Animal Foundation slashes services to public

Rescues protest house cats released to the wild 

By: - July 7, 2022 5:04 am

At left, Foxtrot the cat when rescued by Community Cat Angels. At right, Foxtrot after receiving medical treatment at Trailwood Animal Hospital. (Photos courtesy Community Cat Angels)

The Animal Foundation of Las Vegas, Southern Nevada’s publicly-funded shelter, has cut services to the public after the departure of much of its veterinary staff, according to its new chief operating officer. TAF is also at odds with animal welfare advocates who say it is needlessly placing adoptable cats at risk by releasing them where they were found.  

“One of the services that we did have to curtail during the pandemic was our public-facing veterinary service clinics,” says James Pumphrey, who joined TAF as COO earlier this year. 

With the exception of vaccinations provided at a clinic in March, TAF has stopped microchipping, vaccinating, and sterilizing dogs and cats for members of the public so far in 2022, services it provided previously for thousands of animals each year. 

“Our veterinary hospital, just like every hospital in Las Vegas and in the country, had issues with staffing and resources and there is a veterinary shortage in this country. We still have an active clinic, but we’re not able to serve both our shelter population and the public population at this time,” says Pumphrey, adding many of the staff members have returned and TAF has plans to “relaunch those services. But those are services for owned animals. In terms of public spays and neuters, that is something that had to be curtailed during the pandemic.”

TAF received $4.7 million in 2020 from Clark County, Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas for shelter services. It also received a $1.25 million Paycheck Protection Program loan in February 2021.

The non-profit is at odds with some rescues for the gradual expansion of its Community Cats program, previously focused on feral cats, to include socialized cats who would otherwise be suitable for adoption. Pumphrey says TAF sterilizes and releases 30 cats a day, which are left to fend for themselves or are sometimes fed by caretakers.

The idea, he says, is to reduce the time a feline is in the shelter and to help cats who may have a home find their way by releasing them where they were found, rather than holding them for an owner to claim.  

Pumphrey says the approach is standard practice in big cities and that “every single major shelter medicine program in the country articulates that this is the best methodology, because the reality is that the volume of healthy stray cats coming into the shelter are too much for any shelter system to bear.”

Experts found the methodology for trapping, neutering, and releasing feral cats (TNR) “applied for healthy and social cats as well” and, he says “research shows us they have a 97% survival rate, if we simply put them back in a supported way.”

“If we determine they’re healthy and came from the community, that they’re thriving outside, then we spay and neuter them, vaccinate them and we’ll return them back into the community,” he says, citing a National Animal Care and Control Association statement that says impounding healthy adult cats reduces their likelihood of reuniting with families, and that cats “are 10-50 times more likely to be reunited with their owners if they stay in the neighborhood of origin…” 

TNR isn’t perfect.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are among its most vociferous opponents and liken the process to abandonment.

“TNR is not an excuse for dumping cats,” says Nancie Anastopolous, founder of Community Cat Angels, a rescue that plucks sick and injured cats out of colonies, gets them treatment and if suitable, a home. She and others say TAF’s process overlooks abandoned house cats who have no family with which to reunite and no experience fending for themselves. “I hear from people all the time who took a cat to the Animal Foundation so it could get adopted, and it’s such a sweet cat, they say, and it ends up back on their doorstep.” 

Rene Weaver says she spent six weeks enticing an abandoned neighborhood cat into her house and into a cat carrier for a trip to TAF to ensure he was neutered.   

“I told them I wanted to adopt him,” she says, adding she visited the cat twice while he was impounded.

TAF called later that week, she says, and sent a text confirming her adoption appointment for the cat dubbed Felix by the shelter.  

“They gave me his post-operative instructions and the paperwork,” she says. Half an hour later a staff member returned with Weaver’s empty carrier. “They told me ‘sorry, we already released him.’ They told me to keep his stitches clean and they had already thrown him out in the dirt.” 

To Weaver’s relief, Felix found his way back to her yard. 

“People that are bringing in animals are often conflicted,” Pumphrey says, noting that staff are trained to evaluate an individual’s commitment to the animal. “We also are trained to identify what the right program for each animal is at the time.”

Weaver says her two visits while Felix was impounded are indicative of her commitment. 

Pumphrey says some owners don’t realize their cats are gone for weeks.

“If the owner doesn’t know the cat is even gone, you’d think the Animal Foundation would want it to have an owner who knows where it is,” Weaver said. 

Some advocates agree.  

“I can understand the concern about that cat – and others like him. It’s also hard to determine what the situation is for those who do have owners,” says Annoula Wylderich, a rescuer and former NSPCA board member. “It would be very difficult to not make assumptions, because there are so many negligent or ignorant pet owners out there.” 

“If we have an adoption opportunity, we try to pursue those as often as we can,” says Pumphrey, noting the shelter processes more than 200 adoptions a week. “But we also recognize that the very best option for many cats in terms of returning them to their owner, is to also put them back into the community.”

“We have over 60 cats up for adoption now,” he says. “And even with that volume, even engaging with return to field or TNR in our community, that volume is significant. And if we were to keep all of those cats in our facility, it would have very tragic outcomes for those animals.”

In 2020, TAF took in just under 18,000 animals. Of those, 65% were adopted or transferred to a rescue, 13% were euthanized, and 22% were returned to their owners or “returned to the field.” 

Animal welfare advocates say the practice of releasing house cats in the wild leaves them to compete with ferals for food, water, and shelter. In some places, the influx of community cats is causing health hazards, according to volunteers.

