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Casey Christie / The Californian

Californian columnist Lois Henry

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A feral cat looks through the brush upon hiding in the bushes in Hart Park.

This is my favorite kind of story because I get to say: "See? Told you so!"

About a month ago I said there was no need to FREAK OUT because the Kern County Animal Control shelter was changing how it handles feral cats.

Well, a month has gone by and not only did the sky not fall, but things are progressing toward a much more humane and practical approach to this one, nagging shelter issue.

If things continue moving forward, it could free up money and staff time to address even bigger shelter issues. Not to mention provide the community with a far better feral cat service.

Here's the story:

The shelter typically takes in about 1,200 feral cats a year.

And 100 percent of those are killed every year. That's because ferals are considered unadoptable.

A very rough guesstimate put the cost to house, feed, care for and kill those cats at about $120,000 a year.

Considering experts say the overall Kern County feral cat population is about 140,000, the shelter was providing an expensive and totally ineffective extermination service.

A nonsensical waste of money.

Animal Control Director Jen Woodard announced in June the shelter would limit its intake of feral cats starting July 1.

Instead of taking all comers, the shelter is trying to take ferals only on certain days and only with an appointment.

That's to facilitate a trap, neuter and release (TNR) program under which the shelter veterinarian alters the feral cats and either residents or shelter staff release them back to their original territory. The cats are also vaccinated and their ears are notched to note that they've been fixed.

Woodard has much bigger plans and is working with several organizations to get those plans rolling.

But first let's look at how the Bakersfield shelter did in the month of July with just its own staffers and one shelter vet. (The Mojave and Lake Isabella shelters haven't yet started TNR programs.)

Of the 94 ferals brought in, 67 went though the TNR program to be released alive.

One cat went to rescue and, unfortunately, 19 ferals escaped before they could be altered. That's a function of the makeshift space the shelter has had to use to house them and Woodard said staffers are working to make it more secure.

Compare that with numbers from last July: 221 ferals came to the shelter and 221 were killed.

Even with the escapes, I'd say this July was an improvement.

I know one month isn't enough to brand the program a success or failure and the numbers are small. But at least they're trending positive.

Barbara Hays, founder of The Cat People, was one of the many people concerned about how the new feral cat policies would work when Woodard first announced the changes.

She has since become much more encouraged as Woodard has reached out to her group and others in the community to form a coalition to make the program stronger.

"I still have some reservations," Hays told me. "But anything's better than a 100 percent kill rate."

Hays' organization has been maintaining the massive cat colony at Hart Park for years and has been working with the shelter to trap, neuter and release as many cats as it can get its hands on.

Woodard has started bi-weekly meetings with Hays and others in hopes they can provide a much-needed volunteer component to the fledgling TNR program.

The idea is that people could bring the cats to the shelter, which would fix them, then the volunteer group would take them back to their original territory.

"So the shelter would never house them," Woodard said.

In a later phase, she envisions the volunteer organization participating in mass trapping events in neighborhoods or business areas with large cat colonies. Volunteers would alert neighbors of the impending trapping so no house cats were caught, do the trapping and transport the animals to and from being altered.

Woodard also hopes to expand places people can take ferals to be altered.

To that end, she has met with Critters Without Litters, Bakersfield's low-cost, high volume spay/neuter clinic and they've all but signed on the dotted line.

The county will pay Critter's $55 per feral fee and send folks with multiple cats (typically trappers or colony caretakers) straight to Critters.

Vicky Thrasher, executive director of Critters, said it agreed to set aside one day a week to take up to 20 feral cats from the shelter.

"We're just waiting to hear back from her (Woodard) to pin down which day is best and get a start date," Thrasher said. "We're very open to it, and there's a need for it."

Not everyone is happy with the new program. Some professional trappers, in particular, have told Woodard this will "force them to kill the cats," she said.

But other trappers have adjusted.

Konni Ellen, who runs Bakersfield Cat Control, said she supports TNR and has adjusted her business accordingly.

It hasn't been easy. Some customers cancel when told she will return the altered animals. And it's a strain on her gas budget.

But she's glad some movement is being made.

"There were situations that weren't being dealt with by Animal Control for years and animals were suffering," she said. "Something had to be done. And I feel better about TNR,."

Ellen worked with Fix Nation in Burbank in 2010, which fixed ferals for free and had a strong educational program.

She hopes Kern can emulate Burbank's experience.

So do I, but as The Cat People's Hays cautioned, "It's going to take a lot of work to get there."

Hey, a little hard work never hurt anyone, right?

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednes days and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com