Published August 26th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Felines of all different shapes and sizes slink out from the shadows, their eyes shining like lanterns as the sun sets over a college town. As night falls, they creep out from underneath houses, dumpsters and ditches.
No, this is not the opening scene of “Cats,” this is the reality of Ming Street in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Tammy Roberts, vice president of Warrensburg Cat Advocates (WCA), comes out here just about every day to check on the cats. Her mission is to trap, neuter and return these cats to the wild. The process is known as “TNR.” WCA has successfully done this to more than 250 cats in Johnson County, Missouri, so far in 2020.
“When you take a feral cat to a shelter, it’s like trying to tame a wild animal,” Roberts said. “Feral cats are wild animals that will never be able to be pets. It’s best to trap them and fix them so they cannot spread.”
Now Warrensburg faces more than just a stray problem, the Old Drum Animal Shelter is at risk of closing as well.
On August 24, about 50 citizens, and their pets, lined the street next to the city’s municipal building with signs that read “S.O.S.: Save Our Shelter.” They were protesting the first reading of proposed budget cuts that would close the shelter and other positions in the organization. Thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has to cut around half a million dollars to make the budget work.
The animal shelter is named after historic Old Drum, a dog whose killing led to an 1870 court case, in which the owner won $50 in damages. Old Drum is commemorated by a statue outside of the Johnson County Courthouse.
“It’s not an easy decision,” Warrensburg City Manager Harold Stewart said. “My personal experience is anytime a government talks about making cuts, as soon as you identify one area, there’s a group that comes forward in support of that. So if we never cut something that people come out and support, we never cut anything, and that doesn’t fix the financial issues.”
There are concerns from those like Roberts that the shut down of the animal shelter could cause the problem with strays in the community to get worse.
“As of right now we have zero stray dog problems,” Roberts said. “If there is a dog roaming around, animal control or someone in the community figures out where it should go. Without the shelter we could see dogs going around and roaming through trash and looking for fights.”
There may not be a dog problem in Warrensburg, but outside of the community, dogs are often dropped off when their owners cannot take care of them.
Deborah Novak, a Warrensburg citizen who works for Axion, an IT company in town, says that she has routinely taken care of dogs left outside of the city.
“At one point we had 28 dogs, and only two of them were ours,” Novak said. “We would feed them and try to find homes for them.”
Besides advocating against the closure of the shelter, WCA is working to start a low-cost spay and neuter clinic in Warrensburg. Currently, they need to take animals to be spay and neutered to clinics in Columbia and Sedalia.
About an hour northwest of Warrensburg, Kansas City, Kansas, is having a similar problem. Their feral cat population has gotten out of control.
“There are colonies of them, people will feed them,” said Kate Fields, president and CEO of the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City. “And they keep breeding, and breeding, and breeding.”
Animals have been able to breed more during the pandemic, because medical gear typically used to conduct spay and neuter surgeries were needed for human medical services during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. This left a window open for feral cats to breed, and the population to boom out of control.
Most times these cats aren’t in the best shape. They are territorial creatures who can carry diseases. Fields said that the humane society just picked up seven kittens that were maggot-filled and starving. She doesn’t know if they will survive.
To compound that problem, funding is an issue amid a public health and economic crisis. Fields says animal control is short of staff because of coronavirus. The humane society has been helped by the PPP payments from the government.
But the animal rescue business can be a brutal one, and looking after people has taken priority over looking after animals.
“We have got a chicken, kittens that were dying, a dog that came in and blew it’s eyeball out,” Fields said. “That’s hard enough, and now you are dealing with a pandemic. We still have to take care of people’s pets, but we also have to take care of our people.”
Pet rescue teams see the brutality of neglected animals nearly every day. On a day when the temperature reached 91 degrees, The Rescue Project, a KCK-based animal rescue team, provided water to a pair of puppies who were kept on short leashes, with no shade, and nothing to drink.
The team made three stops including face-to-face contact with animal owners, or neighbors of homes with neglected animals. None of the people they encountered wore face masks.
Seeing people in person so they can educate them on proper animal care is a big part of the job for a rescue team.
“People want to do the right thing, but there is a lack of education and funding,” said Andrea Knobbe, director of outreach for The Rescue Project.
The Rescue Project has noted a surge in feral cat populations as well. They also see a lot of puppies born out of unwanted pregnancies between stray and domesticated dogs.
“There are dogs running around everywhere that aren’t fixed, so it’s bound to happen,” said Rebecca Taylor, a volunteer with The Rescue Project.
A study by CNBC showed that 48% of Missouri households will be at risk of eviction in August. Oftentimes when someone is evicted, they can no longer look after their pet. That has led to a flood of pets being brought to animal shelters in Kansas City.
In July the KC Pet Project received a record high 1,100 pets. Now they are getting around 30-50 animals brought in a day.
“We are seeing the most increases right now in owner relinquishment due to housing and financial issues,” said Tori Fugate, chief communications officer for KC Pet Project. “So we are seeing tons of pets coming in that are from people who are moving, and they can’t find housing for their pets. They’re losing their homes, and moving into a home with somebody who already has animals, and they can’t have that many.”
Fugate said that the increase is more than 50%.
Last month they sent about 600 cats into foster homes. They also took 60 cats from an apartment in the city, all of which were feral.
The good news is able people are stepping up to help out shelters. Both Fugate and Fields said that they have seen an increase in fosters and adoptions. Fields noted that they are seeing an increase in “failed fosters,” which results in the foster parent taking full ownership of the animal.
Coincidentally, August 26 marks National Dog Day. According to a survey by National Today, Missouri ranks 8th among the top-10 dog loving states. As the pandemic rages on, and shelters continue to be overwhelmed by relinquished and stray pets, locals can prove they love their animals by adopting, donating to or volunteering at their local animal shelter.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.