Kittens flood shelter

Adoptions and foster families aren’t enough

It’s kitten season and unfortunately for the animals that end up at the Butte Humane Society, there’s no room left at the inn.

The harsh reality at the shelter—which employees and volunteers know all too well—is that not everything about an animal shelter is cute and fuzzy. When the kennels are full and adoption and foster numbers are down, even healthy kittens are at risk of being euthanized.

The spike in the numbers of cats and kittens at the shelter during summer months has been dubbed by some as “kitten mountain,” said Dustin Alexander, the shelter’s data-end development coordinator, who keeps track of intake and adoption numbers. According to his weekly records, the number of animals that came to the shelter shot up from about 125 to 175 during the first hot week in June alone—a telltale sign that kitten season is in full bloom.

Unfortunately, adoption numbers don’t shoot up alongside intake numbers, and year-round, adoptions hover around 30 per week. With the kitten kennels full, the foster program maxed out with 200 felines currently in Butte County residents’ homes and more kittens coming in each day, the shelter is running out of options.

“It’s kind of a never-ending cycle,” said Kendall Capote, who recently took on the role of Kitten Foster Program coordinator and has nearly doubled the size of the program.

When the weather heats up, adult cats come out of hiding and begin to reproduce. The hot months also coincide with female cats’ heat cycles, causing hundreds of litters to be born within the first few months of summer, Capote said. On average, female cats that haven’t been spayed have two or three litters per year, with one to eight kittens per litter.

The good news is that high temperatures took a little longer to reach Butte County this year, which likely reduced the number of litters born and caused mothers that did give birth to stay with their kittens longer. That’s a good thing because the kittens are older and healthier, Capote said, but the issue of finding them a place to stay will only worsen in the next few months.

At its peak, the shelter has only 160 spaces for cats and kittens. Two rooms, known as “catteries,” are reserved for adult cats, most of which have been surrendered or abandoned by their owners. The rooms are intended to hold no more than 25 adult cats each, but currently more than 30 crowd each room, and cat adoptions are especially slow during kitten season.

BHS Executive Director Christine Fixico acknowledged that about 25 percent of the kittens that come to the shelter are euthanized. That statistic is hard to bear, but it’s actually down from about 50 percent last year, likely due to more stringent cleaning policies intended to reduce the spread of illnesses at the shelter and the increasing size of the cat and kitten foster programs, she said.

BHS plans to open a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic in the next few months. The facility eventually will have space to house cats away from the stress of the main shelter, which will alleviate some of the overcrowding. The facility also will allow members of the public to have their pets altered for a reduced rate. The hope is to reduce the future number of kittens in the county, Fixico said. But for now, the shelter has no choice but to work with what it has.

Kittens are divided between a number of rooms, most of which are outside the public’s view. Tucked into the back of the shelter is an intake room, where litters—and the mother cat, if she’s around—are held and evaluated for behavioral and health tests. There are also special rooms for sick cats and kittens and those that are quarantined for reasons such as violent behavior. Feral cats have their own space outside.

Healthy litters are housed in the “baby barn”—a small room behind a sliding-glass door with nine kennels where the public can ogle their cuteness, with no knowledge of the overflow of kittens out of view.

The problem of shelter overcrowding is nothing new, Capote said, but the frustrating feeling of not being able to find kittens homes does not lessen over the years.

While there are a number of theories about why there are too many cats and kittens in Butte County, the main issue is that not enough people are willing to spend the time and money to have their cats spayed and neutered, said Judy Reed, who works with PAWS of Chico, a spay-and-neuter financial-assistance program.

Reed, a pet owner and foster parent herself, said that while adoption and fostering are good ways to ease the number of cats and kittens at the shelter, it does not solve the larger problem. She encourages pet owners to be responsible and to have their pets spayed and neutered.

“There are too many animals and not enough homes,” Reed said. “We cannot just adopt our way out of this issue.”