VALDOSTA – There is more than one way to save a cat.

So far, the Lowndes County Animal Shelter has taken in 1,406 fewer cats in 2019 than 2018.

The 2019 numbers are still missing November and December, but the decrease remains staggering.

When asked about the sharp drop-off, Linda Patelski, director of the Lowndes County Animal Shelter, gave a simple answer.

“It’s the spay and neuter efforts around the county,” she said.

Cats are extremely effective breeders. On average, a cat gives birth to a litter after nine weeks. Litters average between three to five kittens, and mothers can breed again after only three days, Patelski said.

In addition to the quick breeding rates, local warm weather extends the breeding season to 10 months per year, said Emily Smith, director of operations at the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County.

Meaning feline overpopulation is a major issue in the community and population control is a daunting task.

The shelter and local organizations such as the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County have emphasized spay/neuter to fight overpopulation.

Cats are regularly sent to a spay/neuter clinic in Thomasville from the shelter, Patelski said.

Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County, on the other hand, utilizes a method called Trap, Neuter and Return.

TNR also known as Trap, Neuter and Release — is a practice where feral cats are caught, neutered/spayed to prevent breeding and released back into the wild.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Smith said.

The TNR program was founded by Julie Greenhaw in September 2013. Greenhaw, now coordinator of the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County TNR program, began taking cats up to Columbus for TNR monthly. She transitioned to a TNR clinic in Thomasville after several months to save time and money.

“I’ve put a lot of miles on my car,” Greenhaw said.

Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County is a no-kill shelter and has the capacity to hold 25 cats, sometimes more if need be. It employs two full-time employees and one five-hour paid bookkeeper with the rest of the work by volunteers.

Shelters with 90% live outcomes or higher are considered no-kill. In other words, a no-kill shelter must keep 90% or more of its animal population alive. Euthanasia can still be used at no-kill shelters if medically necessary or if the animal does not have successful behavior modification.

Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County does not receive government or county funding. It does receive a small grant from SpayGeorgia, an organization advocating for spay/neuter awareness and low-cost spay/neuters, that covers the costs of TNR for 15 cats per month.

In addition to TNR, Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County started a transport program in January.

Smith clears out as many cats from the animal shelter as she can twice a month. Then she takes the rescued cats to the Atlanta Humane Society every other Sunday. The rescued cats are available for adoption in Atlanta or are transported to no-kill shelters in the northeast corridor of the country, Smith said.

“I’m pulling as many cats as I can from the Lowndes County Animal Shelter, and I’m sending them to other no-kill rescues,” Smith said. “As many and as often as I can.”

Unlike the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County, the county animal shelter is a kill shelter.

The shelter does not receive grant funding.

Patelski said she would love to receive grant money, and while they have applied for it in the past, the shelter has never been awarded any funding from grants.

She suggested maybe a Valdosta State University student could help craft a grant application.

“I’m not a grant writer,” Patelski said.

Part of the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County TNR program is the Baytree Project headed by Dr. Amanda Hall.

Hall, a veterinarian at Baytree Animal Hospital, runs a bimonthly clinic to spay/neuter feral cats. She decided to start the effort after hearing about the animal shelter running out of room for cats.

“I got wind that they were euthanizing 300 cats in a month at the animal shelter,” Hall said. “Perfectly beautiful, adoptable cats — not because they wanted to, but just because they didn’t have a place to put them.”

The Baytree Project has spayed/neutered 1,879 feral cats since its inception in August 2018.

Upon hearing of the precipitous drop in the cat intake by the shelter, Hall said she was excited.

“Even if the improvement was smaller than what they’re reporting, I feel like it’s worth doing because we know it’s the only solution to this problem,” Hall said.

Although TNR efforts show positive results, she warns that legislation is the only permanent solution to feline overpopulation.

“Until there are laws on the books — until our elected officials are going to begin to mandate pet responsibility and not make it the burden of every taxpayer — then there will always be this problem. They will always be relying on the humane societies and rescue groups,” she said.

“You can’t rescue your way out of this problem,” Hall said. “You can’t adopt cats and dogs to solve this problem.”

Lowndes County Animal Shelter statistics:

2018 numbers are from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, and 2019 numbers are from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31.

• Number of animals euthanized in 2018: 1,017 dogs and 1,512 cats.