“At some trailer parks where I feed, I’ll try to find a rock to hold down the paper plate, and there is nothing but cat feces,” says Anastopolous.   

The proliferation, they say, is leaving cash-strapped rescues to pick up the pieces – treating and caring for sick and injured animals, and when temperament permits, finding them homes.  

Pumphrey says the rescue community is out to hurt TAF, adding he’s had to call the constable on occasion over unruly activists.

“There are individuals that come to us with an agenda and expect that we should be donating to the rescues or doing all these other things that are just not in our purview,” Pumphrey says. 

Keith Wiliams is founder of Community Cat Coalition of Clark County (C5), a non-profit that recently marked 50,000 cats trapped, sterilized at Heaven Can Wait, a nonprofit spay and neuter clinic, and returned to community cat colonies. Williams says TAF relies on rescue organizations to take on animals that have special needs or require medical care. 

“If you’re one of their partners, you’re allowed to pull those animals, and that way the Animal Foundation doesn’t have to spend any money on them,” says Williams. “You, as a mom and pop rescue, get to go bankrupt, taking care of this animal.”

He says rescue organizations are hesitant to complain for fear of being deemed a dissenter and being removed from the list of groups that can take animals from TAF.   

Pumphrey notes that TAF is the “primary provider of food and resources to a number of rescues.” 

Thriving or surviving? 

“We get a feral or community cat in – we want to spay or neuter them and get them right back to where they were because they’re thriving out in the wild there,” TAF’s new CEO, Hilarie Grey said on KNPR in June. 

“Unfortunately, the cats on the street are thriving in that they are breeding and producing a lot of kittens. But 50% mortality rate at two months is a pretty hard row to hoe and that’s kind of hard to define as thriving,” says Williams, adding that 90% of feral kittens “won’t see their first birthday.”  

Anastopolous’ Community Cat Angels’ Facebook page is plastered with pictures of sick and injured cats she and volunteers have rescued from colonies. One is missing half of his face, eaten away by cancer. He had to be euthanized. Another has his intestines hanging from his belly, likely the result of a fight. He had surgery and has a new home. “Feral cats have no choice. Why are we putting socialized cats through that needlessly?”

“We’re not talking about abandoned cats that have bad body conditions. Those are not the cats that we’re putting back in the community, to be clear,” Pumphrey says. 

Former employees who worked in the Community Cat program dispute Pumphrey’s account that only healthy adults are released.

Claribel Villa says stress caused her to quit TAF after three years. “I would plead with them not to release a cat that wasn’t ready and they’d say ‘is it better off euthanized?’ They manipulate you like that.  It’s all about keeping the days in the shelter down.”

We would release young kittens with ringworm, and old cats, including one that was microchipped and had been adopted from the Animal Foundation 13 years earlier. Yet they were still releasing him on the streets,” says another former worker, who spoke with the Current under the condition that we not use her name for concern about retribution. “One of my coworkers brought me a cat that was attacked by a dog or coyote and was supposed to be released where she was attacked.”

The former worker stayed at TAF for less than a month, she says, because of the lack of training, mismanagement, and the anxiety that came from doing her job.    

“Our boss would make us release cats back to an apartment complex where the owners were threatening to kill the cats,” she says. “We had a mom we had to release, even though she lived in a foster home until she weaned her kittens, who all got adopted.”  

Villa says during her three years at TAF she had to break the rules and contact rescues on her own to get medical treatment for cats.

TAF’s vets were ready to euthanize a seemingly paralyzed cat found by shelter workers who were trapping.

“I had to beg the doctor to put the cat on the transfer list to a rescue,” says Villa. “She did, it got physical therapy, started walking and got adopted.”

Crisis of confidence

In addition to being largely thankless work, the animal welfare world is territorial, despite the common goal and the fact that the problem is much greater than any person or organization can fix. Few issues are more divisive among pet lovers than how to deal with lost and unwanted animals. The Animal Foundation, previously known as Lied Animal Shelter, has been a target of criticism for decades. 

In 2005, Lied became the first shelter to accept all animals from Clark County, Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas. The consolidation was opposed by almost all local rescues and advocates. 

“More than 200 animals were delivered to the facility every day, and on account of this immoderate influx the shelter was forced to put down nearly 50 percent of the animals in that first month,” the Las Vegas Sun reported.

Lied impounded just under 23,000 dogs in 2005, and euthanized 29%, according to Las Vegas Valley Humane Society data reported by Las Vegas Weekly.  The shelter impounded 25,341 cats in 2005, and euthanized 57%.  

In 2007, the overcrowded facility euthanized 1,000 animals after distemper and parvovirus spread through the kennels, prompting the Humane Society of the U.S. to declare a state of emergency at the shelter. 

Under the leadership of a new CEO, Christine Robinson, TAF reduced euthanasia and increased adoptions.  In 2015, TAF launched its Mission: Possible 2020, an effort to become as close to a no-kill shelter as possible.  

Last year, Robinson deemed the campaign a success, citing a 78% reduction in euthanasia since its inception.

Robinson announced in November that she was departing after members of the shelter’s veterinary team quit amid allegations of widespread dysfunction. 

In 2021, TAF’s euthanasia rate was just under 11% for dogs and 16% for cats, above the 10% threshold for so-called ‘no-kill’ shelters. 

Grey, a long time public relations executive, took over from Robinson in January. Her experience with animal welfare is as a former board member of the Nevada Society for the Protection of Animals. She declined to be interviewed for this story. 

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.