WALLA WALLA - It started with just two, Patricia Neissl recalled.
Two unaltered cats. Family pets, she said.
Predictably, one plus one eventually equaled 70 or so felines, a mix of pets and strays at her house. More than Neissl ever planned for or could cope with, she explained. "Basically, the whole factor was the cost of getting them fixed."
• Incoming stray cats to Blue Mountain Humane Society, 2008 - 1,375.
Neissl sought help through various means, finally getting rescued by the Cat Management Coalition.
The coalition, a group of animal welfare activists and veterinarians, has worked nearly 16 months to sponsor spay and neuter clinics in the Walla Walla area. Using service providers such as Lickety Snip and Neuter Scooter, the partners alter, vaccinate, microchip and tattoo cats, mostly feral but sometimes pets.
Efforts are paying off and today there are fewer cats wandering the Valley, local officials say. And not just at the Neissl house.
• Incoming stray cats to shelter in 2009 - 713.
"Cat complaints are dramatically less," said Sallie McCullough, animal control officer for the city of Walla Walla. "And the people I have worked with over the years, every spring or every other spring, picking up feral cats off their property, a dozen each time" is where she is seeing results, she added. "So far, we haven't seen the kittens yet."
That is perhaps the biggest measuring stick of the "trap, neuter and release approach to cat control," explained Sara Archer, executive director of Blue Mountain Humane Society, when the numbers were released earlier this month. "Part of the reason to push early in spring is to prevent spring litters. We make a real effort early in the year to get ahead of the problem."
• Number of cats fixed by CMC in 2008 - 72; 43 female, 29 male.
The Walla Walla Valley has suffered from an explosion in the feline population for the past several years, leading to the City Council to approve new codes three years ago. Those included bans on feeding unowned animals, leaving pet food outdoors overnight unless it is inaccessible to at-large animals and having more than three cats outside at the same time.
The changes gave McCullough authority to seize cats if she sees more than three of them in close proximity.
In December of 2008, the Cat Management Coalition formed with animal professionals from the Humane Society, Milton-Freewater's Cats Galore and the Save Wonderful Animals Team.
• Number of cats fixed by CMC in 2009 - 598; 333 female, 265 male.
"I think we're all really thrilled with the numbers," Archer said. "We had no specific expectation of impact, and to see it measurable has gotten everyone fired up about the potential that exists."
In May of last year, the CMC was awarded a two-year grant from the Handsel Foundation based in Washington state.
The grant provided two-year funding for the trap, neuter and return program. The goal was to eventually catch, neuter and release 3,000 free-roaming felines to the area they came from. Experts consider this to be the most effective way to reduce homeless cat populations, Archer said at the time.
Cats are lured and trapped the night before a neutering event, then taken to an field hospital-style set up of sedation, surgery and recovery, which allows for high-volume, low-cost neutering.
Overall the public is surprised to learn how well the program is working, Archer said, noting that aside from those participating, few people realize the effectiveness of the CMC. "Now we have these very promising figures ... you look at the number of cats coming into the shelter and it's half."
• Cats euthanized at the animal shelter in 2008 - 1,035; 501 for unweaned or medical reasons, 534 as feral or unadoptable.
All feral cat situations are now referred to the CMC, which creates problems for some of those asking for help from her agency, Archer conceded. "Some people are going to be frustrated and some people are going to get it. We are hoping with these numbers people will recognize the impact."
• Cats euthanized at animal shelter in 2009 - 423; 306 for unweaned or medical necessity, 117 as feral or unadoptable.
So far, private foundation grants have bankrolled the operations, but future funding is uncertain, Archer said. While those bringing cats in are encouraged to help with the costs, it is not required.
Steve Higgins knows first hand how a feral cat situation can quickly grow into a mess. He's lived on two acres south of town for eight years, Higgins said, and his family has always had pets. When a stray cat showed up last spring, it seemed like the right thing to do to put out food and water.
"She was very long-haired, she showed no sign of babies or being pregnant." Then the newcomer kept the babies hid until they were weaned, he remembered. "All of a sudden, instead of one cat, I had her and three small babies."
Higgins didn't mind taking care of four extra cats, he said, "but four can turn into 40."
He had no idea where to turn. A call to Blue Mountain Humane Society led him to the Cat Management Coalition. "They said they would trap them and fix them at, really, no expense to me."
He helped supply the traps with food, then went to bed like a kid at Christmas, "wondering if I would catch any."
To his shock, all four cats had taken the bait and were caged the next morning, waiting for transport to see the veterinarian. Patrick Kennedy with Kennedy Mobile Veterinary Services in Milton-Freewater did the honors.
With that, the rural postal carrier was hooked on the cause, Higgins said. "I'm a responsible human being, I wanted to contribute back somehow."
• Citizen complaints about cats in 2008 - 298. Complaints in 2009 - 120.
So far in 2010, another 150 cats have been neutered or spayed; 77 females and 73 males, Archer said. A Neuter Scooter event is planned for Weston in April.
She, for one, is grateful, Neissl said. With the help of the CMC and the animal control officer, her colony is down to 25. "I couldn't have done it alone. If I had the money I would have gladly helped. But I'm on disability and just don't have it. And it just kept growing."
And now? "No more kittens," she said.
For more information
The CMC phone is answered at any hour by a service and can be reached at 522-5605 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
For details on the April Neuter Scooter event, which will be for pet cats, go to www.neuterscooter.com.