The felines among us

Chico Animal Shelter’s new policy aims to curb euthanasia

Tracy Mohr holds Mardi Gras, an adoptable tabby cat that came into the shelter already spayed. The shelter partners with the Butte Humane Society for adoptions of many animals, but it also adopts out a number of cats and dogs.

Tracy Mohr holds Mardi Gras, an adoptable tabby cat that came into the shelter already spayed. The shelter partners with the Butte Humane Society for adoptions of many animals, but it also adopts out a number of cats and dogs.

photo by Melissa Daugherty

More info:
Go to to learn more about the city’s shelter. The site includes photos of the stray animals brought into the facility, and allows the public to upload photos of strays as well. Those looking to give an animal a home can also look at photos of the shelter’s adoptable population.

Every one of Tracy Mohr’s eight cats is an animal that has simply appeared at her home, which is somewhat surprising considering Mohr’s job. She’s the animal-services manager at the Chico Animal Shelter.

“I have not brought a single one home from the shelter,” she said this week during an interview at the Fair Street facility.

Rather, the felines have chosen Mohr (and her husband, who she says is the real cat person in the family).

The same is true of thousands of other households; according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, at least a third of cats are acquired as strays. Meanwhile, 16 percent are acquired from a shelter. And therein lies the rub. Animal shelters throughout the nation are overburdened with cats, and there aren’t enough adopters to keep up with the influx.

That’s part of the reason, beginning on Feb. 1, that the Chico shelter is instituting a new policy to not accept healthy stray, feral and surrendered cats. It’s a controversial decision that Mohr acknowledged likely will be unpopular initially, but a move she said ultimately is in the best interest of the cats and the community. The city is mandated to pick up only stray dogs for public safety, but somewhere along the line, Mohr said, the animal-welfare community adopted the mindset that cats should be picked up, too.

“We’re starting to rethink and re-examine how to do animal care,” said Mohr, who has been in the animal-welfare business for 35 years.

Things were bustling at the Chico shelter this week.

On Tuesday morning, Jan. 15, a construction crew worked on the entryway leading to the entrance of the Fair Street facility’s main building. Meanwhile, inside, shelter workers were cleaning dog runs and cages filled with cats, a few rabbits and even a guinea pig.

From an outsider’s perspective, the shelter appears extremely busy. But Mohr says that, as far as the facility’s cat population is concerned, it’s a slow time of year. But it won’t be long before kitten season is upon the shelter, stretching the facility’s resources thin.

“In the summer, we’re packed to the gills,” Mohr said, adding that the shelter will still accept sick and injured strays as well as orphaned kittens.

Indeed, despite the city’s intake of stray and feral cats for decades upon decades, the city isn’t making a dent in the cat population. Mohr said the formula for getting an idea of a region’s number of feral and un-owned cats—so-called “community cats”—is to take the population and divide it by six. That means Chico is home to some 14,500 of these felines.

The city shelter doesn’t euthanize animals to free up space, but large numbers of animals are destroyed nonetheless.

From February through November, 1,823 cats, including 969 strays, were taken in by the shelter; 497 of them were put to sleep. While some of the euthanized cats were destroyed due to illness and age, many were unadoptable simply because they were wild. Rarely is a feral cat gentle enough for adoption, and it’s only occasionally that the felines are placed with adoptees looking for a barn cat.

“They’re scared, stressed; they don’t want to be handled by people,” said Mohr, equating the cats’ brief stay at the shelter as torture. “Basically it’s a one-way trip for those cats.”

Conversely, friendly stray cats are adoptable, but there simply aren’t enough adopters. Moreover, many of the cats brought into the facility may actually not be strays to begin with. Mohr recalled a couple of college students who had seen a cat without a collar and assumed that the animal was a stray. It’s an honest mistake, but one that brings in a number of felines that do have homes.

“If it’s nice and fat and healthy, it’s probably somebody’s pet,” she said.

Dustin Alexander, communications and development manager for the Butte Humane Society, said his own cat regularly finds a way out of its quick-release collar.

“Someone could easily think he’s a stray,” he said.

The problem is that cat owners often assume their pets will return home at some point, and thus may not think to check the shelter. That thought may not occur until after a four-day holding period, after which time the cat could very well have been adopted.

Mohr noted that stray cats are 13 times more likely to find their way home if left alone. Nationally, the return-to-owner rate for cats in shelters is just 2 percent. Chico’s is higher at about 5 percent, but that’s still not great, she said.

Alexander said BHS, which works cooperatively with the shelter by taking its animals into its adoption programs, supports the new policies of the Chico Animal Shelter.

“This will allow them to reserve those services for animals truly in need. This will also allow healthy cats who are left in the public domain to maintain an overall higher quality of life,” Alexander wrote as part of a formal response.

The organization, he said, is working on its own policy regarding the intake of surrendered animals, which will be limited since the nonprofit relies solely on donations.

Alexander, like Mohr, attended a workshop around the holidays at which UC Davis veterinarian Kate Hurley extolled the benefits of shelters limiting the intake of cats, a move a number of communities are adopting. Hurley offered evidence that traditional sheltering models are not effective in curbing cat overpopulation, such as the fact that less than 5 percent of the outdoor cat population is admitted to state shelters annually.

Some community shelters, such as the San Jose Animal Care and Services, offer a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program, which serves the duel purpose of cutting down on the euthanasia rate and helping to curb the cat population.

The city of Chico doesn’t have the funds for a TNR program, but Mohr pointed to the low-cost spay and neuter options offered though BHS, Paws of Chico, and PAWS of Oroville, among other local organizations dedicated to helping control the pet population, as resources for local residents. Mohr noted that stray and feral populations generally are healthy, but she has work ahead of her to convince the public that the felines are better off staying put and to spend money to get them fixed.

For residents with cats that are creating nuisances, Mohr said the best way to deal with them is to remove any food sources and access to shelter. Simply removing the cats hasn’t worked, she said, as new cats show up to take their place.

“You’ll never ever eliminate all of the cats from your neighborhood, so it’s got to become how to live with the cats,” she said.