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Shelter's feral cat policy, gas chamber criticized

Records: More than half of cats were euthanized in last two years July 7, 2013 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated July 7, 2013 at 6:00 a.m.
Bart, a mixed breed dog formerly housed at the Jefferson City Animal Shelter, explores the memorial wall at the memorial plaza located next to the animal shelter. In 2011 and 2012, 56 percent of cats that entered the shelter were killed. For dogs, the rate was nearly 20 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2012. (File photo)

For a Jefferson City cat owner, the resignation of a veterinarian over the Jefferson City Animal Shelter's use of a gas chamber to euthanize wildlife and feral cats has taken on a more personal meaning.

In December, Linda Laucks' cat, Stella, was incorrectly deemed feral and killed in the gas chamber at JCAS.

The cat had turned up missing in Laucks' neighborhood near Jefferson City Medical Group. Laucks was told that a neighbor was trying to catch two feral cats in a trap because the neighbor was afraid the cats would starve or freeze in the winter weather.

The neighbor caught Laucks' cat in the trap.

"When the animal control officer came, she told him that the cat was not one of the cats she was trying to catch and that it looked like one of the neighbor's cats," Laucks said. "In essence, what happened was, the animal control officer took her (Stella) to the shelter, and supposedly waved a wand to see if she had a microchip, which she didn't.

"They deemed her feral and then a half-hour later put her in a CO2 tank and killed her."

Laucks said the next day she spoke with an animal control officer who was picking up another trapped cat in the neighborhood. She asked him if he could bring the cat by her house because hers had been missing.

"He brought the cat by, and it was not her," Laucks said. "It was one of the cats she (my neighbor) was trying to catch."

Laucks then filed a report for her missing cat at JCAS that morning. She asked shelter director Karen Jennings if the shelter had taken in a black cat. Laucks said Jennings told her that they hadn't had a black cat come in.

"I scouted out who the neighbor was that caught the cats and asked if she had seen mine," Laucks said. "She said, "Oh Linda, yesterday afternoon around three o'clock, she was in that trap.'"

The neighbor told Laucks that she had told the animal control officer that the cat belonged to a neighbor, but that he took the cat anyway.

Laucks said she then called the shelter back and said she wanted to come get her cat because she knew Stella was one that was caught in the trap.

"They put me on hold for about three to five minutes, and the girl came back on and said, "Well, we did have her, but we don't have her anymore,'" Laucks said.

The girl told Laucks that her cat had been euthanized in the gas chamber about a half-hour after the cat was brought to the shelter.

Laucks was incredulous because her cat had only been missing 12 hours and had already been euthanized.

She said she went to claim Stella at the shelter, and the feline was unrecognizable to her.

"Foam was coming out of her mouth and her claws were protruded," Laucks said. "It looked like her head was bent in towards her chest."

Laucks' goal is to get the feral cat and gas chamber policy changed at the shelter.

"This whole thing is not about me, it's not about my cat," Laucks said. "That's over. Done. It's about what happens in the future to other peoples' pets.

"It's not right."

Jefferson City does have a leash law that pertains to dogs and cats that are not on their owners' property. Every animal that leaves its owners' property must be on a leash. The only exceptions are at the North Jefferson City Dog Park.

Kill rates at JCAS

More than half of the cats collected the past two years at the animal shelter have been euthanized, according to city records.

The kill rate, or percentage of animals euthanized, differs greatly for dogs and cats at JCAS. The kill rate is figured by dividing the number of animals euthanized by the number of animals taken in.

For 2011 and 2012, the kill rate for cats at the shelter was 56 percent. The kill rate for dogs was nearly 20 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2012.

The kill rate for dogs and cats combined in 2011 was nearly 37 percent and 35 percent in 2012.

"They (cats) are just more susceptible to more disease than what the dogs are," Jennings said.

She said many of the cats killed are feral cats, which are domesticated cats that are born in the wild.

In 2011 and 2012, 423 of the 1,540 euthanized animals were feral. Most, if not all, were cats.

"I think in my time here, we've caught about three feral dogs," Jennings said.

Wildlife and feral cats are euthanized in the gas chamber.

Jennings said it's important to note that the 2011 and some of the 2012 statistics are from when the shelter was at its previous location on East Miller Street. The shelter moved to its current building at 2308 Hyde Park Road in 2012.

The new shelter has a ventilation system that is meant to prevent disease.

"It takes the air from the front of the cage to the back and then up through the ventilation system," Jennings said. "In the old building, there was just a metal cage, so if a cat sneezed, it went out the front of the cage and spread throughout the room.

"It was a bad setup," she said.

As of May 31 of this year, the kill rates for 2013 were less than 2011 and 2012. For the five months, the kill rate for cats at the shelter was nearly 32 percent, the kill rate for dogs was nearly 12 percent and the kill rate for dogs and cats combined was nearly 21 percent.

Wildlife procedures

Wildlife is also euthanized in the gas chamber at JCAS.

Lt. Randy Dampf said if someone calls the shelter about a wild animal that's in their yard or house, animal control has traps to catch the animal. If an animal is caught in one of the traps, the property owner may call animal control officers to come pick it up.

"At some point, the animal is euthanized and that generally takes care of the problem," Dampf said. There have been times where individuals have called pest control companies for extermination or trap and release type things.

"I know that happens, too."

The Missouri Department of Conservation also takes care of wildlife calls.

