A policy on how to best handle feral cats will be put to the test when the new Pittsylvania Pet Center opens this month.

The issue of feral cats has long created a divide in the animal activist community.

This divide now extends to the Dan River Region after Pittsylvania County’s decision to lease its new animal shelter to the Lynchburg Humane Society, a no-kill facility that practices trap-neuter-return for outdoor cats.

That policy has come under fire from Paulette Dean, the longtime director at the Danville Area Humane Society, which has an open admission policy for cats, feral or otherwise, and has had a contract with Pittsylvania County since 2007 to field incoming cats from the county. The contract ended on July 29. The Pittsylvania shelter will on July 29 under the management of the Lynchburg Humane Society.

The Lynchburg Humane Society chooses not to seek out feral and community cats to bring into the shelter, but instead uses a program to trap, spay or neuter and return the animals to their environment as long as they are healthy.

The Lynchburg organization defines feral as undomesticated wild cats unable to be touched or handled due to little to no contact with humans. Community cats are just animals that live outdoors. Lynchburg offers free spaying and neutering for both groups of cats.

There is no definition of a feral cat in the State Code of Virginia. The State Vet’s Office called feral cats a local animal control issue, not something it gets involved in at all.

Trap-neuter-return has been a practice supported for more than 20 years by organizations like Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit cat advocacy group. However, it has been fought against for nearly as long by other organizations and wildlife rehabilitators.

“There are many communities in northern [Virginia] that have an active TNR program, such as Fairfax, who now look to bring cats into their area for adoption,” Lynchburg Humane Society Executive Director Makena Yarbrough said in an email to the Register & Bee. She emphasized it is working “as much as the opposition says it isn’t.”

Since 2007, Pittsylvania County has paid $3,950 a month for Danville Area Humane Society to handle the cats of the county. Last year, more than 1,100 cats were brought in from the county.

Dean did not have an exact number of feral cats brought in to Danville Area Humane Society because they do not note which ones are feral.

“Many cats that appear to be unsocialized at time of intake are merely scared and calm down after a time,” Dean said.

The new Pittsylvania Pet Center on U.S. 29 will be able to hold roughly 30 cats at a time, with 16 cages and 9 cat condos. Lynchburg Humane Society has an active foster program, and advertises cats stay in the shelter on average for 38 days. Yarbrough said the hold time is lengthened by the extra care needed for kittens.

Starting on July 1, Pittsylvania County ordinances changed. Previously, state animal control officers would pick up feral and stray cats based on calls, according to Assistant County Administrator Otis Hawker. On July 1, the policy changed to state animal control officers will not pick up cats unless the cat is seriously ill or injured. Free-roaming and stray cats are now considered wild animals, which are not handled by animal control officers.

“In the city of Lynchburg, the animal control officers do not handle cats unless they are injured/ill, a bite case, or they are part of a cruelty case,” Yarbrough explained.

If a call comes in about feral cats, there is a policy in place at the Lynchburg Humane Society.

“If they don’t want the cats around their property we talk to them about deterrents,” she said. “But the cat is in that area for a reason, someone is feeding them or there is an established food source and more times than not they have been there for a while.”

Feral cats can be trapped and brought in Monday through Thursday to get fixed without an appointment at the spay/neuter clinic in Evington, according to Yarbrough. The clinic is approximately 42 miles from the new Pittsylvania Pet Center.

All feral or wild cats have their ears “tipped” when they are brought in. Tipping, optional for community cats, involves clipping a quarter-inch of a cat’s ear to show it has been fixed. Tipping is optional for community cats.

Yarbrough said she believed it has worked in Lynchburg, “if for no other reason we have less cats dying in our community, less nuisance calls and a more humane outlook on cats.”

However, Dean disagrees and called this practice “euthanasia by proxy,” saying just because humans don’t see the suffering doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

“People have been told that ‘cats do just fine on their own,’” Dean said in an email. “Our position is that they do not. They starve, are abused, are hit by cars, become afflicted with the same diseases our pet cats are, have to scrounge for food…. and do not live wonderful lives. How do I know this? Because of what I have seen. Plain and simple.”

The Danville Area Humane Society was offered the chance to bid on running the new pet center, but Dean declined to give a proposal.

The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to lease the shelter to Lynchburg Humane Society during their June 5 meeting.

Lynchburg Humane Society’s cat intake has nearly doubled since 2015, which Yarbrough attributes mostly to people bringing animals in from other counties.

“That is when we applied for another grant and have begun helping our counties with their cats,” Yarbrough said. “When you have a no kill shelter in the community you find that most people want to bring you pets and strays from their area because they know they are safe.”

Dean also is still concerned about the practice of trap-neuter-return because of the effect on the wildlife.

In 2016, 274 injured animals were brought to the Southside Virginia Wildlife Center were hit by cars, according to center founder Tanya Lovern.

Eighteen percent of those animals were hit by cars. Nearly 50 percent required treatment for injuries from cats.

“I think those numbers speak for themselves,” Lovern said.

Dean also has voiced concern about the new shelter’s “managed admission” policy, which could mean residents looking to surrender an animal may be placed on a waiting list depending on available space at the shelter, and also may be charged a continuing care fee upon acceptance.

Dean also expressed her concerns about people abandoning animals or mistreating them because of placement on a waiting list or being charged a continuing care fee.

“The ‘no-kill’ approach to an open-admission shelter is a [phrase] that is being discussed in relation to the new shelter. We, therefore, reiterate that placing animals on waiting lists and charging for their admittance places them at risk of abandonment and cruel treatment,” Dean said. “There have been cases, both in Virginia and throughout the country, where desperate people have either abandoned animals or have killed them because they have been turned away by shelters.”

The Lynchburg Humane Society asks owners to make appointments to surrender animals in order to make sure there is space at the shelter for that type and size of animal.

It also asks for a continuing care fee of $20 for an adult pet, or $40 for a litter of animals. The fee is waived for litters if an appointment is made to get the mother spayed.

However, the website states if there is financial need or a time constraint for an owner, the fee and timeline can be waived, and pets are always taken in an emergency, according to Yarbrough.

Dean has been assured by county officials that any county animals can be accepted at their facility and transferred to the county shelter at their discretion. Yarbrough agreed this will be the case.

“We don’t want animals from the county going to another shelter if they are not planning on adopting it out,” Yarbrough said. “There have been times when shelters call us and say they want to keep the animal and if they are able to handle it we allow them but request they call us if euthanasia is ever part of the plan.”

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Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at csimkiss@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7981.

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