UNION — Although the township animal shelter does euthanize cats, concerns surfaced in recent months that the kill rate was higher than it should be. Those concerns turned out to be inflated and, in fact, quite the opposite.
Union Health Officer Marconi Gapas is the first to admit that since 2011, when 182 cats were euthanized at the township shelter, things have changed. The kill rate actually plummeted in the last two years, with the rate now down to 11 so far this year.
In 2012 when Gapas officially took over the helm as health officer for the township, after serving as the assistant health officer, he knew he had to work on reducing the animal shelter kill rate.
“I thought it was very high,” the health officer admitted. Several residents agreed and contacted LocalSource to look into the issue.
For instance, of the 251 cats taken in by the township animal shelter in 2011, 182 were euthanized, or a 72 percent kill rate. By comparison, only 10 dogs were euthanized out of the 139 that came into the shelter.
Using the Open Public Records Act to obtain township animal shelter reports for 2011, 2012 and 2013 through July, LocalSource discovered that the kill rate for cats dropped from 182 in 2011 to 46 in 2012 and this year as of August, it was 11. The number of dogs euthanized also dropped from 10 in 2011 to 5 this year, the same as in 2012.
Gapas explained that this change was the result of staff working to reduce those numbers.
“There was a drastic drop because we initiated an outreach to rescue groups as well as posting pictures of available cats and dogs,” the health officer said, but noted the township animal shelter never “euthanizes cats or dogs to make space at the shelter.”
One resident who contacted LocalSource had serious concerns the local shelter was not exploring other means of handling an overabundance of cats, pointing out there were other ways of handling this problem.
“A cat can be trapped, sterilized and vaccinated for rabies for less money than the town is spending to house and euthanize healthy cats,” said Val Wilson, adding that “trap, neuter, return” has been the only proven method of controlling the population of feral cats and the overpopulation of cats in general. She asked whether cats “deserve to be killed just because they were born in the wild.”
Gapas explained the answer is not always as simple as one might believe.
“What most people don’t understand is the majority of cats we bring into the shelter are feral, or not domesticated. Because they are not immunized against rabies, they pose a threat to people in the community,” Gapas said, adding in most cases when these cats are captured, they are not alone.
“More often than not it is an entire litter that takes up residence in a shelter and while the kittens may not pose a threat, the mother does,” Gapas said. “When you have to open a cage and throw the food in or you can’t open a cage at all because a feral cat is so aggressive, it poses a threat to the people who work at the shelter and other animals.”
When this situation arises, and does often because feral cats are extremely aggressive and will bite, scratch or attack humans or animals that come within its range, Gapas said the only alternative is to euthanize the animal. But that does not mean the litter also is euthanized.
Gapas agreed that the Union Animal shelter is not a “no kill” facility, but they also do not euthanize for convenience or to make room at the shelter.
“We try very hard to find homes for all cats and dogs at the shelter,” he said, noting that they are in contact with animal rescue organizations who work in conjunction with the Union animal shelter.
“Unfortunately, aggressive feral cats can’t be adopted out but in cases where they can we see they are immunized and we do everything we can to find homes for these animals.”
Space is tight at the township animal shelter, though. Gapas said they have 27 cages for cats and 16 for dogs, so efforts to find homes for animals is an ongoing process, especially during the warmer months of the year.
Reports obtained by LocalSource from the health department show that the number of animals brought into the shelter during the summer are significantly higher and those numbers drop during the colder months and that can present a problem for a small shelter with limited cages.
Over the last two and three-quarter years, 324 dogs and 545 cats were received into the township animal shelter. Of those, 232 cats and 20 dogs were euthanized. During this same period, 183 cats and 92 dogs were adopted and 77 cats were rescued from the Union Animal Shelter by other organizations. However, while cats can be aggressive, when it came to reports of animal bites throughout the township, dogs remained at the top of the list over the last several years, with 85 bite reports and cats at 14.
Gapas said residents actually can help the situation by not feeding stray or feral cats.
“As long as people feed these cats they will continue to come around,” he said, adding the goal of the township health department is to ensure no resident is bitten by a rabid cat or any other wild animal.
“Feral cats do carry rabies and people just don’t understand that if they are scratched or bit by one of these animals they can get this disease,” said the health officer.
Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus, according to the state health department. The virus is found in the saliva of a rabid animal and is transmitted by a bite, or possibly by saliva contamination of an open cut or the eyes.
Left untreated rabies attacks the nervous system and can cause death. Only mammals, including people, can get rabies. Although rabies occurs most often in wildlife, such as raccoons, bats, skunks, groundhogs and foxes, in New Jersey, cats account for the vast majority of domestic animal rabies cases.
Rabies has been a public health issue in New Jersey since the mid-1900s. Dogs were the species primarily involved at that time but through immunization campaigns, canine rabies was eliminated by 1956. Feral cat populations are prevalent throughout the United States, including New Jersey.
According to the state health department, feral cats breed prolifically, far faster than they can be effectively trapped and removed. A female cat can go into heat every three weeks and potentially give birth to three liters a year since the gestation period is 70 days or 2.5 months. Each liter is typically three to six kittens.
In 2010 Point Pleasant Beach experienced an outbreak of rabies in their feral cat population which was estimated to be around 300 animals. Before efforts could get underway to control the situation, two children were attacked by feral cats and had to undergo treatment for rabies.
The township animal shelter is located at 980 Jefferson Ave. Anyone can call the shelter for information about adopting an animal at 908-851-8507 or 908-851-5230. Gapas said that very often employees there are busy so he urged callers to leave a message.