Mobile clinic snipping overpopulation problem

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Kayla Bunge
August 9, 2008
— A quiet chorus of meows emerges from the floor, where dozens of pet carriers covered in fraying bath towels are lined up in rows.

Steady beeping punctuates the assembly-line movement of a skilled veterinarian as she deftly wields a surgical scissors.

A pungent scent of rubbing alcohol and antibacterial soap mixed with salty meat-and-gravy food from a can fills the stale, humid air.

The Richmond Town Hall is transformed into an operating room.

A folding table serves as an operating table, where Gray Betty, a female feral cat, lies unconscious as Dr. Kietra Kay removes her ovaries and uterus, a routine procedure that takes just short of 10 minutes.

“I do as many surgeries here in one day as I do in two to three weeks,” she said as she stitched shut the 1 1/2-inch incision on the cat’s lower abdomen.

Kay is a veterinarian with Shelter Outreach Services (S.O.S.), a low-cost, mobile veterinary program of the Dane County Humane Society. The program works with local animal shelters and rescues to provide high-volume, low-cost spaying and neutering.

“Our goal is to help those who otherwise wouldn’t be getting help. And that goes for the people and the cats,” said Lela Schuster of Touched by a Paw, a nonprofit, no-kill cat rescue and shelter in Whitewater.

Tackling the problem

A record 51 cats, both those housed at the shelter and those brought in by the public, were spayed or neutered at the July 25 clinic, sponsored by Touched by a Paw.

“We want to get them in the door and get them done,” said Dawn Perry, a veterinary technician with S.O.S.

She said the growing numbers—from about 30 during an average clinic to more than 50 in July—reflect the severity of the overpopulation problem.

“You’d think we’d make a dent,” Perry said.

Touched by a Paw has sponsored the monthly clinics since the program started in November 2006, and each month the shelter has more cats scheduled for sterilization, said Schuster, who spearheaded the effort to bring the program to Walworth County.

“I’ve been trying to work on getting us to be as efficient as possible, to get as many animals done as possible,” she said. “But as much as our hearts are in helping people who need the help, helping the cats that need the help, the bigger issue is reducing the whole cat population.”

The easiest way to curb the rapidly growing population—caused by the breeding and abandoning of unwanted pets—is to have the animals spayed or neutered, said Angela Rhodes, resource and development manager at the Dane County Humane Society.

“Whatever we can do to stem that (overpopulation),” she said.

But the surgeries aren’t exactly cheap. The average spay or neuter surgery can cost upwards of $200. Touched by a Paw charges just $40.

Schuster doesn’t expect the volume to decrease anytime soon.

“There’s an immense number of people who want these services,” she said. “If we ever ran out, I’d be shocked.”

Tapping into service

Gail Fettig of Whitewater has brought nearly two-dozen feral cats to the monthly S.O.S. clinics sponsored by Touched by a Paw.

Her foray into the caretaking of feral cats began six years ago, when she noticed six kittens in her backyard. Fettig set out food for the cats to make sure they’d survive the approaching winter.

“And every year there were more and more that would just drift in,” she said. “It kind of got a little out of hand.”

Fettig contacted Touched by a Paw, where she met Schuster, who taught her how to trap the cats so they could be sterilized and released back into the wild. As Fettig was able to trap the cats, she brought them to the monthly S.O.S. clinics.

“This is the first year I haven’t had kittens,” she said.

Fettig said she might not have been able to control her feral cat population if it wasn’t for the low-cost monthly clinics.

“This is a good thing for people who don’t know what to do with these feral cats,” she said.

Bringing in the clinic

The July clinic at Richmond Town Hall runs like a well-oiled machine.

A veterinary technician and a trained shelter volunteer, who acts as a second pair of hands, prepare the cats for surgery, administering a heavy sedative so the animal easily can be controlled during the procedure and then placing the animal under gas anesthesia.

They carry the cats to the operating table on the animal equivalent of a stretcher.

Males are neutered first, one right after another, often in a line three to four cats long. Females are spayed one at a time because the surgery is more invasive and takes twice as long.

The volunteers closely monitor the cats as they come out of their sleepy state.

That’s the fun part for the animal-loving volunteers.

“A cat needs to be pestered until it wakes up,” Schuster said.

When the shelter volunteers were trained for the clinics, they were told to “act like a 5-year-old trying to wake up a parent,” she said.

The cats also receive post-op antibiotics, rabies and distemper vaccinations and a flea treatment. They get their ears cleaned and nails clipped, too.

“I feel like I’m doing a lot of good,” Kay said of her work with S.O.S. “I’m helping animals who don’t have anyone else to help them.”

Although overpopulation continues to plague local animal shelters and rescues such as Touched by a Paw, which has a limited number of cages to house cats, the Whitewater shelter is starting to see some localized impact, Schuster said.

“But this is not where it ends,” she said. “This is the beginning.”

Schuster said she would like to see programs such as S.O.S. sponsored by more shelters in more places. Better yet, she’d like to see freestanding low-cost veterinary clinics open.

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