Cat transfer team: Saving Chicago's homeless cats

Cat transfer team: Saving Chicago's homeless cats
Salina is a sweet stray at Chicato Animal Care and Control looking for rescue.

It’s summer and Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC) is overflowing with cats. Between owner surrenders, strays and kittens, the cages fill up quickly in the backroom meaning that all of the cats there are on borrowed time. Thanks to a small, dedicated group of volunteers, the CACC Cat Transfer Team, a record number of cats have been rescued since January.

It hasn’t been an easy feat. As an open access facility, CACC must take in all animals that arrive on its doorstep – strays, owner surrenders, kittens, cats from hoarding and criminal cases. When space runs out, pets that haven’t been moved to the cat adoption floor are euthanized to make space for other animals…unless the cat transfer team finds a place for them first.

Pitching in to save lives

Conner is a great cat looking for rescue and came in as either an owner surrender or stray.

Conner is a great cat looking for rescue.

Through June 24 of this year, 3,709 cats and kittens came through the door at CACC and 325, fewer than nine percent, were euthanized. During the same period a year ago, 4,503 cats came into the facility with a reported 1,289 euthanized. How they got to that number is a story of cooperation within CACC, the work of the cat transfer team and the shelters and cat rescues that pull cats from the facility.

“We work very hard to take pictures and post them on Facebook almost everyday,” says Allison Tarr, one of the five current volunteers on the Cat Transfer Team. “We have less than 2,000 followers, but some weeks our reach is 80,000 thanks to cross-posts. What is even more amazing is how cat advocates have worked together to save so many cats in such a short period of time.”

It has been a joint effort between shelters, cat rescues and people who are just passionate about saving cats. When a cat’s photo is posted, often pledges start to come in to pay for that cat’s or litter of kitten’s rescue. Some cats need extra veterinary attention and others just need the basics, but it opens the door for more cats to be rescued by reducing the financial obligation of the pulling organization and opens up more options for the cat transfer team.

Summer and her kittens are looking for rescue at CACC.

Summer and her kittens are looking for rescue at CACC.

“We often have people volunteer to foster out of the blue and they connect with a rescue that will pull the cat,” adds Tarr, who also runs a small rescue. “I’ve found some great fosters through the network. The most amazing thing is that rescues of all sizes are stepping up and they don’t argue over which cats they want to rescue, they just step up and help.”

The shelters and cat rescues pulling cats and kittens range from individuals adopting out a handful of cats a year to smaller, full-fledged rescues to larger organizations like PAWS and Tree House Humane Society. During May, 86 percent of the cats that came in were rescued and at one point in June the number was at 91 percent thanks to the diligence of the cat transfer team and its followers.

Never ending battle

Bronco was originally adopted from CACC and returned by his owner.

Bronco was originally adopted from CACC and returned by his owner.

“Unfortunately, we are always scrambling and never get to a break,” says Tarr. “After our very successful May, we just got slammed. We have lots of kittens coming in and it is moving season. So, people are coming in and just leaving their cats at CACC. They just don’t realize that their cat’s lives are in jeopardy when they do that. So many rescues are full and adoptions are slow and that impacts us as well.”

At CACC, there is a five-day hold for the strays that come into the facility to give them a chance to be reunited with their families. Owner give-ups can be euthanized at anytime. Until late last year, the cat transfer team didn’t always know which cats were on borrowed time and which were at risk for health issues.

“Since Dr. Richard Brown has come on board, the shelter staff – managers, supervisors, and Dr. Brown – has worked very hard with the transfer team to convey which cases need the most attention,” says Tarr. “We’ve had wonderful transparency. It’s enabled us to better network the urgent cases and get rescues to step up and take in cats and kittens before it’s too late.”

Paula is a beautiful, long haired stray cat looking for rescue.

Paula is a beautiful, long haired stray cat looking for rescue.

The system has worked so well that there have been a couple of times this year that the adoption cages and holding cages have been virtually empty. But, unfortunately, they fill up again very quickly this time of year. Like last Monday, June 24, when CACC had to euthanize a larger number of cats in one day due to lack of space and upper respiratory conditions increased by the crowded conditions. Strays and owner-relinquished pets add to that growing list of cats needing the help of the cat transfer team.

