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Humane Society Draws Controversy By Sending Cats Back To The Streets

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Speaker 1: 00:00 The local humane society took over animal control responsibilities in several San Diego cities a year ago. In that time, they have quietly released more than 1200 stray cats back to the streets. KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger sir explains why this program is controversial.

Speaker 2: 00:20 Hannah Shah is setting a trap for a cat. She put some wet cat food in the back of a small wire crate. Okay, cool. So they get a little luxury buffet tonight. Cats peek through the trees as she weaves through a narrow walkway to lay the trap. She and two other women back away to wait. A few minutes later, a cat crawls in and triggers the door to swing shut here. Okay, here go right shot. Who calls herself? Kitten? Lady is the founder of the nonprofit orphan kitten club. She rescues kittens but also traps their parents, usually feral cats who live outdoors and aren't socialized to humans.

Speaker 2: 01:02 He's not super friendly with me, but that's okay. I love you. Anyway, she takes the cats to a clinic to be spayed or neutered, then releases them back to where they came from, but it's controversial. Bird lovers, environmentalist. Even some cat lovers say it is harmful to both the cats in the environment. Now, the San Diego humane society is taking the practice to a higher level. The organization took over animal control contracts for San Diego and other local cities a year ago. Since then, it is allowed more than 1200 cats to be released, including more than 700 in the city of San Diego. Gary Weitzman, the CEO of San Diego humane society says the number should be higher

Speaker 3: 01:49 just because they happen to be more wild than they are domestic should not mean that they need to be euthanized.

Speaker 2: 01:55 The city of Los Angeles tried this program called trap, neuter. Return in 2006 conservation groups sued the city for not considering the effect feral cats would have on the environment. Weitzman says he's not sure why you'd need an environmental impact report when you aren't actually adding new cats to the environment.

Speaker 3: 02:16 It sounded like we would be bringing them in from Portland, Oregon, and then releasing them. You know here in Kensington or dominance,

Speaker 2: 02:23 you need a big space to share. Elizabeth Tracy cuddles a white cat named Doman who was rescued from Tijuana. Tracy and her co volunteer at Carrie Ross worked for the rescue organization, cat adoption service. They say it's cruel to force any cat to live outside.

Speaker 1: 02:45 We have Cody's Hawks, owls, foxes. Then you also have wild dogs and domesticated dogs. I don't want to leave

Speaker 2: 02:51 and the advocates claim the humane society is not just releasing feral cats. They're sending socialized adoptable cats back to the streets. They don't care if the cats friendly or not. They're going to put it back. Oh, that we don't do again. Gary Weitzman, the CEO of the San Diego humane society.

Speaker 3: 03:10 If they come in and they are actually friendly and adoptable cats, we will actually put them up for adoption rather than we releasing them to the outdoors. We do not want to do that. These are the cats mostly that we're talking about that are the ones that you can't pet, that you can't touch, that are terrified, that are in traps, not in carriers,

Speaker 2: 03:27 but multiple records from San Diego humane society show cats who were easy to handle or who were brought in using carriers were slated to be released back onto the streets and KPBS obtained an email from humane society staff that says they do release friendly cats. It says the reason is they return cats to areas where the owners might not come to look for their cat at our shelter, but advocates, Carrie Ross and Elizabeth Tracy think there's a different reason they say the humane society is releasing cats to keep its euthanization rate down. They want to show how many cats went out the door. It's not necessarily how they went up to the door or where they went. It's just that they left the building. The humane society responded saying it doesn't count. Cats who are released as adopted pets and cares about what's best for each animal, not statistics. Tomorrow we'll talk more about what impact outdoor cats have on the environment. And now here's Maureen Cavanagh with more from Claire Traeger. Sir,

Speaker 4: 04:33 what's the criteria the humane society says it uses in determining if a cat is feral or friendly? Well, I think it's a little bit unclear, which is, you know, maybe part of the problem when I talked with, uh, Gary Weitzman who's the CEO, he says, basically if a cat, um, can't be handled at all, comes in in a trap, not a carrier, which means if it's in a carrier, obviously someone had to put it into the carrier. Um, whereas the trap is more a thing where you put food in and it walks in on its own. Then he says, those are the cats that will be released otherwise, um, they're gonna stay in the shelter and try and be adopted. But we have documentation that shows there were cats that came in and carriers that were friendly, um, that were able to be handled. Uh, and those cats were then released as well.

