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Cat debate: Calgary cites licensing, education for drop in strays

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Calgary animal-control officials say public education and pet licences in that city helped increase the number of lost cats returned to their owners.

Calgary's pet bylaw was held up as a model by Winnipeg animal-welfare advocates and city officials when the city started to review its own pet bylaw amid concern pet shelters could barely keep up with the influx of cats.

Last week, council's protection and community services committee decided to consult further on a proposed overhaul of the pet bylaw after backlash from animal shelters claiming the plan to license cats will not solve Winnipeg's cat-overpopulation problem.

A recent city report recommended Winnipeg enact a cat-licensing regulation requiring pet owners to purchase an annual licence at a cost of $15 if the animal is spayed or neutered, or $50 if it is not. The net profit from the fees -- an estimated $21,000 after administrative costs if 5,000 cats are licensed in 2014 -- would go to the Winnipeg Humane Society or partner organizations to expand spay-and-neuter programs. The city's largest animal shelters said the proposed regulations do not devote enough resources to spay-and-neuter programs. They said cities such as Calgary perform 10,000 free spay-and-neuter surgeries a year with the revenue from licensing programs.

Calgary's animal services branch said it spays and neuters several hundred animals a year for free -- a combined total of 611 cats and dogs in 2012 -- and has has an increase in the number of cats adopted or claimed by owners due to a focus on public education and licensing. Calgary charges a $15 licence fee if cats are spayed and neutered, $30 if they're not.

Tara Lowes, manager of administration and shelters for the City of Calgary's animal services branch, said that city passed a cat-licensing bylaw in 2006 due to the number of cats roaming the city and inundating local shelters.

Many times, Lowes said, staff could not identify the animals due to illegible tattoos and returned only about two cats to their owners every year.

Calgary gave residents a six-month window to license their cat for free, followed by a six-month grace period in which bylaw officers would not penalize non-compliant cat owners with a $250 fine. Public education and outreach were a big focus, Lowes said, and Calgary has three full-time public-education officers who speak to the community and schools on animal safety and the benefits of cat licences.

Since 2008, Lowes said, 50,000 cats have been licensed, roughly half Calgary's estimated cat population. She said 72 per cent of the cats animal services handled last year have been returned to their owner or adopted out, up from about 60 per cent in 2006.

She said the program has been successful despite a simultaneous rise in the number of cats turned over to animal services. In 2012, the City of Calgary took in 1,070 cats, up from 725 in 2006. Lowes attributed the increase to Calgary's growing population.

Part of the proceeds from Calgary's licensing program now goes toward free spay-and-neuter services for low-income pet owners who qualify for assistance, Lowes said.

Calgary also allows citizens to borrow humane traps to catch cats roaming free in their neighbourhood, which she said has prompted more residents to keep their cat indoors.

Other cities, including Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton, charge between $5 and $20 a year to license sterilized cats.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 B1

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