On a visit last week, the shelter's 25 display cages in the lobby were packed. Another 38 cats in the back had been evaluated and were waiting for one of those display cages to open up. An additional 37 cats, largely moms and their kittens, were being nursed in foster homes temporarily and will be back in the next few months to join in the competition for those same 25 cages in the lobby.
"You think this is bad, come back in two months," says spokeswoman Kay Hyman.
The standard $95 charge for adoptions doesn't even cover the cost for spay or neuter service, disease testing, and the temporary shelter and care of the cats. But the situation has gotten so severe that, from May 1-3, the animal society will be offering all cats that are more than a year old for free.
The waiting cats fill boxes and boxes in back rooms of the shelter, crying out every time you open a door. Most of the cats have cards describing how they got to the shelter (typically either picked up by animal control or turned over by an owner or someone who found them). They've also been assessed for adoption, with color-coded index cards that describe their temperament. The cards make the cats easier to match with a prospective owner's needs.
On a recent tour through the shelter, we spot one card hanging outside of a cage that marked the cat for euthanasia. An earlier note on the other side of the card reads, "Let Chill." It means the cat was difficult to handle when it first arrived, likely from animal control. Case workers try again after a few days to see if the cat is adoptable (strays are put on a mandatory five-day hold). If the animal still isn't cooperative, euthanasia is the only option for many cats
"During the winter months, when we had the space, 'Let Chill' could have meant another few days," Hyman says. "But cage space is at a premium — we don't have the luxury."
When the shelter is at capacity, serious health problems or any kind of behavioral issue — not going in the litter box, impossible to assess for adoption — can put the animals in line for euthanasia.
"That's our reality," Hyman says.
Beating the Odds
Walking past cages as cats stare out at us, Hyman points at different cats and assesses their odds. There are good signs: "He's a good breed of cat" or "She's got a good temperament."
And then there are bad signs. We pass by a black cat and, though not superstitious, Hyman shivers.
"It does affect people's perception of what they're looking for," she says. "I love black cats, but people have a lot of problems with them."
Age is also a big factor. We walk past a cat at the ripe old age of seven.
"For us, that's not old at all. Cats live 21 years," she says. "But a seven-year-old can be tough to adopt."
Hootie, an eight-year-old orange tabby, beat the odds. Hootie was given up because the owner was sick and couldn't take care of him. Michael Budney adopted the cat after his girlfriend fell in love with the animal.
"I was just looking for a cat with a lot of personality," Budney says. "I just wanted a big ol' fat cat."
Attitude is a big factor, particularly with the tight space. Myles, an animal labeled "Let Chill" when he first arrived in late March, needed a few days to adjust. When he did, workers found that he had a microchip with owner information. Myles' owners never came and couldn't be tracked down.
"That just blows my mind," Hyman says. "Even if we know that they own them, they won't return calls or their number has changed."
Less than 3 percent of the cats that come into the shelter end up back with their owner. Myles found a slot with a rescue program that will keep him, noting his antisocial tendencies currently make him unadoptable.
Love, a furry black cat that was blind in one eye and somewhere north of 10 years old, did make it home. She'd been picked up by animal control in North Charleston and held for a few days before her owner, Elizabeth, came to the shelter as a last resort.
"I love how she gives me kisses," Elizabeth said when reunited with her cat.
As Love crawled up her neck, Elizabeth looked around the room full of cats.
"I wish I could take all of them home," she said.
Considering her condition, Love would have been a real challenge to place in a new home. Candy on the other hand was an easy sell.
We first met the small kitten on the operating table, preparing to be spayed. By the time the staff had gotten to Candy, the vet had done 27 animals that day. Some days they can nearly double that number. Of the animal shelter's many missions, this may be the most important.
"That's the only way to stop this," Hyman says. "If she was still on the streets, in two months, she'd be breeding."
Candy had been brought in with her brother by someone who claimed not to be the owner (sometimes owners lie to avoid a stigma and the shelter's request for a small donation). Her brother, who was never named, was euthanised when a rare inoperable hernia was found during neutering.
A curious, friendly kitten, Candy went quickly to a Mt. Pleasant home just days after landing a display cage. While kittens are easier to place, they have their own challenges in breeding seasons when they have to compete with each other for a limited number of homes.
Like Hottie, Little Man had a few years on him. A mostly white cat with a splash of orange, Little Man had been adopted out by the animal society, but was given up when his owner had to move and her new roommate was allergic. When we visited, he was next in line for a display cage, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't having fun in the back room.
In the mornings, shelter workers would arrive and find that he'd gotten out of his box (not an easy task) and would climb on top of a bird cage, teasing a homing pigeon that was hanging out at the shelter until its wing mended. Little Man was taken in by the same rescue as Myles. They'd already adopted Little Man out, but he was returned because he didn't work well with small children. The rescue is still looking for a home.
Little Man and Myles certainly could have ended up heading out the back door. In 2008, only 16 of the 3,000 adult cats the animal shelter took in were taken in by rescues. This year, the shelter hired a coordinator to get animals that are not adoptable into rescues.
"Getting them out the front door is our number one goal," says Jim Bush, the Charleston Animal Society's executive director. "These are healthy, adoptable animals that we have to put down."
Bush and the animal society are hoping for a lot of happy endings this weekend: "The outcome we're hoping for is that these adult cats will get in homes that will keep them for a lifetime."