February 17, 2009

Killing of cats provokes outrage

The Golden Valley Animal Humane Society's move to put down 118 cats rescued from a St. Anthony mobile home last week has prompted leaders of no-kill animal shelters to call for better cooperation that they say might have prevented some of the deaths.

Still, opinions are mixed as to what kind of pets would have emerged from such extreme conditions.

The Humane Society said offers of help from three other shelters came only after the cats were already put down. Humane Society representatives said the cats had diseases ranging from feline AIDS and herpes to upper respiratory infections and ringworm.

The pervasiveness of chronic and contagious illness among the cats led Humane Society officials to determine that "if placed it could potentially be putting animals into the community that could impact the health of other animals," said Humane Society spokeswoman Tracie Jacobson.

The cats had been living in Cheryl and Stanley Saladis' 500-square-foot, debris-packed mobile home in St. Anthony before they were removed Feb. 10.

At the Home for Life sanctuary in Star Prairie, Wis., Lisa LaVerdiere offers a haven for animals that are old, chronically ill or have behavioral problems that make them unlikely to be adopted. She said she wishes that small rescue organizations such as hers could have worked with the Humane Society to try to save at least some of the cats.

"Nobody else but the Humane Society had the resources and the personnel to do that kind of large-scale rescue," she said. "The Humane Society provides that service that's valuable. But people expect the Humane Society to be there for the animals, and when other groups offer to help and support them in that effort, I wish they'd reach out to us. I wish we could work together to help."

An official from a Hastings shelter with a "no-kill" policy said the deaths were "totally unnecessary" and claimed that the Humane Society ignored calls and e-mails from people offering to take in the cats.

"I personally believe [the Humane Society] not only wasted the lives of these kitties, they squandered the good will of the community that was willing to aid in their care," said Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark.

Fry wrote on Animal Ark's website that most of the ailments diagnosed in the cats posed no risk to humans, and that the other illnesses still were not a justification for destroying the cats. He also questioned the accuracy of some of the diagnoses.

In response to criticism, Humane Society President Janelle Dixon said Monday that "there is no one who works here who likes euthanasia." But she said there were many reasons it was necessary to put down the cats, not only because of the physical condition of the 118 cats, but because her Golden Valley shelter already had 260 healthy cats at the time awaiting adoption in a facility that takes in dozens of cats every day.

Dixon acknowledged that the Humane Society received three offers of help for the St. Anthony cats: from Home for Life, Animal Ark and Best Friends Animal Society, based in Kanab, Utah.

Minnesota is home to at least four no-kill shelters, but LaVerdiere said she sees demand growing. "I get 100 calls and e-mails a day from people asking us to take their animals, and I can't take that many," she said. "They say, 'I don't want to take my animal to the Humane Society. I don't want it to be killed.'"

If any of the cats had been spared, questions remained about whether they could have succeeded in a human environment.

"The social structure of cats is not one that really adapts well to big crowds of cats in small confined spaces," said Margaret Duxbury, a board certified veterinary behaviorist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. Rescued animals can exhibit overt and passive aggression, and have problems fulfilling humans' toileting expectations.

Still, if such cats are socialized and become comfortable with people, those problems can be treated. If not, there can be other problems: At the least, the cats may be fearful and unwilling to engage with humans; at their worst, they can be aggressive with humans who try too hard to be friendly.

"With unsocialized animals, it's difficult for them to come out of this environment and be successful in terms of what most people would be wanting in a pet," Duxbury said. "Love does not conquer all, sadly, and that sociability piece is one where that's true."

For her part, though, LaVerdiere said, given time, unsocialized animals aren't unreachable. And overcoming that challenge can be exhilarating.

They are "so grateful to be out of that environment and so grateful for being clean and being treated like a normal cat," she said. "They're so affectionate. ... You see them blossom. That's what's so rewarding."

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