To truly witness what the city is up against when cats – a species that is virtually constantly in heat – get the urge to procreate each spring, one only need step into the facility that houses the San Diego Humane Society’s “Paws to Success,” a program dedicated to solving the problem of kitten overpopulation. Situated across the street from the Humane Society’s Gaines Street campus, the building is essentially a warehouse – full of tiny, fluffy, thriving kittens – whose sole purpose is to mitigate the issue of euthanizing treatable and adoptable animals.
“I’ve never experienced anything like [Paws] at a shelter before. It’s an amazing program,” said Gary Weitzman, the Humane Society’s new president and CEO. “Most shelters have the horrible decision and task of euthanizing, and the majority of those euthanizations are cats and kittens this time of year. We know they’re completely treatable and adoptable.”
The solution to the kitten problem, however, is not merely one of finding a warehouse large enough to hold the city’s population of orphaned kittens. The program can only survive – as can the kittens – through the dedication of the caretakers and veterinarians who work quite literally round the clock to provide for the kittens what their mothers – or “queens” – would provide in the wild.
In early spring (it seems to happen about one week earlier every year, said Jenny Bonomini, coordinator of the Paws nursery), the kittens start to pour in. That’s when Paws opens the doors of its seasonal warehouse, and the kittens don’t stop coming until the last few trickle out in November. During those months, caretakers keep watch over the warehouse 24 hours a day. The kittens – housed in insulated cubbies for the first few weeks of life – require constant care, with feedings taking place every two hours until they are a week old, and every four hours for the few weeks after that. Once the kittens are five weeks old and are showing signs that they are well adjusted, they are moved from the nursery to the “socialization” section of the facility, where they play with other kittens and wait until they are eight weeks old or weigh two pounds, at which point they will get spayed or neutered, then moved into the Humane Society’s main adoption center.
The goal, of course, is to get the kittens past the stage where they can’t care for themselves and, hopefully, into the home of a loving family. The success rate, meanwhile, has been remarkable, with a mortality rate lower than 10 percent, Bonomini said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the task is an easy one. Not all the kittens will make it through the Paws program, usually because of a pre-existing condition.
“We’re often getting these kittens at a really young age, and we don’t have the instincts of the mother,” Bonomini said. “In some cases, if they were in the wild, the mother might know they weren’t going to survive, but we don’t have the advantage of knowing that.”
The only conditions for which Paws has a blanket policy of euthanization are feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and panleukopenia. Most other conditions, Bonomini said, are treatable.
“The hard part is that we can’t save them all,” she said. “We make sure we’ve done all we can, and if we have a kitten we know isn’t going to make it, our staff will sit with them until their last hours. I look at it as a second chance. The ones that get through the program get that chance, and for the ones that don’t, at least we know we did all we could.”
The reason the kitten problem is a problem at all is obvious and the solution simple – prevent cats from reproducing. And yet somehow the general public doesn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the problem, nor does it seem to accept the idea that it can be a part of the solution. Most people, according to Dawn Danielson, director of the Department of Animal Services, don’t think they’re a part of the problem.
“Some people just don’t care, while some will feed a stray cat but they won’t go any further than that,” she said. “A lot of it is that it just isn’t a priority. It needs to be like smoking – people don’t want to admit they smoke anymore, and it needs to be the same with people who have a pet that’s not spayed or neutered. They should feel ashamed to admit that. It has to be a cultural thing, something you just do. People shouldn’t have to be convinced.”
Some of the public mentality of “I didn’t do it” comes from the fact that the problem is easily obscured, and if the average person can’t see the problem, it might as well not exist. That’s where Paws’ warehouse can have a lasting effect.
“It’s very sobering to see all the kittens in one place and see exactly what the problem is,” Weitzman said. “It paints quite a picture. People don’t know that overpopulation is an issue because they don’t see the colonies [of stray cats and kittens]. Walking into the nursery, you’re just dumbfounded.”
The battle being fought by shelters and animal welfare agencies in San Diego is twofold. While Paws provides a much-needed place for the kitten population, the society and animal services are partnering with other organizations to prevent the kitten population from exploding in the first place, coming up with innovative solutions (including a program called TNR – trap, neuter, release – designed to cut down on the feral cat population, which will launch this summer). One result of their efforts is Spay San Diego, a coalition of animal welfare groups working toward offering affordable or no-cost spay and neuter services.
“That’s why I think this battle can be won, because we’re doing it together,” Weitzman said. “Working toward it separately is ineffective.”
The battle, Danielson said, has to be fought with prevention as the top priority.
“We can’t adopt our way out of this problem,” she said. “People can only adopt so many kittens per year, and we all want the same thing – to reduce the numbers coming into the shelters.”
Weitzman, indeed, agreed that he and all of his colleagues would gladly welcome the day they have nothing to work for.
“The goal is to shut us down. Every person here would gladly be out of a job if it meant we had won that fight,” he said. “The holy grail for us is to close the nursery, and spaying and neutering is the only way to bring those numbers down.”
By the numbers:
Delving into what happens when kitten populations explode across the county every spring, one could get buried in numbers – just as the city gets buried under a mountain of tiny felines.
517: The number of neonate kittens (kittens between one day and two weeks old) the county’s Department of Animal Services took in during the months of March, April and May this year.
2,500: The number of cats of all ages the department took in over that same three-month period.
10,000: The total number of cats that passed through the department during the 2010-11 fiscal year.
The national average of adoption of cats in shelters is a dismal 30 percent, though San Diego’s average is much higher – closer to 60 percent.
Another set of numbers provides considerably more comfort:
1,830: The number of kittens admitted to the Paws program in 2010-11.
1,454: The number of those kittens that were adopted.
4,700: The total number of kittens that have come through the program since its inception in 2009.
There is another number that is important to solving the problem of kitten overpopulation: one.
“If everybody took it upon themselves to convince one neighbor or one family member, it would make a huge dent in this problem,” Danielson said.
YOU CAN HELP: The San Diego Humane Society is in need of foster families for kittens that come in during the off season, when Paws’ warehouse is not in use. For more information, visit www.sdhumane.org.