A cat taken to the Idaho Falls Animal Shelter in 2015 was more likely than not being taken to its death.
That year the shelter euthanized 1,366, or 71 percent of the felines that were brought in.
Over the last three years the shelter has drastically reduced those numbers. In 2018 the shelter has euthanized only 17 percent of the cats that were brought in, and expects the number to drop during the year’s final month. The decrease has led the shelter to move up its plans to reach no-kill status.
“We have a personal goal to reach no-kill status by 2020, but we think we’ll reach it by 2019,” said Gayle Contreras, an employee at the shelter.
Shelter officials attribute the decrease to increased use and awareness of trap, neuter and return programs.
Animal Control Officer Danyelle Harker said about 30 percent of the cats that enter the shelter are feral, meaning they are wild and not friendly toward humans. Because they’re not fit for adoption, these cats would have almost always been euthanized.
Trap, neuter and return programs work by trapping the cats and, instead of euthanizing them, releasing the fixed cats back into the area they were found. The new colonies will hold their territory and prevent other cats from moving into the area.
That last part is crucial to controlling the feral cat population in Idaho Falls. Carissa Hernandez, community cat program coordinator for the shelter, said neutering and releasing cats has done more to manage the population than euthanasia.
“We have been trapping and euthanizing cats for years, and we’ve only seen an increase in population,” Hernandez said.
Since the trap, neuter and return program began in 2017, the feral cat population has decreased. There’s no estimate on how many feral cats wander the streets of Idaho Falls.
The program began in 2017 when the Best Friends Animal Society offered the Idaho Falls Animal Shelter a $15,000 grant to start the program in an effort to reduce animal euthanasia.
Once the grant runs out, the animal shelter intends to rely on donations to keep it going. The shelter hopes to save money in the long run as the declining feline population reduces costs.
Hernandez and shelter volunteer Paul Flagler released two cats Tuesday morning, a gray cat named Maynard who needed treatment for his eye and a black and white cat known only by his identification number, 81503.
The unnamed cat was released first on Barlow Drive where he was found. The more timid of the two, Hernandez expected him to run as soon as his carrier was , but 81503 had different plans, clinging to the warmer carrier until Hernandez forced him out.
Maynard was more predictable when he was taken to Stevens Drive in Ammon. In the spring and summer Hernandez and Flagler may release as many as 10 fixed cats a day.
Hernandez said a vet checked Maynard, who will have limited vision due to health concerns with his eye, but his visibility will be good enough for him to navigate his neighborhood. Last week another cat had a shrunken and hazy eye that needed to be removed, an operation that cost the shelter $300. Traps will sometimes catch injured cats and the shelter has to balance their health needs with its budget.
“We try to treat them as best as possible within our needs,” Hernandez said.
Their final stop of the morning was at Shady Rest Campground off of Yellowstone Highway. One of the residents, Jesus Ocegueda, has seen as many as 10 pregnant cats near his trailer. Hernandez and Flagler found several cat prints in the snow and set up cage traps with food inside to catch the mothers-to-be. They know the area well, Hernandez says, because a woman in the park has brought in 24 cats found wandering among the trailers.
During the winter Hernandez will only set up the traps during the day. Flagler will remove them before nightfall because it’s too cold for the animals to spend all night in the cage. Blankets cover the cage in case there’s snowfall.
All cats caught will be microchipped, fixed and have the tip of their left ear clipped to easily identify cats that have been previously released.
Sometimes the cages will catch an owned outdoor cat. Flagler said he once brought in cats trapped several blocks from his own home. It wasn’t until a veterinarian checked the microchip that he realized one of the cats was his own pet.
An alternative to the trap, neuter and return program is shelter, neuter and return, which allows friendlier cats to be put up for adoption and released only if they do not find an owner. A friendly cat that hasn’t been microchipped may be owned, so the shelter neuters and releases the cat where it was found in case its owner is searching for it.
Occasionally people will release the animals . Hernandez said people still worry the animal shelter is trapping cats to euthanize them. Other times they believe the shelter cuts off more than the tip of the ear. Occasionally someone tries to steal the cages.
Locals are sometimes concerned about the impact releasing cats has on local wildlife, as cats have become infamous for hunting smaller animals into near extinction. Harker said people are usually supportive once they learn the program reduces euthanasia and feral populations.
Hernandez and Flagler have had to search for new areas to trap cats as they began catching more repeat cats than new ferals. Volunteers such as Ocegueda and Flagler who check traps or allow Idaho Falls Animal Control to set traps on their property are essential, Hernandez said.
The Idaho Falls Animal Shelter can be reached at 208-612-8670 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.