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HART takes heat 

Claims are made against a local non-profit as the number of homeless cats increases

click to enlarge DON’T STEREOTYPE ME :  Black cats are among those who don’t often find a home at Cambria’s HART rescue shelter; the owner says they’re hard to place. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DON’T STEREOTYPE ME : Black cats are among those who don’t often find a home at Cambria’s HART rescue shelter; the owner says they’re hard to place.
A longtime Cambria animal rescue organization is facing criticism from animal lovers who accuse the center of bringing in animals from out of the county and improperly adopting out animals that haven’t been spayed or neutered.


“[Homeless Animal Rescue Team] is bringing hundreds of these animals into our county each year,” said Bud Tanner, a volunteer at the SLO Animal Services shelter who is disgruntled with HART’s efforts. Other volunteers recently contacted New Times voicing similar concerns. 


Diana Duncan, founder and president of HART, rejects the c omplaints and, more broadly, says other local animal organizations follow practices similar to those questioned regarding HART.


Duncan said the grim prospects for millions of animals in shelters throughout the United States each year moved her to form HART in 1983, with the no-kill mission “to eliminate surplus animals from being born.”


She said HART strives to create an environment for the animals that is as comfortable and pleasant as possible. The center houses on average one hundred animals at a time and she said HART volunteers at times take animals into their own homes before they are adopted by new owners.


“We have done so much for this county,” Duncan maintains, and added that during just this year, more than 300 animals have passed from HART’s care into suitable homes. But critics argue one of HART’s protocols may actually be making animal overpopulation worse.


“They are sending out kittens unfixed, without following up on the deposits,” said Ayla Haldin, the animal caregiver at Woods Humane Society.


By Duncan’s own acknowledgment, HART has at times adopted out kittens without spaying or neutering them. Duncan and HART’s staff were unable to provide the exact number adopted out unsterilized.


She stressed that the isolated location of the center and a lack of continual access to a facility that can perform the operations has led HART to take $75 deposits to ensure new owners get adoptees spayed or neutered. HART has no certified veterinarian on staff.


“For the sake of their own health,” explained Duncan, “we sometimes choose to not add the extra stress of the spay or neuter surgery on their tiny bodies so as to allow their immune systems to grow stronger.”


Whatever the intent, California Food and Agricultural Code 31751 states that no rescue group shall sell or give away to a new owner any cat that has not been spayed or neutered, unless a licensed veterinarian certifies that it would be detrimental to the health of the cat to be spayed or neutered. It is only then, according to the code, that the adopter can pay the rescue group a deposit. If the adopter presents proof of the operation to the rescue group, they must receive a refund of the deposit.


When asked about the practice, Duncan replied in an e-mail: “We are at least following the ‘spirit’ of the law.” She also said for-profit pet stores often adopt out pets without any attempts to sterilize them, though nowhere in Code 31751 are pet stores mentioned.


The Humane Society of the United States estimates that in seven years, one female cat and her offspring can theoretically produce 420,000 cats.


Critics also note HART goes to shelters outside of the county to fill “wish lists” by would-be adopters, which they say defeats efforts to again make SLO’s County’s shelter a no-kill shelter, as it was for several years. Duncan rejects this accusation as well. “HART has always rescued from SLO pound and SLO County areas first, and foremost,” she said.


However, in the last week of July, at the same time HART volunteers were accepting 13 cats that had just been collected from the Bakersfield Animal Shelter, 18 cats were put down at the local shelter, mainly due to a lack of space, according to Haldin.


“After they [HART] tell us that they are too full, they go out and get them from other counties,” complained Haldin.


Duncan said the cats HART rescues from out-of-county shelters would most likely be killed if they remained there. But she acknowledged being very selective about which cats they choose to take from shelters.


“Certain colors and breeds adopt faster, all the shelters know this. For many reasons, and as a ‘business’ who is trying to stay afloat,” said Duncan, “we can no longer afford to sit on kittens who grow up into our adults, that we pay cleaners to clean up after, who we have to vaccinate, de-flea, de-worm, medicate, feed, transport to vets, etc. We need cats that will move quickly, ones we have on a wish list, that are healthy, and ones with good personalities.”


Although Duncan described the center as a business, it is licensed as a not-for–profit entity. According to a 2008 report to the IRS, she is the only paid member of the staff, with a salary of $27,600.


 Dr. Eric Anderson, the manager of SLO Animal Services, said that in the first two weeks of July—the beginning of “kitty season”—the shelter saw a 60 percent increase in the number of cats being brought into their shelter as compared to the year before.


Duncan said she’s grown resistant to working with the SLO shelter.


“Most of the time, the animals are sickly when we get them from SLO DAS [Department of Animal Services], usually with an upper respiratory or eye infection, and it takes time, space, and money to heal them. Also, many of these animals are unsocialized, and are hard to treat, and usually become unadoptable, also becoming a financial strain on us.”


According to Duncan, HART brought 92 cats in from Bakersfield, Santa Maria, and L.A. in 2008. At the SLO Animal Services shelter in 2008, 13 adoptable cats were killed due to a lack of space and 325 were euthanized for medical reasons. ∆


Intern Marin Kautz can be reached through the editor at [email protected].


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