Last Hope running out of time to reach permit quota

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 14, 2014 

An Atwater animal rescue has two days to get rid of more than 15 cats in order to comply with Merced County’s revised guidelines for its permit, county officials said this week.

Last Hope Cat Kingdom must have no more than 40 cats by Monday, said Planning Director Mark Hendrickson. On Friday morning, Hendrickson said, the rescue reported having about 57 cats.

The rescue was placed under strict restrictions after the discovery of hundreds of sick and dying animals at the site last June. The county considered revoking Last Hope’s permit at the request of Animal Control, but the hearing officer in January instead decided to modify it to allow just 40 cats and no dogs.

The rescue was once allowed to have 125 cats, but officials said they found more than 400 at the site in June. Animal Control officials seized 295 cats and six dogs and euthanized 200 cats they said were “too sick to survive.”

Hendrickson, whoserved as the hearing officer in the case, said the rescue has complied with the county’s new guidelines for its permit, which included regularly reporting the number of animals on site.

“We’re very pleased with the progress that’s been made following the hearing officer’s decision,” Hendrickson said. “They (Last Hope) have been complying each week with their report, and the facility is in a much cleaner state than it was before.”

In addition to weekly reports, Hendrickson said code enforcement officers have made two visits to the facility and its volunteers and staff are working with a licensed veterinarian.

Hendrickson said about four dogs remained on site Friday. Last Hope volunteers said the dogs would go to new homes over the weekend and the remaining cats will be adopted.

“We’re expecting some people to come in and adopt this weekend and there are a bunch of cats that will be relocated,” said Pam Moody, a Last Hope volunteer. Moody said Last Hope worked with rescues in the Bay Area, Fresno and Sonoma over the past few weeks to place the animals.

However, one challenge Last Hope still faces is a large population of feral cats that volunteers say continue to roam the grounds.

“There are a lot of feral cats that don’t necessarily belong to Last Hope,” said Amanda Hage, a Last Hope volunteer. “They have a knack for climbing over the fence. We’ll do a count one day and it’s one number, and the next day it’s a different number.”

Hendrickson said all the cats on site will be counted as part of the 40 total, whether they are feral or not.

In a county that faces an overpopulation of unwanted pets and euthanizes scores of animals each year, experts say spaying and neutering feral cats and dogs is an important step.

Programs such as Trap-Neuter-Return, also known as TNR, encourage volunteers to trap feral animals, get them neutered or spayed and then return them back into the wild.

“(TNR) has worked when well-managed because it provides a humane alternative to death while also reducing the number of outdoor cats over time through attrition by preventing additional births,” said Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “The primary solution to reducing cat populations lies in educational outreach and greater accessibility to affordable spay and neuter services.”

Merced County offers a low-cost spay and neuter program, but it doesn’t include feral cats or dogs. Rick Blackwell, Merced County’s animal services manager, declined to answer questions about why ferals aren’t included in the program and referred inquires to county spokesman Mike North.

“We can only do so much with the resources that we have,” North said. “If funds were unlimited, a program like that would be fantastic, but it’s just a matter or prioritizing the funds. The money was limited and it was focused on citizens and their animals.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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