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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Mattfield

The Other Victims of Closed Shelter Intake

A few days ago, I posted about closed intake shelters and the problems caused when their "wait lists" for surrender and stray intake force people to skip the shelter, search for rescues, and when unsuccessful, abandon animals.

There is another set of victims when a shelter elects to be closed admission in order to lower intake, avoid euthanasia, and maintain positive public image: Lost cats.

When a shelter refuses to intake any cat, there is a chance that the cat turned away was a lost owned cat. The cat may not even be local; cats can escape from carriers at the vet, or in some sad cases, abusive partners, roommates, or family members have dumped a cat far from home.

Animal control and cagey town health departments will avoid intake of cats by saying things like this on their websites:

From Paterson's animal control website

From Old Bridge's animal control website

These never-ending tricks by towns to avoid intaking or responding to calls about stray cats are extremely dangerous and reduce the odds to near zero if your cat escapes your home, a carrier, or is dumped by someone. Some animal control officers claim that their training has taught them to determine by driving by or visually observing a cat whether the cat is feral, friendly, or owned. Take it from a rescue that has dealt with over 600 cats/year ranging from super friendly to wild feral, this is simply not true. Let's use Tinky, a Whiskers Graduate, as an example.


Tinky has a home and is a strictly indoor cat. She is extremely friendly with the people she knows, but hides from anyone new and if she escaped outside, would need to be trapped. She is fearful of other cats and people she does not know.

Let's say Tinky's carrier fell apart at her vet in Old Bridge and she escaped into the parking lot, many towns away from her home. In the time that Old Bridge's animal control gave her to "return home," Tinky is not going to make the trip two counties away or survive for very long in an unknown area. Her ONLY hope for survival would be if someone sees her and she is picked up by animal control. During the 7 day stray hold, her owner would be able to call all shelters and have a chance at recovering her. Instead, she is left outside to wander in unfamiliar territory, probably never getting home and likely being hit by a car in her confusion to find her way home.

The same is true if Tinky got out in Paterson or any towns their animal control contract serves. Paterson has decided not to answer calls about cats - stray, injured, sick - and by doing so, left Tinky as good as dead. She does not know the outdoors, and although she acts feral and runs away, she is a friendly owned cat that will never make it home.

By the way, towns making these ad hoc policies are illegal. The state office of public veterinary health issued a statement reminding animal control officers that they cannot refuse to respond to calls about cats.

Even in towns that do respond to calls about cats, it is customary to do a "drive by" assessment if a stray cat is called in. Any cat that does not come trotting up in an extraordinarily friendly manner (not very common in frightened cats in new territories) would be categorized as a feral or untamed cat and left outside. Once again, Tinky loses out on a chance at a reunion with her owner.

While it's easy to say "the shelter's full, we want to keep euthanasia rates down," this is a short-sighted and cruel approach that also results in death - but after days of terror and injury.

If shelters are not large enough to accommodate the needs of a town, animal control officers are some of the only people in a position to escalate this concern and push for appropriate resources, and they have an obligation to do so.

Instead, many elect to serve as bouncers, with their main duties being to turn people away and avoid intake, not acknowledging that they did not just sentence an animal to be abandoned or worse. The refusal is not even logged, and the shelter achieves its goal of deceptively low intake numbers.

Instead of dumping on rescues and forcing them to shoulder an unpaid burden of intake duties, shelters can intake and allow shelter partners to pull at-risk cats from the shelter population (even during stray hold) as is done in many large cities with open intake shelters. Cats remain safe in temporary shelter stray hold until rescues can coordinate pulls and find space, instead of being held hostage by an online threat to "step up or this animal is going outside."

Right now, the majority of shelters and animal control refuse to work with rescues but tell people they turn away to go "call a rescue." The public's and rescues' warranted mistrust of NJ animal control has resulted in both not reporting to animal control when they find a friendly cat. The cat might be rehomed or transferred to another rescue far away without the owner ever knowing or able to contact them.

Refusing to intake cats results in deaths that are far more cruel and numerous than those that occur from open intake shelter policies. Why deny an animal the chance of being reunited, adopted, or transferred out to a rescue simply because you want to keep numbers down without fighting for resources needed to do your job? Or simply stating "we're full" to taxpayers instead of intaking and being proactive with shelter partners to assist when rescues are needed to pull cats? Public opinion should never be more important to a shelter or town than putting in the effort to prevent cruelty and suffering.

If animal control and shelters continue to operate in a municipally enabled vacuum while the rest of us scramble with their unfinished workload, closed admission shelters will continue to kill more cats outside the doors of the shelter than open admission shelters ever did.


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