“For the last five years in Rhode Island, 15,000 animals per year have gone into shelters and 3,000 were euthanized per year,” says Liz Skrobisch, president of PawsWatch Rhode Island, a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the feral cat population.
Skrobisch argues the numbers are too high.
At the Warwick Animal Shelter alone, 300 dogs were brought in last year, 15 of which had to be euthanized. Ann Corvin, director of the Warwick Animal Shelter, said due to the floods, the numbers of cats taken in 2010 were “very conservative.”
“There was a four-month period of time where we stopped taking cats,” she explained, noting that this year they’ve already taken in 65.
Skrobisch said large numbers of feral and stray cats is leading to overcrowding in Rhode Island shelters, and consequently, higher euthanasia rates.
PawsWatch, established in 1997, was the brainchild of two Newport residents who noticed feral cats near their home that needed veterinary attention. From there, they put their heads together and founded the beginnings of what is now PawsWatch.
PawsWatch works in conjunction with the Rhode Island Community Spay and Neuter Clinic (RICSNC) in Warwick to spay and neuter animals from across the state. The clinic opened its doors on July 1 of 2010, and has seen over 7,000 patients since then. In that time, they’ve performed a total of 6,600 spay and neuter operations, with the numbers growing substantially daily.
Skrobisch said that between the clinic’s two doctors, they can perform a high volume of spay and neuter operations every day.
“We can do probably 50 [spay or neuter] operations in a day. Our record was 61,” she said.
Skrobisch explained that the clinic’s doctors have been specially trained to perform surgeries efficiently, and can complete the operations in 4 to 15 minutes, depending on the size and health of the animal.
High volume is the key to operating within the financial constraints of the organization, which provides subsidized care to low-income pet owners.
RICSNC was founded by OSAC (Ocean State Animal Coalition), a group of organizations dedicated to animal care, shelter control and medicine. OSAC came together when the Rhode Island Foundation invited members of animal service organizations to come together to work on common issues throughout the industry.
Skrobisch serves as OSAC’s vice president, but her background is not in veterinary care.
Instead, she spent years as the head of marketing for a major firm on Wall Street. It wasn’t until she moved to Rhode Island and found a kitten on her doorstep that she became involved with animal outreach.
As she watched the kitten grow, she began to take care of it, and eventually needed to get it “fixed.” That’s when she discovered PawsWatch.
“It’s funny how opportunities present themselves,” she said.
Now Skrobisch is passionate about controlling the pet population in the state. She encourages people to adopt at shelters, and to get their pets – cats especially – spayed or neutered. By doing these things, she says, fewer animals will be euthanized.
“It’s preventable. If all pets are spayed or neutered, all of these unwanted pregnancies won’t happen. It’s the only way to prevent it,” she said.
Skrobisch said feral dogs are not an issue here in the north, but they are in the south. Sometimes, dogs are rescued from euthanasia in the south and brought here, because dogs so often get adopted from shelters.
“Most dogs get adopted, but you see what happens to cats, the crisis is absolutely unequivocally related to cats,” she said.
In fact, the feral cat population is so out of control that there is a spay and neuter law.
Since 2006, it has been law in Rhode Island that if a cat is 6 months or older, it must be spayed or neutered. Those who choose to breed their cats must pay annually for a permit. Violation of the law is punishable by a fine.
“It’s not very well enforced,” said Skrobisch. “Now we’ve made the operation less expensive than the fine. They made the [law] mandatory before it was accessible and affordable.”
RICSNC offers low rates for feral cats and pit bulls, the two animals most commonly euthanized at shelters. The operation for a pit bull is $75, and $50 for a feral cat.
If an owner, or someone who discovers a feral cat, is still having difficulty finding the money for the operation, there is a “spay it forward” fund, where the owner pays what they can, and the rest is covered by donations.
PawsWatch also uses the TNRM technique, or ‘Trap, Neuter, Return, Monitor’ to bring in feral cats for operations.
“We’re the only organization in Rhode Island that is totally dedicated to TNRM,” said Skrobisch. “It’s practiced worldwide, but we do it here in Rhode Island.”
Cats that have been spayed or neutered get an “ear tip,” where, while under anesthesia, the left point of their ear is removed, making it flat across the top. This lets animal control officers, veterinarians and animal rescue workers know that the cat, whether it be feral or stray, has been fixed.
After their recovery, feral cats are re-released.
“Putting a feral cat in a shelter is a death sentence. Feral means that they’re un-socialized, and they do not desire human contact,” said Skrobisch.
She explained that once a cat is determined to be unsocial and un-adoptable, they are euthanized.
Kittens that are trapped, on the other hand, are typically placed in shelters for adoption, as are strays.
“A stray cat is different. Strays are cats that were once domesticated, and have been lost or abandoned by their owners. They can possibly be reclaimed,” she said.
Though PawsWatch is not an adoption agency, Skrobisch does work with shelters to place animals in homes when applicable.
Their main concern is population control, and addressing potential health issues that arise from an abundance of feral cats.
“These are cats that would otherwise never see a veterinarian,” explained Skrobisch, who said they are given important shots, too.
“We’re addressing the public health concern; we give them their rabies and distemper shots,” she said.
PawsWatch has trapped, neutered, released and monitored 14,000 cats since its inception in 1996.
At the clinic, 75 percent of their operations were on cats, 28 percent of those being feral.
“There’s a wide range of estimates of how many feral cats there are,” said Skrobisch, who’s heard figures between 50,000 to 200,000.
“State Veterinarian of Rhode Island, Dr. Scott Marshall…will be looking at the issue of feral cats,” she said. “They’re just starting a multi-year study. It’ll be interesting to see…I personally think the number is somewhere in the six figures.”
Skrobisch believes the population of stray and feral cats is growing due to the economy.
“It’s impossible to count them all…and [the numbers] are increasing as people are abandoning them due to the economic climate,” she said.
Though most of the clinic’s clients come from Providence and Warwick, they do have a van that will pick up pets from across the state. Skrobisch wants to reach out to as many areas as possible, and knows they are just starting to make a dent in the problem.
“We’re the eighty-ninth clinic based on the Humane Alliance model,” she said, referencing a pioneer clinic in North Carolina. “Where clinics have been open for a while, we start to see drops in numbers in the [feral] populations, and then a drop in the euthanasia rates, because there are less animals in the shelter.”
Despite their high-volume surgeries, Skrobisch and her team have a long way to go on the road to ending the overpopulation problem.
“We’re not there yet, but give us a few years,” she said.