-Sue Schubert received a phone call this winter that broke her heart.
The caller informed her an elderly neighbor with several pet cats in the Clarkston Heights had died. His family, not knowing what to do with the animals, turned them out into the subzero weather with bowls of food and frozen water.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this are not uncommon in rural Asotin County, Idaho, said Schubert, a volunteer with Helping Hands Rescue and an avowed cat lover. And since the county's animal-control ordinance only covers dogs and livestock, felines abandoned outside the city limits are liable to become feral.
"There's no place in rural Asotin County for people to take their cats for care," she said. "People don't know what to do."
Feral cats, if allowed to proliferate, can cause serious problems of their own. Disease, which often runs rampant among feral cats, can be passed along to domesticated felines. The most serious illnesses are distemper and feline leukemia, along with respiratory problems, infections and ringworm, which can be spread to humans.
"Distemper and feline leukemia are as bad for the cat population as canine parvo is for dogs," Schubert said.
All it takes to start a feral cat colony is one unaltered female, Schubert said. Females can have two litters a year with up to five kittens each. In some condensed residential areas in the Clarkston Heights, Schubert estimates there are five or six feral cats per block, and as many as 20 in some areas.
This is why she strongly urges pet owners to have their cats spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
The lack of feline control in Asotin County can be attributed to limited funding and staffing levels, sheriff's Capt. Dan Hally said.
"The county doesn't have the resources, funding, staff or equipment to trap and deal with feral cats," he said. "It's outside the capacity, especially in stretched budget times."
Hally added people dumping their animals -- cats and dogs alike -- is a growing problem in the county. He agrees with Schubert that people can help by getting their pets spayed or neutered.
"If you don't know what to do, make arrangements with the shelter," he advised.
Volunteer organizations, such as Helping Hands Rescue, are often a last resort for unwanted cats, Schubert said. She and her follow volunteers placed 151 abandoned cats in homes last year and handed out 604 free spay or neuter certificates. Some volunteers, Schubert included, also foster 15 to 20 cats at a time in their own homes. Others take feral cats to farms as mousers, but this can become a problem when they are "dumped" on unsuspecting farmers, Schubert said.
But even with a dedicated group of volunteers, resources are slim.
"The private group of volunteers doesn't have enough resources to take care of the valley's cat problem," Schubert said.
The city of Clarkston, facing cat problems of its own a few years ago, signed a contract with the Lewis-Clark Animal Shelter in Lewiston. The agreement allows animal control officer Donna Manchester to transport feral cats across the river, Clarkston City Councilor Mary McLaughlin said. Cats taken to the Lewis-Clark shelter are only humanely euthanized if they are very sick, Schubert added. Before the agreement, feral cat colonies were common within the city limits, especially along the Snake River, but currently, "there are not any colonies in the city limits anymore," McLaughlin said.
But a lack of animal control at the county level is just a piece of the problem, she added.
"I think the bigger challenge is convincing law enforcement that their time would not be over-burdened by cat roundups," McLaughlin said. "It was one of the big concerns for the city police department and turned out to be not true."
Beyond the city's borders, some feral cat colonies are being assisted by well-meaning humans. Cats from these colonies are trapped, taken to the vet to be altered and vaccinated, and re-released into the wild. It's an experiment that can work well if the caretaker is dedicated, Schubert said.
"Cats survive well in the wild with a good food source, shelter and water," she said.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the so-called "trap-neuter-return" method has proved successful in reducing both the feral cat population and euthanization rate in a number of communities.
For neighbors living near these colonies, however, feral cats can be unwelcome pests.
Jon Lane of Clarkston lives on Eighth Street, but takes care of a community garden on 13th Street at the edge of the city limits. The problem is a colony of around eight feral cats that are fed and taken care of by a neighbor.
"We don't want those cats in the garden," he said. "That's our livelihood."
The food he grows is shared with neighbors and sold to local farmers markets, but Lane hopes to make the garden more of a commercial venture in the future. The biggest problems, he said, are the cats' penchant for climbing the fence and using the garden for a bathroom and their rapid breeding.
"As soon as you have a garden, it's a big problem," he said. "We worry about the food contamination."
Lane has contacted city officials with his dilemma, but hasn't received much in the way of answers. Unlike dogs, cats, as he puts it, seem to be a "gray area" in the realm of animal control.
"Where is the line drawn?" he questioned. "If my dog goes to someone's house and tears up their lawn, it's on me."
Schubert said cooperation among neighbors is essential for the success of the trap-neuter-return method. The main push of her organization is to let people know there are options out there other than dumping a cat in the cold.
"In a perfect world, the sick ones would be humanely euthanized, colonies would be spayed, neutered and returned and all pets would be altered," Schubert said. "But it's a human problem ... it's irresponsibility."
As the expression goes, finding a long-term solution to the feral cat problem in Asotin County may be a lot like herding cats.
Gaboury may be contacted at kgabourylmtribune.com or (208) 848-2275.
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