Chicago is not alone, although cats are America’s favorite pet, they are the pet most likely to be left at a shelter. Nationally, seven in 10 cats are euthanized at shelters. While there are many owners that give up cats for less than stellar reasons – they are moving or just don’t want the cat any longer – there are others that could keep their cat if they had a better grasp of services available.

Chicago's cat resources

“There are so many resources in the city – free and low-cost spay and neuter services, pet food pantries, some low-cost veterinary services,” says Tarr. “We need to find a more creative way to get the word out to the people who could most use these services. There must be a better way to educate them to cut down on the numbers.”

Moses is a 10-uear-old cat that lost his home when his long-time owner was no longer able to care for him.

Moses is a 10-uear-old cat that lost his home when his long-time owner was no longer able to care for him.

For example, PAWS offers free spay and neuter services to those with Chicago Medical Cards if they live in targeted Zip codes. Others qualify for low-cost services in those same, targeted areas – 60617, 60619, 60620, 60621, 60628, 60629, 60636, 60639. Those services are also offered to under served Southside communities through PAWS Gus Bus thanks to the Petco Foundation.

Low-cost spay and neuter, vaccination and wellness services are offered to the general public through PAWS, Tree House, The Anti-Cruelty Society and the Animal Welfare League. During the year, there are also special programs offering free or discounted services as well – like wellness services at Tree House and the Animal Welfare League.

“We need to figure out a way to connect the people that come in repeatedly with litters of kittens to these services to end that cycle,” says Tarr. “There are also a lot of people that have indoor/outdoor cats that come in as strays because they are lost or left behind. We would see fewer of those cats if people worked at keeping cats indoors and got them spayed or neutered.”

Three kittens - Walker, Texas and Ranger - look for a rescue to take them in.

Three kittens - Walker, Texas and Ranger - look for a rescue to take them in.

There are a lot of cats that get dumped on moving weekend, even though Chicago is pretty cat friendly for renters. For others facing financial difficulties, there are pet food pantries offered by Tree House, the Animal Welfare League, PAWS and the Irving Park Food Pantry (to name a few).

As high as the intake numbers are at CACC, they could be even worse. Chicago has a very active Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) community. Lead by Tree House with the support of many smaller organizations and a group of over 300 colony caretakers – strays and kittens that come in through TNR now go to Tree House or other organizations. Ferals that used to come into CACC to be euthanized now stay in their colony instead of landing at the city's intake facility.

Continued challenges

“Just about the time we think we turn the corner, we see another large influx of cats coming in,” says Tarr. “Recently, we had one owner permanently hospitalized with over 30 cats and another owner that died at had 12 cats. Some of the cats from the hoarder were in bad shape and didn’t survive once rescued. In the end, the large groups gobbled up cage space, taking rescue opportunities from cats already there.”

Tarr says cat transfer team has been so effective in marketing the sick and urgent cats, that many healthy cats are being overlooked. She does see more cat rescues coming in to pull some of the sick cats or those in danger that leave with those cats and many more healthy cats also available at the shelter. The goal is to reach a point where the transfer team is not working off the urgent list.

Frankie and Bing came into CACC as strays.

Frankie and Bing came into CACC as strays.

Despite the great numbers, the cat transfer team isn’t resting on laurels as they move into July. Fourth of July is the biggest week for lost pets according to Petfinder. Last year, over 900 cats came into CACC during that month (both strays and owner relinquished). That leaves a lot more networking to do by the cat transfer team to help keep the euthanasia numbers down and rescue numbers up at CACC.

More rescues needed

Tru is another cat that is looking for a chance at a happy ending.

Tru is another cat that is looking for a chance at a happy ending.

One thing that would really help the numbers would be to increase the number of cat rescues that pull from CACC. Currently, the burden rests on a few rescues and a small group of individuals. To get certified, all groups need to do is to  fill out a Homeward Bound application and there are not geographic restrictions.

Many of the currently approved rescues will pull for groups from other states. Just a few weeks ago, an approved group worked with an organization in Wisconsin to pull 31 cats and kittens when CACC was in a bind. To learn more about Homeward Bound rescues, go here. You may follow the Cat Transfer Team’s updates on Facebook.

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    Raining Cats and Dogs

    I am a crazy cat lady and puppy mill warrior that blogs to advocate and educate about pet issues. In American animal controls, millions of pets are abandoned each year and an estimated 4 million die just because there are not enough homes. It truly seems like it’s Raining Cats and Dogs.

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