• Number of animals euthanized in 2019: 464 dogs and 591 cats.

• Numbers of animals that came into the shelter (live intake) in 2018 (this includes animals picked up by animal control and dropped off at the shelter): 2,683 dogs and 2,665 cats.

• Numbers of animals that came into the shelter (live intake) in 2019 (this includes animals picked up by animal control and dropped off at the shelter): 1,336 dogs and 1,219 cats.

• 2018 kill rate (number euthanized divided by live intake): 37.9% of dogs and 56.7% of cats.

• 2019 kill rate (number euthanized divided by live intake): 34.7% of dogs and 48.5% of cats.

• Number of dogs/cats adopted out in 2018: Dogs adopted, 523; Dogs returned to owner, 445; Dogs animal rescued, 669; Cats adopted, 473; Cats returned to owner, 27; Cats animal rescued, 121.

Number of dogs/cats adopted out in 2019: Dogs adopted, 208; Dogs returned to owner, 183; Dogs animal rescued, 404; Cats adopted, 196; Cats returned to owner, 10; Cats animal rescued, 230.

ThomCats

Hello Kitty meet Miss Kitty.

The Miss Kitty Feline Sanctuary, founded in 2009, aims to curtail the pet overpopulation and reduce shelter euthanasia in southwest Georgia and northwest Florida through low-cost spays and neuters and to provide sanctuary for homeless cats, said Carol Jones, executive director.

Today, the organization includes the sanctuary, the South Georgia Low Cost Spay & Neuter Clinic, a thrift store (Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Finds) and a trap, neuter and release group, the Thomasville ThomCats.

Since its inception in 2016, the ThomCats have been responsible for the capture, neuter, vaccination and release of approximately 400 cats in Thomas County.

By year’s end, the clinic will have spayed or neutered more than 29,000 cats in a span of four-and-a-half years.

The organization is supported through grants, donations, events and proceeds from sale at Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Finds.

Miss Kitty currently is overcrowded with a cat population of 235. Plans are underway to provide new outlets for these cats, bringing the sanctuary numbers down to 150, Jones said. The adoption rate is approximately 10 cats per month. 

Miss Kitty employs 11 full-time and four part-time staff members and operates with a 2019 budget of $710,000.

The Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society is a low-kill shelter. The shelter contracts with Thomas County on animal control.

“Therefore, we cannot be selective on animals that come to us,” said Dr. Beckey Malphus, a Humane Society board member and the volunteer medical director.

No-kill shelters often are selective with their animals and do not take in animals difficult to adopt, such as animals with behavior or animal problems, Malphus said.

“Since we intake for animal control, we often get the sick, injured or aggressive animals which are much more difficult to find homes for,” she said.

The TTCHS has a 10-member board of directors, all volunteers. The Humane Society operates seven days a week, 365 days a year. There are 14 employees, three of whom are animal control officers. One officer is always on call.

The shelter has room for 200 dogs and 100 cats. It has a budget of approximately $700,000. A portion of the budget is paid through the local option sales tax. All other income is through donations and grants.

“We do try to apply for as many grants as possible,” Malphus said. “As with most all businesses, expenses do go up. However, it is our goal to continue to decrease intake numbers by engaging in more spay-neuter and community cat programs.”

The shelter also tries to follow the strategy guidelines of Target Zero to get as close as possible to no euthanasia, Malphus said. 

“Target Zero has taught us strategies on how to keep animals out of the shelter,” she said. “Since 2015, our intake numbers have significantly decreased directly because of these programs.” 

The animals are cared for daily, and the Humane Society is open to the public weekdays except Wednesday and is open Saturdays.

Friends to Dogs and Shelters Alike

Leah Robbins and Candice Hernandez are here to help.

The duo started volunteering in 2015 with the Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter. After a while, they decided to go their own way and start a nonprofit, Friends of Tift County Animal Shelter.

Friends of the Tift County Animal Shelter is a volunteer organization that takes animals on the verge of being euthanized from the shelter and attempts to find them "forever homes."

Both Robbins and Hernandez credit shelter staff, local veterinarians and the county for working with them.

Robbins and Hernandez’s work reaches beyond the state of Georgia.

