Hidden in Plain Sight
Lord Byron is usually first to greet Linda Labbe when she cracks open the front door of her home in Bowdoinham. Behind him come Cain and Abel, their black coats glistening. Seamus follows, his signature folded ears having nonetheless detected Labbe's footsteps. The commotion stirs the rest of the brood: Princess, Tessa, Howie, Squeaky, Rosie, and the brother-sister pair of Holstein look-alikes, Black Kitty and White Kitty.
Labbe, like thousands of other Mainers, is crazy about cats. While an exact census of the state's feline population would be impossible to tabulate, one recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 46 percent of Maine households keep a cat — the highest percentage in the country, and well above the national average of 34 percent. No Maine catalog is complete without a photograph of a cat perched on a windowsill and every real Maine barn has at least one mouser on patrol. The Maine coon cat ranks as the second-most popular purebred in the world. And just this month, hundreds of Mainers will opt to spend a perfectly fine autumn day inside the Bath Middle School so they can show off their feline companions, whether it's a silky soft purebred Tonkinese or a straight-from-the-shelter mixed breed.
"Our cats are our children, and they dictate how we act," explains Marilyn Pouliot, of Topsham. Like a proud soccer mom, Pouliot boasts that her thirteen-year-old shelter cat, Matilda, has in the past won the title of household cat master grand champion at the Bath show.
In addition to Maine's primped and preened pet population, of course, the Pine Tree State is also home to a sizeable number of feral, or wild, cats. These animals, born in barns and warehouses and underneath wharfs, survive on scraps, small animals, and whatever morsels kind-hearted souls leave for them. In recent years several groups have sprung to the aid of these Maine cats, but not by turning them into living room loungers (most ferals can never be domesticated). Groups like the Portland-based Friends of Feral Felines have implemented trap, neuter, and return programs that keep the feral population from mushrooming but allow the animals to remain in their natural environments. Formed in 1993, the nonprofit has aided several thousand feral cats from Custom House Wharf to alleys in the West End. Similar feline rescue groups include the Homeless Animal Rescue Team of Maine, in Cumberland, and the Bath-based A Paw in the Door. Many shelters have also adopted trap, neuter, and return programs for barn cats, thereby reducing the number of wild kittens while retaining these animals' utility as mousers.
But even a love affair like the one between the Pine Tree State and its cats occasionally calls for some tough love, and animal experts say that time has come in Maine and elsewhere. While shelter operators attest to Mainers' remarkable generosity in adopting dogs from both their own backyards and elsewhere [Down East, February 2005], the cat overpopulation problem is a significant one in the Pine Tree State, according to Norma J. Worley, director of the state's Animal Welfare Program. "We do seem to have a double standard, where people are very proud to say they adopted a dog — whether it's a Katrina dog or a shelter dog — and we don't see that with cats," she says. The combination of a decades-long push by Maine veterinarians to get dogs spayed or neutered and a mandatory dog registration law has helped keep the supply of puppies in check, but the success rate with cats has been much less encouraging. Worley says about 80 percent of the funds provided through the state's "Help Spay ME" income-tax checkoff pays for the spaying and neutering of cats belonging to low-income Mainers, with just 20 percent of the money going to dogs.
Step into any of the shelters in Maine and the cat crisis becomes unavoidable. Cats are everywhere: perched on top of bookshelves, sitting on computer keyboards — climbing the walls, literally. While a few of these cats will probably go to a new home within just a few days, sometimes more than a dozen a day come in to replace them, says Martha Kalina, executive director of the Maine Federation of Humane Societies and the head of a shelter in Thomaston. "Last Monday we took in a record number — seventeen cats," Kalina explains, adding that her shelter takes in about seven hundred cats annually. About half of those cats are unwanted kittens, and many of the others are perfectly healthy adult cats that just wandered off. "It's safe to say that Maine likes cats, but Maine, like every other state in the Union, has an abundance of them."
