By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
“We have this segment of society that doesn’t have a voice,” says Jeff Charter, executive director of the new nonprofit Petaluma Animal Services Foundation. “Animals can’t advocate for their position. They sit in a kennel or a cage and wait for someone to make a decision on whether they live or die.
“Often,” he says with a smile, “we can affect those decisions in a positive way.”
In August, the foundation took over operation of the Petaluma Animal Shelter from the City of Petaluma. One of its newest programs offers that positive decision for feral cats.
The Humane Society of the United States explains “feral cats are the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats or other feral cats who are not spayed or neutered. Stray cats are accustomed to contact with people and are tame, but feral cats are not accustomed to contact with people and are typically too fearful and wild to be handled. Feral cats typically live in a colony—a group of related cats.”
Originally, Charter says, there were no placement options for feral cats: they were euthanized. But Charter is one of those pet advocates who believes that “just because a cat is feral shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
And so the shelter developed the Barn Relocation Program, reaching into the community for those who can offer an outdoor home to these animals.
In addition, a Trap, Neuter, Return program has started, working with the community and those people who watch over and care for feral cat colonies. Cats are trapped, then fixed, vaccinated and returned to their colony, reducing the number of feral cats and kittens brought to the shelter. “This humanely controls the population,” Charter says, “allowing them to slowly decline in numbers.”
In August, 18 feral cats were relocated to new homes.
What’s needed to become a feral cat caretaker? Although a barn is a good location, it’s not the only one, says Susan Simons, board member and creator of the foster care and mobile adoption programs. “They need love, food and shelter.” Homes, or vineyards, with acreage and outbuildings work too. Food, a protected feeding station and an area for the cat to shelter from rain and cold are the physical needs.
As for the love? “People have to care enough,” Charter says, “to say ‘I’m willing to provide a safe haven for this cat.’ ”
Shelter workers provide transition elements. They’ll take the cat to its new location with an initial bag of food and a large cage in which the cat will live for about a month, under shelter, as it becomes attached to its new site and feeding station. When the cage is opened, it’s left in place for a while as the cat learns its new territory.
Feral cats tend to stay fairly healthy, Simons says, but the caretaker must watch for problems. She notes caretakers and ferals form a strong bond. “I currently have a sick feral cat. Because he trusts me, and he’s sick, I’m able to pick him up, give him fluids and medicine. That’s a big thing for a feral … he’s allowing me to help him.”
The other part of reducing the number of unwanted or feral cats is low-cost spay-neuter clinics, for all animals. The program, Charter says, “has cut our cat intake by 40 percent. We try to be proactive instead of reactive. We cannot adopt or euthanize our way out. So we try to stem at the source, the birth of unwanted animals. We have a hospital here, so we can do low-cost spaying and neutering. It’s always about giving people options.”
At the end of August, Simons says, the foundation reported 79 adoptions and only one euthanization, and that was because the cat had health issues and was aggressive toward other felines.
“We only have six-and-a-half staff members,” Charter says. “And it can be hard work, physically and emotionally. But everything comes down to, we’re here because we care.”
Charter says at the shelter, as at many local nonprofits, “the Petaluma component applies—this is a community that cares. Much of the success of the shelter is due to that support. We have 100 volunteers: some retired, others with a day off during the week. You can clean cages, walk dogs, pet cats. Or you can walk in and donate paper towels.”
What if you can’t offer a feral cat a home? “Pay it forward,” Simons says. “Donate the fee for someone else to spay or neuter their pet, or give money to our veterinary clinic so more animals can be adopted.”
Animals ready for adoption can now be followed online. “These animals have a story and need a home,” Charter says. Enjoy the observations of Gus on Twitter (@Gusthecrankycat) or Like Petaluma Animal Services on Facebook. “We’re reaching out, telling stories,” Charter says. “When people go on line, when you have a visual and emotional connection, it’s easier to bond.”
Join the shelter from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 20 for “Cats are Cats!” a celebration of all Petaluma felines, in honor of National Feral Cat Day. The Petaluma Animal Shelter is at 840 Hopper St. Hours are 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays. Or go online to petalumaanimalshelter.org.