Rex Martensen, supervisor of the department's wildlife damage control program, said when a nuisance wildlife complaint comes in, the department first tries to get an idea of the scope of the problem.

"Our first line of approach is to give advice on deterrent measures," Martensen said. "What is the reason the animal is coming up there?"

He said the next step is to talk about harassment techniques.

"If it's coming up in your yard, wild animals are by nature kind of scared of people," he said. "But, they learn what they can get by with and they'll get a little bit braver in urban settings because they usually don't get hassled much and they're not getting shot at.

"Our job then is to make them afraid."

Martensen said the department might advise people to throw rocks at the animals, spray them with a garden hose, make loud noises, or bang pots together to scare and harass them a bit.

"We deal a lot with how to live with the wildlife, and how to discourage wildlife from becoming a problem in that type of setting."

If it comes to the point when nothing is working to frighten the wildlife and when the wildlife is starting to impose damage on property, Martensen said it's time to talk about removal.

He said there are two approved techniques that are legal for a property owner - to shoot the animal or to trap the animal.

Missouri wildlife code allows property owners to protect their property from damage occurring from wildlife and they can do that in most cases. Exceptions include animals such as deer, turkey, mountain lions and any endangered species or migratory birds.

"So all your common animals - raccoons, possums, groundhogs, skunks, squirrels - land owners can shoot or trap without prior permission," Martensen said.

He said when it gets to the point when the animal must go and the property owner lives outside of city limits, the owner may shoot it, as long as it's safe to do so. If it's not safe or the owner lives inside city limits, then trapping is an option.

The department recommends cage traps, which Martensen said allow the animals to be captured alive.

He said the department works through the logistics of trapping with the property owners.

"We're big on targeting the problem animal, capturing that animal and removing it," he said.

He said that after the animal is trapped, releasing it is an option, but it must be released at least 10 miles away.

"We prefer that people euthanize them, because a lot of times when they're released, they often don't do well and they typically end up dying anyway," he said.

He said euthanization is usually in the best option for the animal.

"We understand it's a sensitive issue, and we realize people don't take well to that," Martensen said. "But, when you explain some of the problems with relocation, people typically understand."

City looking to hire veterinarian

Dr. Corey McCann will fill in as veterinarian at the shelter starting this week, until someone is hired full time.

The position became vacant June 27 when Dr. Amanda Dykstra was released early from her month's notice.

The departure of Dykstra, who resigned from the shelter June 14, was due in part to her concern involving the use of a gas chamber to euthanize wildlife and feral cats.

When asked about Dykstra's resignation, City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus said it appeared to be just a normal, routine resignation.

"There certainly were some personality issues that were going on there, but she took another job in St. Charles, and we're very happy for her, and we'll try to find a replacement."

Nickolaus said that in the past week, he has had some inquiries from council members regarding the shelter and the use of the gas chamber. Residents have contacted their council members and voiced their concerns about the well-being of the animals.

The gas chamber was taken out of the shelter in mid-June and wasn't used for euthanizations, but it is now back due to the departure of Dykstra.

Under Missouri statute, the use of a gas chamber as a euthanasia method is legal.

State law defines humane killing as "the destruction of an animal accomplished by a method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association's Panel on Euthanasia." The American Veterinary Medical Association defines three mechanisms for euthanasia - direct depression of neurons necessary for life function, hypoxia and physical disruption of brain activity. The gas chamber includes hypoxia, which is exposing animals to high concentrations of gases that displace oxygen.

Dykstra had submitted a proposal regarding the JCAS's gas chamber to Lt. Randy Dampf, interim support services commander with the Jefferson City Police Department, and to shelter director Karen Jennings on June 5. The proposal was a cost analysis of everything regarding the use of the shelter gas chamber on wildlife and feral cats. She found that not using the gas chamber and not taking in wildlife would save the city money.

Several days later, the gas chamber was removed.

Dampf said the gas chamber was brought back after Dykstra's departure last week, because JCAS staff needed a way to euthanize wildlife and feral cats. No other dogs and cats have been euthanized since Dykstra's departure.

Management of JCAS

Dampf said the Jefferson City Police Department took control of the animal shelter about two years ago and the shelter was previously under the code enforcement of the city.

The shelter operation is overseen by the support services division of the police department.

"It would typically be (overseen by) a captain, but since Capt. Bob Cynova retired, I'm filling in until they have a promotional process," Dampf said.

The shelter manager, Karen Jennings, is next in command underneath Dampf and then the shelter veterinarian.

"The shelter manager basically manages the operation of the shelter," Dampf said. "The veterinarian manages the medical side. That's kind of how the operation works."

An advisory board composed of three independent veterinarians also meets periodically to discuss and advise shelter operations.

The veterinarians include Dr. Gregory Popp with Weathered Rock Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Jim Crago with Crago Jim DVM and Dr. Gregory Boyer with the Animal Medical Center.

Animal shelter statistics

2011 / 2012 / 2013

(Data was only available for the first five months of 2013)

Dogs at the JCAS

Collected 1,150 1,159 434

Adopted 558 620 226

Redeemed* 341 350 135

Died 5 2 1

Stolen 0 0 0

Euthanized 229 204 51

Kill rate 19.9% 17.6% 11.8 %

Cats at the JCAS

Collected 1,003 959 355

Adopted 425 382 129

Redeemed* 20 35 15

Died 3 8 5

Stolen 3 0 0

Euthanized 562 545 112

Kill rate 56% 56.8% 31.5%

*Redeemed animals are those reclaimed by their owners


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