Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Overflowing with furry friends

City could license cats in attempt to ease burden at animal shelters

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A black Labrador retriever cowers in the corner of his cage as deafening howls erupt from neighbouring kennels filled with homeless Rottweilers, Mastiffs and shepherds.

Here at the City of Winnipeg's dog pound, there are rows and rows of dogs with one thing in common: Most of them are not licensed and they have not been spayed and neutered. Animal shelters have been struggling to keep up with the number of stray and unwanted pets and experts say the crux of the problem is too many cats and dog are not fixed. The city's animal services agency has not been able to fund more low-cost spay and neuter programs, officials say, since for many decades most owners did not pay the annual fee to license their dog.

The City of Winnipeg is currently drafting a new responsible pet owner bylaw, to be released next year, and will consider licensing cats to boost revenue to fund more ways to control the budding pet population. But even with tougher laws and a crackdown on scofflaws, animal control officials say they won't get a handle on the problem until owners take part in the simplest solution: spay and neuter their pet.

"You can make all the laws in the world, but you can't force someone to be a responsible pet owner," said Leland Gordon, chief operating officer of Winnipeg's animal services agency.

He said Winnipeg is the only major city in Canada that does not license cats.

Stray dogs that are picked up by animal control officers are sent to the city's Logan Avenue facility where they are kennelled. If they have a licence, they can be easily returned to their owners. In the absence of any ID, however, the canines are held for five days and then become property of the city and can be adopted to new homes. The city does not keep statistics on where animal control officers pick up strays, but animal services has held five dog sales this year after repeated influxes of dogs filled kennels to capacity.

Dogs with serious behavioural problems are held in quarantine, and a portion of them -- about 100 every year -- are destroyed.

Cat overpopulation is an even bigger problem, and some estimate there could be upwards of 50,000 stray and feral felines roaming city streets. The Winnipeg Humane Society was forced to euthanize 22 per cent more cats last year due to the rising number of homeless felines. Some groups have tried small-scale trap, spay and neuter and release programs to try and curb the ballooning number of cats.

Earlier this year, the problem prompted animal welfare groups to urge council's protection and community services committee to revamp their current animal control bylaws. Winnipeg bylaws allow residents to keep three cats or three dogs in their home, and anyone who wants to keep more animals must apply for a special permit.

Activists told the committee Winnipeg should model its laws after Calgary, where there are no limits on the number of pets per household as long as residents prove to be responsible owners. Others suggested pets should not be sold in stores, since there is no way to track whether they came from reputable breeders and there are enough strays and unwanted animals in need of homes.

Winnipeg Pet Rescue director Carla Martinelli said many pet owners do not know what they're getting into when they bring an animal home. She said people routinely drop animals off at the shelter and say they don't have time to care for it or the cost of care is too expensive. Martinelli said many people can't afford to spend upwards of $150 to sterilize their pet.

Other times, she said people have moved into personal care homes or apartments that don't allow pets.

"There definitely is a problem. I know that because the shelter is full always and we have a wait list to come in," she said, noting there are 200 cats currently on the wait list.

One of the simplest ways to reduce overpopulation is spaying and neutering, but funding more low-cost programs is not easy.

Winnipeg's animal services agency has a $1.6-million deficit and lags behind cities, such as Calgary, that offer more low-cost spay and neuter programs since they generate more revenue from animal licensing fees. More than 90 per cent of dogs and between 40 and 50 per cent of cats are licensed in Calgary, compared with about 60 per cent of Winnipeg's dogs, Gordon said.

Earlier this year, the city issued a crackdown on unlicensed dogs and boosted the number of licensed canines from 41,000 to about 60,000. While the zero-tolerance policy will generate more revenue, Gordon said the bulk of this money will go toward paying down the agency's existing deficit.

The city subsidizes the Winnipeg Humane Society's spay and neuter assistance program that helps low-income individuals sterilize a cat for $25 and dogs for somewhere between $60 and $75. Winnipeg Humane Society spokeswoman Jenelle Petrinchuk said the non-profit does about 6,000 spay and neuters every year and doesn't have the funds to expand to do more.

Petrinchuk said the cat overpopulation problem is far worse than dogs, and the humane society is working in Winnipeg's core, where the problem is most pronounced, to educate people that they may qualify for financial assistance to fix their pet.

"The tough part is we don't have all that many resources to expand," Petrinchuk said. "We would like to make (the program) bigger, but who would do the surgeries, who would pay for them?"

To adopt a pet or license your dog visit Winnipeg.ca

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2011 A5

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