Keely Lewis

Kitten season sounds like a good thing. Kittens are irresistibly cute, and the more the merrier, right? But in shelters all across the country, those two words signal the hardest time of year, for the employees, the volunteers and the kittens. In South Texas, the warm climate and low incidence of spaying/neutering result in a kitten season tsunami that runs from early March through late October, with Palm Valley Animal Center taking in more than 6,000 cats, including at least 4,000 kittens.

In a perfect world, for every kitty coming in, there would be someone to adopt it, a foster home where it could grow, or a rescue organization to tag it for transport to northern cities that need more pets. But our shelter count numbers for June show just how dire the reality is.

We started the month with 977 cats and kittens at PVAC, at the Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center and in foster homes. During the next 30 days, 852 more arrived, most turned in by Animal Control officers of the county and seven cities that contract with PVAC. Eight cats were claimed by their owners, 265 cats and kittens were adopted, and 132 were sent to rescue groups. So a total of 407 found what shelters call live outcomes. By month’s end, we still had 992 felines, including 600 kittens.

Those not so lucky were the 106 that died from illness, injury or starvation, including at least 83 kittens. Kittens are so vulnerable that even those turned in with mothers sometimes fail to thrive, and orphan kittens have little to no chance of surviving if no foster steps up to bottle-feed them. During the 30 hot days of June, 407 felines were euthanized. More than 250 of those were kittens.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole tale. The staff members and volunteers on the front lines of trying to save these kitties, from their intake and staging to adoptions and rescue, endure a ceaseless cycle of taking care of too many of them, making tough decisions and enduring heartbreak. From the kittens’ frantic cries for breakfast through the 6 p.m. euthanasia deadline, these selfless staffers ride a roller coaster of emotions. No matter how hard they may try to distance themselves emotionally, those innocent little faces through the kennel bars can haunt their dreams.

Recently when I was back in the PVAC cat intake rooms (which is always tough because I want to take them all home with me), a new care technician admitted that she had cried uncontrollably when some kittens she was caring for were taken to the euthanasia room. They weren’t big or strong enough to make it to adoptions yet, and no foster or rescue was available. Their kennel was needed for more incoming kittens. As she put down fresh newspapers, the tears flowed.

I totally understood her despair. The randomness can be overwhelming. A mother and her litter that came in last month might have gone out to foster or rescue, but this month, with foster homes full and rescues not pulling as many, a mom cat and her tiny kittens might not make it out, no matter how healthy. Kittens that get eye infections or upper respiratory infections and only need a week of antibiotics may not have the luxury of an available kennel for that long. A spot of potential ringworm can be a death sentence.

Since the winter of 2018, PVAC has improved from a 10% live release rate of cats to 50% in June, which means thousands more saved. But even the lucky ones that do make it to the adoption floor are sometimes put on length-of-stay lists. Months of shelter life can take their toll on any animal, and hundreds more will be arriving next week. The cycle is unrelenting.

But there is good news on the horizon. As early as this fall, fewer kittens will be coming in from Edinburg, thanks to a new Community Cat Program that Best Friends Animal Society is funding and implementing starting this month. For the next three years, Best Friends is investing more than $1 million for staff, including a full-time vet, vans, traps, kennels and training to bring in feral cats and kittens, spay and neuter them, vaccinate and flea-treat them, and put them back to discourage new cats from moving into their area.

Stopping the problem at its source won’t be quick or easy, and it will definitely take a community-wide effort. But this program marks an important beginning to turn the tide of unwanted kittens being born and coming into the shelter day after day. Catching the cats and killing them year after year hasn’t made a dent in their population. In fact, their numbers have continued to increase each year, so we need to try something different.

Kudos to the Edinburg mayor and City Council members for agreeing to lead the way with this game-changing program in their city. It won’t cost the taxpayers a dime, and the data will prove its efficacy very soon. We hope to be able to expand the program into McAllen and other areas soon.

Maybe someday, kitten season in the Valley won’t mean making choices of which ones live and which ones die. Maybe we won’t even have a Kitten Season at all.

Keely Lewis is a retired journalism teacher and board president of Palm Valley Animal Center/The Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.