Speaker 4: 05:24 And then we have this email from uh, San Diego humane society staff member who says, yes, I'm some, some friendly cats are being released. And there's this cryptic line in the email about why the humane society would release a socialized cat back into neighborhoods. Can you explain that for us? Sure. So I think that what, what that person is saying is, um, that a cat that comes in from certain areas in the city or County, um, and that person didn't necessarily specify, but I think the implication is maybe more low income areas where people who live there wouldn't know to go into the shelter to look for a cat. Like, you know, if you lose your pet, you may be go, you look online, you go visit the shelter, you say, do you have my pet? People wouldn't, wouldn't know to do that. And so it's better to put the cats back into the areas where they came from so that their owners could maybe find them. I'm not sure that the reasoning holds up on that, but that's, that was what that person was saying.

Speaker 1: 06:25 That's how you're interpreting that. Before the release policy went into effect, what happened to the cats who aren't socialized?

Speaker 4: 06:32 Right. So, so the San Diego humane society has been doing animal control for the city, um, for the past year and a quarter basically. And prior to that it was the County of San Diego and they had a different policy where cats were, um, brought into the shelter. They would try and be adopted. Um, if they were maybe not, their policy was always any adoptable animal, they won't euthanize. But if the cat was too, uh, unsocial not able to be around people, they might end up euthanizing them. Although they did work with some, I shouldn't say they were with some outside partners. Um, who, if, if a cat had already been through their program, a feral cat and they had already, uh, neutered or spayed that cat, uh, they would then give them back to those partners who would release them

Speaker 1: 07:22 to dr Gary Weissman's comment. Why would the humane society have to do an environmental impact report for releasing animals into the wild when they were taken from the wild?

Speaker 4: 07:32 Yeah, I mean he had a funny thing saying, well, it's not like we're bringing in new cats from Portland, Oregon and uh, sending them out on the streets here. I think that's what LA is, is working out now. I think that there is no question that cats do have an impact on the environment. And so the, you know, the issue is whether, uh, we should be removing them and removing that impact or kind of keeping it a status quo the way it is now. What happens to stray dogs when they're taken to the humane society? Yeah, so this comes up in the, in the second part of my story, I'm, someone actually makes that point. We don't just let stray dogs out on the street. Maybe we used to or in, in other countries there are more packs of stray dogs, uh, here, uh, the, the dogs go into the shelter and then it happens somewhat frequently. If they are too aggressive to be adopted there, they're euthanized. And so you know, that brings up the issue of is is that what we should be doing or is it better to let the cats out out on the street? But people say, you know, we, we don't just let dogs run around the street, so why should we let cats.

Speaker 1: 08:43 You mentioned that the neuter and release program have been tried in other areas of California probably around the country too. Is there any evidence that the program actually reduces the number of strikeouts?

Speaker 4: 08:53 I think that it's very to tell because it's hard to count cats hard to herd. It's hard to herd cats is hard to count cats, so to get a definitive answer on what you know, the population of cats, it's hard to say. There are these studies that it seems like are debated depending on what side of the issue you're on, about whether if you remove a group, say there's a colony of feral cats and you just take them away, some research says then a new colony will come in and take their place. And so you aren't actually solving the problem by removing them. But that I have also talked talk with some researchers who debunked that study. They say that, that it doesn't really hold water. No. Cats had been killing birds for a Memorial. Right? Yeah. Why is this a particular problem now? Well, I think that this, uh, the neuter release programs are gaining popularity so people are paying more attention to them now.

Speaker 4: 09:52 There's also climate change issues and more worries about bird populations. I think there was a study that came out recently that, you know, we've lost, I think it was 3 billion birds in the last 50 years just in the United States. So people point to, to those issues to say, you know, we need to be doing more to protect birds and taking, you know, getting rid of cats is not going to solve that problem, but it's one thing that you could do. Now you have part two of this report. What will we learn in the next part? Right. So, um, we'll talk more about some of these environmental impacts of outdoor cats. You know, go into the issue of whether cash should ever be outside, even if it's an own cat. Should you let let your cat outside. Um, and I also went to a clinic where they are doing spaying and neutering of feral cats, so you can hear about that too. Okay, terrific. That I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger cert. Claire. Thank you. Thank you.

Since taking over animal control services for San Diego and several other cities last year, the San Diego Humane Society has allowed more than 1,200 stray cats to be released back to the streets.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.