They coordinate with animal rescue groups throughout the United States, mostly in the northeastern U.S.

“The northern states don’t have the animals we have down here,” said Russell Gay, Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter director. “They come down here and are just amazed to see a stray walking down the road.

“They pull a lot of animals from us,” Gay added. “They’ll take them up there and adopt them out.”

Hernandez, Robbins and shelter staff often work with the same groups. Some might come once or twice a year and grab a few dogs; others handle much more. One Michigan-based group visits every couple of months and picks up 40-60 dogs, Robbins said.

Some rescues specialize in a certain breed or type of dog (older dogs, puppies, medical cases) but for the most part, Hernandez and Robbins try combining a mixture of easy-to-move dogs with harder dogs.

Some dogs are easier to move than others.

“Small dogs, little fluffy dogs, everybody wants them,” Robbins said. “The big dogs can be harder to move.”

They work with more than 100 groups, and Robbins estimates they sent out nearly 1,300 dogs last year.

“There’s a lot of dedication in those groups,” Robbins said. “They’ll pull 50 dogs from us and have 50 foster homes set up for them.”

“We’re doing good,” Robbins added. “We can’t save them all but we’ll never stop trying.”

The Tift County Animal Shelter has six full-time employees and one part-time employee, Tift County Manager Jim Carter said.

Although the shelter does not receive grant funding, it boasts a current budget for FY2020 of $500,656.54. That is an increase from the FY2019 budget of $486,600.84 and in FY2018 of $355,900.35.

Tift County Animal Shelter statistics:

The numbers for FY2018-19 for the shelter are not complete, so FY2017-18 numbers were included.

• Number of animals euthanized in FY2017-18: 332 dogs and 1,397 cats.

• Number of animals euthanized in FY2018-19: 100 dogs and 608 cats.

• Numbers of animals that came into the shelter (live intake) in 2017-18 (this includes animals picked up by animal control and dropped off at the shelter): 3,364.

• Numbers of animals that came into the shelter (live intake) in 2018-19 (this includes animals picked up by animal control and dropped off at the shelter): 2,151.

• FY2017-18 kill rate (number euthanized divided by live intake): 51.1% of dogs and cats.

• FY2018-19 kill rate (number euthanized divided by live intake): 32.9% of dogs and cats.

• Number of dogs/cats adopted out in 2017-18: Dogs adopted, 120; Dogs animal rescued, 1,023; Cats adopted, 63; Cats animal rescued, 421.

• Number of dogs/cats adopted out in 2018-19: Dogs adopted, 80; Dogs animal rescued, 849; Cats adopted, 68; Cats animal rescued, 446.

No Such Thing as No-Kill

Tanya Dean does not sugarcoat things when discussing the concept of no-kill animal shelters.

“There’s really no such thing as a no-kill shelter,” said Dean, executive director of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Humane Society.

Dean describes her operation as a “low-kill shelter.”

“The reason why I say that is because the difference between a no-kill shelter and a kill shelter is the no-kill shelter doesn’t euthanize in-house,” Dean said.

“You’re always going to have a sick dog or a dog that is aggressive that comes in your shelter, and you’re going to have to make the decision to euthanize it because you can’t work with it, or that it’s so sick that you can’t do anything for it.”

She emphasized the difference between no-kill and kill shelters.

“A no kill shelter doesn’t kill for space like a kill shelter does, but they outsource their euthanized animals,” Dean said. “We use euthanasia as a last means.”

The current shelter capacity is 91 cats and dogs.

The organization receives funding from the city and county, and recently had its budget increased, Dean said. 

“We just now got a functioning Humane Society board, so we can apply for grant money now too,” she said.

The Moultrie-Colquitt County Humane Society employs six paid employees, in addition to volunteers and individuals working for community service.

“We have one girl who’s with a program out of Albany called Ekerd Connects,” Dean said. “They teach her how to work in an environment like this and they pay her to work here for us.”

Regardless of compensation, everyone maintains the same goal.

“We try to get our animals in adoption events or a rescue,” Dean said. “Our dogs have a pretty good chance of either getting rescued or adopted.”

Pat Donahue of the Thomasville Times-Enterprise, Eve Copeland-Brechbiel of the Tifton Gazette and Savannah Donald of The Moultrie Observer contributed to this story.

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