The Kitten Conundrum

PUHI — The euthanization of five kittens by the Kauai Humane Society has upset some community members, while those who work within the nationwide animal shelter sector say KHS’s actions are acceptable.

The kittens were found by Costco employees Aug. 8, according to Penny Cistaro, outgoing executive director of KHS. An animal control officer picked them up.

“When the officer got out there, she asked the woman turning them in, ‘Do you want to foster them?’ and she said, ‘No,’ Cistaro said. “The guy that was with her said, ‘No.’ She (the humane officer) said ‘OK’ and left with the kittens.”

She said the five kittens arrived at KHS at 9:30 a.m. and “nobody was interested in them.”

They were euthanized at 10:30 a.m., she said.

A little more than an hour later, just before noon, Cistaro got a phone call from Tanya Brodenkircher, who runs Tanya’s Animal Rescue in Kapaa.

She said she wanted to take the kittens and was told they were euthanized.

“Why weren’t these cats held for 48 hours, which is the law,” asked Basil Scott, with Kauai Community Cat Project. “To their credit, if you bring the cat in, you will be informed, but I don’t think it’s right and I don’t think it complies with the law.”

County law does require KHS to hold stray cats for “not less than 48 hours,” but Cistaro said KHS gets a caveat.

“Our veterinarian can determine euthanasia for humane reasons and that fits into state law for animals,” she said. “The five kittens coming in from Costco were skinny, dehydrated, under a pound and generally in poor condition.”

Scott said judging by pictures he’s seen of the kittens, he thinks Brodenkircher could have kept them alive.

“Tanya’s a famous cat rescuer and she has the ability to do it,” Scott said. “The kittens would probably still be alive today if she would have gotten them.”

Scott said he and members within the Kauai Community Cat Project would have taken the kittens as well.

“Since we’d only have had them for 24 to 48 hours, we’d have taken them,” Scott said. “When this happened, there was (an outgoing) message on our phone saying we don’t’ have any fosters, but I understand there were multiple people volunteering to take the kittens.”

Cistaro said after the fact she’s been hearing feedback that there were employees and others who were interested in taking the kittens, “but at the time we didn’t have that information.”

“Nobody spoke up when we got them,” Cistaro said.

She said young kittens don’t thrive under stress and even holding “tiny, thin, dehydrated unweaned kittens” for 24 to 48 hours is “detrimental to their already compromised condition.”

“They have to eat and eat well every two hours, have basic round-the-clock care, and that is hard for undernourished kittens to begin with,” Cistaro said. “The best success for survival even overnight is those over the one-pound limit.”

KHS kitten policy

According to a memo explaining procedure to staff members obtained from KHS, the policy directs staff members to inform people surrendering kittens of their policy: If they choose to surrender the kittens and the kittens weigh under one pound, or they are sickly and under two pounds, they will be euthanized.

“If kittens are simply too small for our program, (under 1 pound is the consideration age), they may keep the kittens themselves and try to hand raise them,” the memo states.

“Based on the perimeters within our program, they were euthanized,” Cistaro said. “Yes, the decision was made right away but it’s being made by staff and this is our job. I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I can evaluate a litter of kittens within 30 seconds.”

Cistaro said the policy is in place because KHS takes in more unweaned kittens than the organization has resources for kitten care.

For example, in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, KHS took in 338 unweaned kittens. Of those, 165 were fostered and 173 were euthanized.

Cistaro said those numbers are concentrated in spring through the fall, “not over the full 12 months, it’s a very short time period.”

“Then what happens is we take those 165 kittens that were fostered and we have to have room for them to come back to,” Cistaro said. “We can’t have five litters of five kittens each, all the same age and in foster, all scheduled to come back at the same time.”

KHS has 20 cages in the kitten holding room, 30 in the adult holding room and six cages in the sick cat room.

Cistaro said because of KHS’s limited resources, “we have to have criteria in place of what we can place into foster, what has the greatest potential to thrive and what to do with them when they come back.”

Once those kittens come back from foster, they’re spayed or neutered and then they go into the kitten room and await adoption.

“We have kittens that were in foster right now that are five months old and they’ve been sitting in kennels for three months, growing up in a kennel environment,” Cistaro said. “We’re transferring some to the mainland, however the mainland has the same kitten problem that we do here.”

Policy not uncommon

According to Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, Kauai Humane Society’s kitten euthanasia policy is similar to the policies of many shelters throughout the nation.

“Resource constraints, lack of community engagement and low sterilization rates of cats in a community can lead to very difficult choices being made, which is what we see here,” she said. “Many shelters across the country have been in this boat over the past several decades.”

She said many shelters, including KHS, are jumping on board with trap-neuter-return programs for stray cats and spay-neuter programs for owned cats, and it’s those kinds of programs that will help curb euthanasia numbers.

“These programs need to be conducted strategically, focusing on targeted areas to achieve high rates of sterilization, or else they will not be effective,” Lisnik said. “Affordable and accessible spay-neuter programs also need to be made available for owned cats to prevent accidental litters from being born and adding to the overall burden.”

In addition to effective programs, Lisnik said community engagement and open dialogue is key to success.

“Enlisting the help of local citizens can build a strong foster program for the most at-risk cats, like bottle baby kittens that will not thrive in a shelter facility,” Lisnik said. “Working out in the community will also find more cats to be sterilized and new citizens who want to help further the shelter’s life-saving mission.”

Finite homes, infinite litters

Cistaro said, the goal at KHS, is to “care for the individual (animal) while taking into account the whole picture,” which is the volume of cats that are coming into the shelter each year — a total of more than 1,600 cats in last fiscal year.

She explained with a finite amount of foster homes and space within the shelter, decisions have to be made as to what kittens have the best chance at staying alive and being adopted.

“We’re in a triage environment and it’s not just one litter of five kittens once in a while,” Cistaro said. “It’s easy for us to get wrapped up in the one (kitten) and forget the big picture.”

Scott said he thinks KHS needs to be more flexible and take into account community concern and compassion.

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