Pause in Adoptions Prompts 'Code Red'

Mahlet Yitna and Mark McGibbon get tips from Washington Humane Society adoptions manager Kim Harman on bringing Hannah  into a new home. The shelter is euthanizing up to six cats a day because adoptions have slowed.
Mahlet Yitna and Mark McGibbon get tips from Washington Humane Society adoptions manager Kim Harman on bringing Hannah into a new home. The shelter is euthanizing up to six cats a day because adoptions have slowed. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

The cages were filled with cats, more were on their way, and no one was showing up yesterday to take them home from the District's Northeast animal shelter.

"It's getting kind of tight in here," said Jim Monsma of the Washington Humane Society, which operates the shelter, as he walked past rows of cages filled with the likes of Cleopatra and Aphrodite, two Himalayans that have been holed up there for three weeks.

Inundated with felines, the Humane Society this week issued what it called a "Code Red" plea to Washingtonians to drop in and take home a cat -- or perhaps two, three or four. The society's conundrum, one that is also being experienced in Northern Virginia, is a matter of supply and demand: too many cats -- more than 30 as of 1 p.m. yesterday -- and too few adopters, a cyclical problem that often comes in June, and one they don't experience with dogs.

Monsma attributed the slowdown in cat adoptions to "people making summer plans, people moving."

"People feel more committed to dogs. People see the dogs as part of the family," he said. "Cats? Easy come, easy go."

The Washington Area Rescue League, a privately funded shelter, has experienced a drop-off in adoptions for cats and dogs, said Scotlund Haisley, the league's executive director.

"There are more animals in need of shelters than there are people adopting; that's a constant problem," Haisley said.

Montgomery County officials said they don't have the same problems, but Mary Ann Jennings, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County police, said the county has urged several animal rescue organizations to take stray cats. "We are seeing more litters of kittens than we normally do," she said. "We're having the same issues."

The Washington Humane Society shelter houses stray cats for as long as they are healthy and well behaved, which in some cases is not long because the felines catch respiratory ailments and don't always do well in confinement. The shelter, Monsma said, euthanizes as many as six cats a day.

"They deserve a chance; it's heartbreaking if you know these creatures," he said.

He wandered through the shelter's warren of holding rooms, which, in addition to dogs and cats, house a gerbil, a hamster, a guinea pig and a rabbit named Bartleby.

Last year, the shelter hosted Taz, a six-foot alligator taken from a Southeast apartment after a drug raid. The shelter, Monsma said, put Taz on a shuttle to an alligator rehabilitation clinic in Florida. The ticket cost $200.

But now cats are the focus. Faced with an oversupply several years ago, the society came up the idea of a Code Red, inspired by the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded system. "We kind of piggybacked off that concept," Monsma said. "Within a week, we were cleaned out."

He and his staff hope for similar results, although interest was relatively light yesterday. Besides extending shelter hours to include evenings beginning next week, there is a discount for those who take home more than one cat.

Kim Harman, the shelter's adoptions manager, said she had received four phone calls yesterday about the cats. "I'm not worried; I'm very hopeful," she said, confiding that she had long been a dog person before discovering the pleasures of owning a cat.

"People have a bad misperception that cats are standoffish and snotty," she said. "It's not true. There are a lot of cool cats out there."

Laura Kam, 27, a lawyer, agreed as she stopped in to pick up Ace Marine, a black cat she adopted as a companion for Moses, the feline she took home in February. Her husband, Garrett, had been concerned that their 1,100-square-foot condo in Logan Circle was not large enough for two cats and two humans. She's not worried.

"It's pretty clear that a cat needs a friend," she said.

Others who showed up during the lunch hour were not so inclined. Katie Woodman, 24, a flight attendant, headed straight for canine row. "I love cats, but I'm allergic," she said, shrugging and turning back to inspect the dogs.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company