Kalina believes the situation is caused in part by a lack of respect for these independent companions. "The perception from the shelter side, at least, is that people see them as disposable pets," she says. "People will come in looking for a cat and will mention that their last three cats were eaten by fishers. We'll ask them if they're planning to let this one out and they'll just say 'Well, yeah.' " And while new pet owners might spend hundreds of dollars to spay or neuter a dog, Kalina says they usually balk at spending the same amount on a cat. The Thomaston shelter has responded by paying for the spaying and neutering of all cats out of its own pocket — typically a cat ends up racking up about $125 in medical expenses before it's ready for adoption — even though the forty-dollar adult cat adoption fee doesn't even come close to recouping those costs. "The dogs are footing the bills for the cats here," Kalina says.
Overcoming the perceived financial burden of cat ownership while emphasizing cats' value seems to be the magic balance that shelters have yet to find. "If you look in Uncle Henry's or the newspaper, there are so many ads for free kittens," says the Animal Welfare Program's Worley. "A lot of people will look to those ads for a kitten versus going to a shelter where they might pay seventy-five to a hundred dollars. It's just an economic issue." Some shelters have offered cats for free, but Kalina says that only reinforces the idea of cats having no value. "A humane society in Milwaukee always offers its adult cats for free, and that moves the cats along in the adoption process. But does it further the idea that they're not worth anything?" she asks.
Andrew Rowan, founder of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University and now senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, agrees that many people ignore the basic responsibilities of owning a cat. He says that while three-quarters of dog owners will have a vet, just over half of cat owners do not, even if their cats roam the neighborhood and are therefore exposed to any number of diseases. "Except for a small community of dedicated cat owners, people are more attached to dogs," Rowan says. Still, Rowan cites a reduction in the number of cats coming into shelters nationwide as proof that the cat crisis has in fact eased, albeit not as dramatically as has the dog overpopulation problem.
Ironically, cats' own reclusive nature — the Maine coon cat, for example, is famous for its aloof attitude — has likely done little to help their cause. Cat lovers like Labbe admit that their own spouses often pretend to disdain the purring balls of fur who snuggle into their legs on chilly fall evenings. "My husband claims that he doesn't like cats, but that's a token resistance," Labbe remarks. "He just doesn't want people to think he's as crazy as I am." And while most friends and co-workers are aware if someone owns a dog, cats often live in the periphery, cared for but rarely mentioned. They rank a distant third behind dogs and even horses in terms of the number of complaints filed with the state, with just 152 people bothering to voice their concerns over mistreatment of cats.
Even Maine law seems to place a lower importance on the state's feline population. While a stray dog might be picked up by an animal-control officer, a cat wandering the neighborhood is seldom even noticed, except by birdwatchers who have campaigned for more regulation because of the danger roaming cats pose to rare songbirds. And if a cat is dropped off at a Maine shelter, it can be euthanized or adopted after just twenty-four hours, compared to six days for dogs. Worley says she plans to propose legislation in the next session that will increase that holding period to forty-eight hours for domestic cats, although she would maintain it at twenty-four hours for feral cats. She is also considering requiring all shelters to spay or neuter every cat before it is adopted.
Worley believes another key to solving the cat problem in Maine is getting more owners to control their pets' wandering. "I've seen a study that said an outdoor cat has a two-year life expectancy, an indoor-outdoor cat has a six-year life, and an exclusively indoor cat can be expected to live twelve years," she says. "You have to balance those numbers out with what your hopes are for your cat, but rabies is alive and well in Maine, and there are certainly plenty of fishers and raccoons out there." Others, including Kalina, believe that some cats want to be outside and that restricting their freedom reduces their quality of life. Her shelter implants a microchip in every cat that is going to be an outdoor cat, to aid in its recovery if it wanders off. She believes a one-size solution for managing all cats can reduce certain cats to caricatures of themselves and cites the now-often-pampered Maine coon cat as an example. "They were the hunter-gatherers, and now they're the sit-at-home-and-watch-soap-opera guys," she says. "That's what we do to our animals, we breed the brains right out of them."
In the end, the reason for Maine's remarkable affection for cats — and the way to quantify the value of every feline, whether it's a pedigreed Persian or a Heinz 57 shelter cat — may be much more basic than the many statistics, studies, and reports prepared on the furry felines' behalf. "I suspect that in Maine's cold climate it is nice to have a cat to snuggle up with," Rowan says. "It doesn't eat as much or make the same demands as a fellow human, and it may actually be warmer in some cases. It's certainly a lot less judgmental."