adoptables are given a time frame in which to be adopted.  As long as they stay behaviorally sound, they stay adoptable.

Assuming an average intake of  15 cats/day, it will take 13 days to fill 200 cages. Those 200 cats will take just shy of three months to get adopted if we use our average of 67 adoptions/month.  So here we are again with a space issue.  And not only a space issue, but also an adoption issue.  Where will all of these adopters come from?  A potential adopter can choose to adopt from any number of local shelters and rescue groups, or simply take a ride out to the country and find a farm with a “Free Kittens” sign.  There are, of course, also pet stores and litters of kittens that are found outside by friends and family. There are cats available on Craigslist and even on Facebook!

free-kittensThe care for an adoptable animal costs the ARL an average of $250 (including vaccinations, spay/neuter, microchip, veterinary care and overhead for care) and our adoption fee is $95 (but that is often lowered to $25, $10 or $0 for special promotions). You can see that our financial resources for caring for cats is also extremely limited and when combined with the fact that we also have to provide care for dogs, critters and farm animals, you can see that the generous donations we receive are spent quite quickly.

What about grant money to pay for an expansion?

So, it takes about $1.4 million dollars to run the ARL each year.  These expenses include the obvious: veterinary care and pet food to the more mundane; heating oil and copy paper.  We are a non-profit, so our goal is to cover the bills.  Anything left over goes back into veterinary care or building improvements.  Here’s where the money comes from (January 1, 2015 through September 31, 2015)

  • 61% from individual donations
  • 1% from grants
  • 12% from municipal contracts
  • 6% from adoption fees
  • 7% from events
  • 13% from miscellaneous other sources like public surgery fees, license sales, and memberships

The thing about grants is they aren’t a given.  Just because we want them, doesn’t mean we get them.  Grants are typically offered for a specific project or cause and can be for small amounts of money (under $1000) to larger amounts ($20,000).

We received a specific question regarding the PETCO Foundation grant we received in 2014 – it was a big one! We used that money combined with individual donations (a total of about $20,000) to rehabilitate our cat adoption room.  The room was in desperate need of resealing as the walls were cracking and prohibiting us from properly sanitizing the area.  So the entire room from floor to ceiling was coated in a heavy-duty, 20-year enamel substrate.  New climbing structures were also built in the cat colonies to provide additional enrichment for our feline residents.  It doesn’t sound like much for the money, does it?  It wasn’t a romantic project by any means, but it was vital to the health of our cats.  Since the project was completed, there has been NO outbreak of disease in our cat population.

It should be noted that the ARL is constantly working on cutting costs, from the little things, like using less paper to major projects like converting to gas from fuel oil (a pipe dream at the moment, but you never know!).

What plans does the ARL have for dealing with “The Cat Situation”?

  • Education is number one. Since the majority of cats we receive at the ARL are ferals, we focus on that aspect of education.  Here are a few of the ways we educate the public about cat overpopulation in general  and ferals specifically:
    • We always and consistently refer people who come to us or call with a feral cat issue to No Nonsense Neutering and Fairchild Foundation.
    • Check out story #29 of our podcast series.
    • We also support NNN as they present TNR solutions to local municipalities, most recently West Reading Borough.
    • We are participating in a multi-part educational project with Body Zone this month and one of the lectures will feature Dr. Fry from Fairchild Foundation speaking about ferals.
    • We’ve even spoken to children’s groups about feral cat colonies and how they should treat cats that they find outside!
    • There is a page on our website devoted to feral cats.
    • There is a page on our website devoted to resources for owners who have to make the decision to surrender their cats
    • NNN contributes an article to our bi-annual newsletter
    • Both NNN and Fairchild are always invited to events that we host and welcome to distribute their literature.
    • Flyers hang in our lobby for both organizations.
    • There are large laminated signs in our stray building instructing people who have trapped or found cats that, if they are ear tipped, they need to return them to where they found them or at the very least tell us exactly where they found it so we can try and located the colony
  • As of January, the ARL will once again be holding low cost spay/neuter clinics for cats. Keep an eye on our events page to find out how you can participate
  • We will continue to work with TNR partners in educating municipalities to adopt official TNR policies
  • We will continue to educate the public about the responsibilities of owning a pet; including the importance of microchipping so that lost cats can be reunited with their owners
  • We will be posting bigger, better, bolder signage in and around our stray building to let people know of our policies BEFORE they make the decision to leave an animal.

Does the ARL make mistakes?

You bet we do.  This is an organization run by people and to err is human.  We learn from our mistakes and continually strive to do better, to be better, and to offer better. We maintain our promise to be transparent and honest and we respond to complaints, we take customer service issues seriously, and we make changes to reflect the concerns of the community.

The “Cat Situation” is a problem nationwide, and it’s one that won’t be solved overnight, but give credit to the changes that have been made.  Adoption is more popular than ever as is spaying/neutering and TNR.  We promise to continue working towards a solution!

How Can I Help?

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you are ready to make a difference in the lives of Berks County’s Homeless Pets

Comments

  1. Anne
    October 6, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Beth you have Nothing to apologize to this family for. They dumped their cats. They are responsible for any outcome. People need to join the real world and be responsible for their pets. They SHOULD have been fined for abandonment.

    Reply
  2. kathleen keffer
    November 17, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    i have been looking for my cat since june…i came to you, gave you my name and number and address…gave you a photo of her, was coming every week to check i even called a few times. my question is.. in this article you had 500 cats come in is anyone checking the lost book ..?? i realize its a daunting task however when im told to fill a report out and give a photo my hope goes to you that you check that book as i cant drive their every week and check..thanks

    Reply
    • BethIreland
      November 22, 2015 at 10:18 pm

      Hi Kathleen,
      We’re so sorry to hear your kitty is lost. The answer is YES! When lost reports are filed we check them EVERY DAY and the reports stay on file until the owner lets us know to remove it. You should also never hesitate to call and check in if it would give you peace of mind. We’re here to help!

      Reply
  3. Jen Neiheiser
    March 1, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Beth,

    When is the next volunteer session?. It appears the March one is already filled.

    Reply
    • Liz McCauley
      April 4, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      Hi Jen,
      Thank you for your interest in volunteering at the ARL! Our next volunteer orientation is scheduled for May 10th and registration will open up on May 1st.

      Reply

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