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Yuma’s feral cat population exploding; many being neutered, returned to wild

The Associated Press

There is just no way to find homes for all of them, the Yuma County Humane Society says.

The Associated Press

YUMA – Rev. Paul Gambling’s dozen or so orphans go through a 22-pound bag of cat food every two weeks.

And Lana Hartwell, director of the Yuma County Humane Society, often finds a new batch of cats that were dumped over the shelter’s fence the night before.

But Shirley Neuharth and others like her are ready to take action to control the feral cat population. She has spearheaded a group that’s raising money to spay and neuter the strays. The group plans to release the cats back onto the streets. To her, this is the most humane solution for the unadoptable “wild” felines who scurry at the sight of humans.

“We’re only going to do this one cat at a time,” she said. “Somewhere along the line we’ve got to stop the insanity.”

Nobody has counted the number of feral cats in Yuma County. But at the Humane Society, it’s not uncommon to receive 90 cats a day during the fall and spring, when the kittens are usually born, Hartwell said.

Cat lover or not, Hartwell calls the feral cat “population explosion” in Yuma County a problem for several reasons: feral cats can spread disease to domestic pets; they damage property; millions of dollars in taxpayer money is spent each year to care for and euthanize unwanted pets statewide.

Homeless cats are everywhere, according to Hartwell. Go to an open dumpster at night and you’re likely to find a colony of cats surviving off human scraps.

Some even live in the desert and come to town to find food, she said. Most likely, these are the offspring of domestic cats dropped off in the desert by their owners, she said.

Some people have taken matters into their own hands, whether it’s feeding the strays or spending their own money to have them altered.

Neuharth’s face lighted up at the mention of one of her cats, who sounds like an engine when he purrs. Feral cats “live a very horrible life,” she said.

Recently, Neuharth and a group of volunteers held a garage sale to raise money to spay and neuter feral cats.

The Wellton-based group, called Animal Guardian Angels, started with $200. Neuharth admits they need a lot more to make a dent. Altering one cat can cost between $35 and $125.

Similar but larger volunteer coalitions are working in California.

Rene Leeds, a local animal rescuer, said she has spent her own money to alter between 20 and 30 abandoned cats in her neighborhood. She gets a reduced rate, but vets would lose too much money if they cut costs to alter every feral cat without some sort of reimbursement, she said.

Yuma County lacks a low-cost veterinary clinic.

At the Humane Society, a group of veterinarians provide a free spay or neuter to an adopted pet every month. Money raised by a group of volunteers to discount the costs is already depleted, Hartwell said.

Arizona laws prohibit the Humane Society from trapping cats unless they are injured or have bitten someone. Owners are not required to vaccinate their cats. No laws restrict the number of cats people own.

Every afternoon, Gambling puts out a bowl of dry food and water for the dozen or so cats in his neighborhood. He’s found homes for a few of the kittens. He’s also paid to alter three or four cats.

Responding to the argument that well-fed cats will continue to breed, he said of himself and his wife: “It’s part of our nature to look after all of God’s creation. We have the resources. We’re able to do what we can.”

To suddenly stop feeding them now would be “cruel and unfair,” he said.

With more cats than homes, the staff at the Humane Society must be “sales people,” Hartwell said. They plan to expand the shelter to make room for more animals.

Hartwell describes the life of a feral cat as short and brutal. The ones that end up at the Humane Society are usually sick or injured, but always frightened, she said.

Sometimes her job is stressful, she said.

“I have to tell myself you can’t take them all home,” she said. “Pretty soon you realize you can’t take care of all of them.”

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