A perfect storm of pandemic-related shutdowns, an already overworked animal care system, and veterinary service shortages makes “kitten season” feel neverending for workers at Pet Pride of New York.
“Usually it’s just March or April to October when we see the most kittens,” explains operations manager Kari LaBounty. “But it’s felt like we haven’t had a break yet.”
“In the past two years, we’ve seen the most homeless cats I’ve ever seen,” agrees Marlies Sullivan, board vice president and director of fundraising.
The all-cat, no-kill shelter based in Victor recently adopted out a full litter of kittens, not the typical situation for the middle of winter. However, Pet Pride was even better prepared than normal with a recently completed $1.2 million expansion of its sanctuary and adoption center.
According to the nonprofit’s most recently available form 990, revenues totaled $227,550 in 2020, including $161,890 from contributions. Expenses were $232,049. Sullivan says a $500,000 donation in 2019 allowed Pet Pride to move forward with expansion plans.
With the capacity expansion, the sanctuary plans to ramp up adoption efforts, and offer more in-house medical procedures and educational outreach.
Pet Pride, which has been in operation since 1977, can now shelter up to 80 cats and kittens at one time. Officials are confident this will let it double the 570 adoptions of cats and kittens they accomplished last year.
With the expansion comes enriched environments and separate apartment spaces in “Kitten Kingdom,” “Catnip Cabana,” and more feline-named rooms. There are five screened-in outdoor “catios” (cat patios) and the open community room is also filled with space for cats to climb and interact.
In fact, Pet Pride’s philosophy is to let space be shared as much as possible. Other than kittens and sick cats, there is a freedom of movement so cats can interact with both other cats and humans.
“We see cats as these individual, loner-type creatures, but they’re actually very social. They need stimulus and activity just like any other animal,” says Sullivan.
“You can see what a cat is like this way. Who they get along with, what their personality is like,” says LaBounty, who often acts as a “cat matchmaker” for people looking to adopt. “So then I can say, ‘If you’re out of the house for work, we should look for a relaxed, maybe older cat who doesn’t need as much attention and likes to sleep.’ ‘If you get kittens, get two so they can entertain each other.’ It’s about making sure everyone is happy.”
One of the improvements the Pet Pride staff is most excited about is an in-house veterinary clinic that will allow for routine medical care and spay/neuter procedures. The shelter already has a veterinary technician on staff and a number of local veterinarians are planning to volunteer on a regular basis.
Having procedures like vaccinations and spaying/neutering on site not only cuts down on stress to the animal, but also alleviates wait times for adoptions. Spaying/neutering is required before a cat can be adopted from Pet Pride and veterinarians’ schedules are tightly booked. Nationally, the American Veterinary Medical Association has noted that after the pandemic hit, demand for vet appointments went up. LaBounty says she has been waiting to adopt out one cat for six weeks due to scheduling delays.
These delays are caused by worker shortages in a field that already sees high rates of turnover. A number of veterinary workers left the profession during the pandemic due to retirements, a need for child care, burnout, or poor compensation.
Since 2013, according to employment data from AVMA, positions filled by companion animal veterinary workers were outpaced by other categories such as food animal or equine veterinarians. Last year, they regained some jobs. A Veterinary Business Advisors survey in 2020 found that part- and full-time technicians reported a salary between $14 and $20 per hour, which even on the higher end is only slightly above what is considered the poverty line for a family of four.
Locally, the only veterinary clinic still with overnight hours closed due to staffing shortages last year, causing pet owners facing a potential emergency to be forced to go as far as Buffalo instead.
While services shrink, the number of animals in need continues to rise. Homeless animals can have an impact on local ecosystems, particularly cats, whose population, when “kitten season” hits in the spring, can explode. And this strain can have real repercussions.
Cat overpopulation can spread disease as animals are forced to eat increasingly inedible things or starve to death, Sullivan says. She recalls encountering a trailer filled with cats that the authorities had alerted Pet Pride to two years ago.
In total, there were 40 cats–“if you count the dead ones,” she says. “Think about that. What that looks like, what that can smell like. They certainly didn’t have a litter box in there.”
However, Pet Pride’s workers also know that cats are resilient creatures and even those coming from horrible situations can bounce back to add love to an adopter’s life. One infamous sanctuary resident, Ninja, stayed with the shelter for 273 days until he found a permanent home.
“He was a great cat, he just snubbed a lot of people, you know? Told them, ‘Hey, you’re not my person.’ It just took the right person to spend a little bit more time getting to know him,” says LaBounty.
Some cats at Pet Pride become residents for life. If the staff determine they cannot be adopted because of their background or temperament, these cats can serve instead as socializers for new arrivals.
The shelter also will accept cats back if an owner who adopted from Pet Pride has a need to surrender their pet. But the facility’s ultimate goal is always that its cats will find a home. Rebecca Lohnes, Pet Pride board member and certified cat behavior consultant, makes sure to have follow-up meetings with adopters to solve issues if they arise.
LaBounty wants to talk to potential adopters within 24 hours of their application to get a sense for what they need. Some express surprise at her quick follow-ups.
“Sometimes people finish their application and I’ll get back to them within the hour. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t think it would be that fast,’ but I’m like, ‘I want to get you in the door. I love that you want to adopt, let’s have a conversation,’” she says. “That’s what we’re all about here.”
While the building expansion is complete, PetPride’s capital campaign is continuing in order to support the larger staff and capacity with donation and naming opportunities.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].