Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Legacy of the St. Anthony Cats

The fall-out continues over the swift euthanasia of the 100+ cats rescued from a trailer in St. Anthony. These photos were taken by the Animal Humane Society and posted on their website. Within 48 hours, AHS had killed every cat.
I first saw the photos on the Animal Ark blog where Mike Fry asked,

"Is the place gross? Yup. Disgusting, actually. But, take a look at the cats. Take a really good look at the cats and ask yourself the following question, how many cats look to be in such severe medical trouble they need to be humanely euthanized?

My count? Zero. In any of the pictures."

I would go a step further and say that these cats don't look dirty or skinny or even scared despite having a stranger in their space taking photos. I was physically sickened to think that these cats were euthanized without being given a chance.
The AHS board has sent out a letter to those who complained about the needless killing of these cats:

Consider Mike Fry's response on the Animal Ark blog :

Dear members of the Board of Directors of the Animal Humane Society,

As you all know, there was a recent uproar in Minnesota related to the reported "rescue" and the subsequent killing of about 130 felines the Animal Humane Society acquired from a mobile home in St. Anthony Minnesota. Multiple complaints were filed with the board of AHS over the killing of these felines.

On April 6, 2009 a form letter response from Nic Pifer, the AHS Board Chair, was sent to those who complained. In case you have not yet seen the official AHS response, a copy is attached for your convenience.

Generally, the response from the AHS Board regarding this unfortunate and unnecessary tragedy appears to have been to simply recite the talking points staff members at AHS had made publicly to justify the killing of these felines, in spite of the fact that the basic premise of these statements have been widely discredited by experts in the field of veterinary medicine and shelter management.

Basically, the argument in favor of killing the cats goes something like this: the cats posed a health risk to people and animals at AHS, and in the community at large, and so needed to be killed.

Note that nowhere in the response from Mr. Pifer was there any indication that animals were terminally ill, suffering or in need of humane euthanasia. The entire argument in favor of the killings is summarized by the above statement. Unfortunately, this statement is not supported by sound veterinary medicine.

Multiple veterinarians who are nationally recognized as experts in this subject matter have already written me saying things like, "there is no veterinary basis for this decision [to kill the cats]."

A quick review of the diseases referenced as the rationale for killing these cats is provided below:

"Upper Respiratory" or URI - This is common in felines in shelters. One of the most common causes of this condition is a virus known as feline herpes. This is not the same virus that is considered a sexually-transmitted disease in humans, which is why most animal welfare advocates avoid using the "feline herpes" term when discussing URI in cats. Some estimate suggest that between 70% and 80% of all felines already carry the feline herpes virus. Symptoms of the virus are generally comparable to a "common cold" in humans. URI is generally considered to be a stress-related ailment in cats, common in animal shelters, or other situations where housing less than ideal. All animal shelters should be prepared to isolate and treat cats suffering from URI.

Ringworm - this is a contagious fungal infection that is common in stressed cats. The fungus responsible for ringworm in cats is basically the same as the fungus responsible for athlete's foot in humans. The fungus is ubiquitous and common. When cats become stressed, they become more susceptible to this condition, which is why it is common in shelters or animal hoarding situations. It is inexpensive to treat, if proper isolation and quarantine practices are in place. All animal shelters should be prepared to isolate and treat cats suffering from this condition.

FIV - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is sometimes, incorrectly, referred to as "feline AIDS". This virus is not related to HIV in humans, though its behavior in cats is somewhat similar to the behavior of the HIV virus in humans. FIV is only transmitted from cat to cat through close, intimate contact - generally through deep bite wounds that result when intact male cats fight. However, unlike HIV, FIV in cats often resolves itself without treatment. Additionally, simple tests available in shelters are highly inaccurate, generating large numbers of false-positive results. Additionally, cats infected with this disease usually live long, healthy lives. They are more likely to die from unrelated causes than from the disease itself. Because the tests for this disease are inaccurate; because the spread of the disease is easily prevented in a shelter setting; and since the implications of a positive test are not considered very serious, testing of shelter animals is considered, at best, controversial. Those that recommend testing also recommend confirmatory tests, which can take weeks to process.

It is worth pointing out here that the timeline uncovered and reported by KSTP Eyewitness News indicates AHS began killing these unfortunate felines within about 24 hours of arrival at your shelter. Confirmatory tests for none of these diseases was possible in that time frame.

Of these diseases, the only one that is potentially transmissible to humans is Ringworm. However, as mentioned earlier, proper isolation and treatment protocols are available for managing that condition in a shelter. For this, and the other reasons I have mentioned, the rationale that these felines represented a risk to other animals at AHS and the public seems highly flawed.

Perhaps more troubling than the questions raise by the above is the fact that several serious questions had been posed to the AHS board which were not, in any way, addressed by the form-letter response signed by Mr. Pifer and dated April 6. Some of those questions include, but are not limited to the following:

1) Has AHS Board interviewed the veterinarian in charge of the case?

2) Has the AHS Board of Directors asked for, or been given, a full briefing by the veterinarian in charge of the case?

3) Have reporters investigated the credentials of the Director of Veterinary Services, Kathie Johnson, who is not a veterinarian? Why is Ms. Johnson allowed to make life or death decisions for animals when she is not a veterinarian?

4) The 2/17 press release issued by AHS said that the cats were euthanized because "Clinical diagnosis and medical testing provided evidence of multiple health issues within the group of cats. The issues included upper respiratory infection (URI), ringworm, the herpes virus, and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)." Why have no reporters questioned whether there is an accurate veterinary basis for this statement? For example, it is not possible to definitively diagnose ringworm within 24 hours. A ringworm culture must be done and it takes at least 10 days to obtain results from this culture. Another example, a positive FIV test result does not indicate that a cat has FIV, only that a cat has been exposed to the virus. How many cats were tested and how many positives were there?

5) If the St. Anthony cats were as unsocialized as AHS claimed, how was it possible to thoroughly examine 130 cats in a matter of a few hours before the cats were killed?

None of these concerns were addressed by the simplistic response from your board. If there are answers to these questions, I believe the animals in Minnesota, and your members and donors all deserve a substantive response that addresses them.

Mike Fry, Executive Director of Animal Ark
It is my sincere hope that these innocent cats did not die in vain. I hope that their legacy is the beginning of increased awareness by the public and increased cooperation and communication among rescue groups in the future.