Amy Kee plays with kittens that were rescued after being given out in a box at Walmart in Ontario. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)
As Covid cases in Malheur County continue to rise, volunteers at Ontario’s Feral Cat Project worry they will hit another round of roadblocks in their mission to reduce feral cat overpopulation and give cats permanent homes.
The project, started in 2009, has run into obstacles throughout the pandemic, including a smaller staff, fewer donations and reduced access to veterinary clinics.
Cathy Rohrer, a Cat Project volunteer and board member, said many of the project’s volunteers are older individuals who are particularly at risk of catching Covid. Because of that, many volunteers had to temporarily step back, leaving the project short of help.
“The people that we still have working have taken on extra shifts,” said Rohrer. “There are some that are there every single day. And that’s a big job.”
Two of the volunteers have stepped away, leaving about 16, said Cat Project volunteer Amy Kee. She said the project was already in need of volunteers before the pandemic, but for safety reasons, they haven’t been recruiting new volunteers.
The project uses the trap-neuter-return process, or TNR, which uses humane traps to bring feral cats to a veterinarian so they can be vaccinated and spayed or neutered, according to the non-profit’s website. Sociable feral cats and kittens are then put up for adoption and temporarily housed at its Constance McCullough House. When the house runs out of space, volunteers look for foster homes or send the cats to other adoption agencies.
But Rohrer said when Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order in March limiting elective procedures due to Covid — which included veterinary procedures — the project couldn’t take feral cats in to be neutered or spayed and vaccinated. Those procedures are necessary before cats can be adopted or sent to other agencies.
When the project can’t take the cats for veterinary care, “the cat population increases outdoors and then our adoptables stay in the building or in foster care longer,” said Rohrer.
Because of the short staff and less space in its shelter, Rohrer said they have had to turn cats away since Covid hit.
“That is very hard,” said Rohrer. “We know that the cats are going to be tossed outside and not cared for. And we just have to hope that that’s not happening because we can’t take in every single cat when there’s nowhere for them.”
Kee said turning cats away has been “heartbreaking,” and since the shelter is no-kill, cats stay with them for as long as it takes for them to be adopted, leaving the project already susceptible to being full.
“We want to save them all,” said Kee. “We want to be able to help them all, but we’re just a small project.”
Further, the building housing the cats is small, Kee said, and kitten season during the spring and summer months began at the same time as the Covid pandemic set in.
“We’re already almost maxed out and then you hit kitten season and then Covid hits where the vets could do emergencies only,” said Kee. “Our vets are very backlogged right now, and so they’re just not able to take as many of the OFCP kitties that they normally would have been able to take.”
However, the governor allowed the resumption of elective procedures in May, according to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association. While the procedures are resumed for now, Rohrer said they are worried elective procedures will be restricted again as Covid cases increase nationwide.
The organization has also had to cancel its Saturday adoption events. For now, adoptions are by appointment during the day.
And now adoptions are back to usual levels – about one to five a week.
“I was expecting it to be greatly reduced, and it doesn’t seem like it’s slowed down a lot,” said Rohrer.
As a non-profit that runs entirely with donations, the project for a time ran into another issue from Covid — less money being contributed because of community layoffs, furloughs and a sinking economy, Rohrer said.
One of its big fundraising events, its May yard sale, was postponed.
“For the most part, residents are uncertain during this uncertain time,” said Kee. “I mean, some people still aren’t working, so we just feel bad to ask for donations of this or that.”
But donations picked back up quickly, Rohrer said, especially with its sponsor program. Donors pick a cat posted on the Cat Project’s Facebook page to sponsor for $100.
One of the volunteers is also raising money by making masks for individuals in exchange for a $10 donation, Kee said, which has been “going pretty good.”
But Kee said supporters usually respond when a particular need arises.
“We put out a plea that we need something, and they come to our rescue every single time,” said Kee.
When the shelter needed more kitten milk replacement, Kee posted on the project’s Facebook page asking for help. Donors reacted quickly.
“I mean, just boxes after boxes of KMR,” said Kee. “And someone at one of the vet clinics said something like, ‘We haven’t been able to get any KMR. It’s all on backorder,’ and I said, ‘I know why. We got it all.’”
She said volunteers often dip into their own pockets to cover needs.
“We’re all doing this out of our love for cats,” said Kee. “So they’re helping the project, they’re helping the cats, but they’re also helping the volunteers out by giving the donations.”
News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]
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