Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Auckland cat shelters run by volunteers are wrestling with the escalating costs of a burgeoning stray cat population.
One organisation, 9 Lives Orphanage, has had pet bills of almost $130,000 this year, the latest of which was more than $23,000, says its founder Alisha Sinclair.
The volunteers, who form the network of shelters and foster families run from the homes of cat lovers, are struggling with the 300 cats in their care and the increasing demand for their services, she says.
"We've really noticed it the last six to eight months - it's just insane. The shelters receive multiple calls a day alerting them to sick and injured and strays."
She partly attributes the cat population boom to non-emergency vet visits stopping during the lockdowns and the limited availability of vets to desex cats.
Sarah Christie of the Pet Whisperer Rescue Trust says about 80 per cent of cats rescued by the trust this season have been female. However, desexing them is a complicated procedure requiring more resources and puts more pressure on the shelter.
Adoptions paused during the lockdowns, shelters cared for animals longer and medical and food bills increased accordingly.
"Kittens and cats were in our care for six to eight weeks longer than anticipated. In the last financial year, we made half of what we did for our normal adoptions, and yet our vet bills are still the same."
Christie says that the shorter, cold seasons and extended breeding periods have left the shelters without their usual "off-season" to recoup costs and resources.
"We're all drowning. We need help."
Burnout among volunteers is common, say both women.
"You start it because you love cats, but once you get more involved, you realise the extent of the problem, especially in Auckland," reflects Sinclair.
She pleads for pet owners to desex their pets. "It's the number one thing."
Christie worries that more animals will suffer due to the strain small rescues face.
She describes Pet Whisperer Rescue as the "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" but says maintaining their role as rescuers requires the public's help.
"Donate, so then we can treat the sick."
The SPCA, New Zealand's largest and most resourced animal welfare group, says it has to turn away calls for help, at times denying admission of healthy adult cats into their shelters.
"We don't generally take in healthy animals. We need to focus on the 35,000 injured, sick or abused animals that come into our care each year," says Kim Taylor, SPCA national communications manager.
On its website, The SPCA encourages cat-finders to "embrace the power of social media to spread the word and try to find the owners".
"Doing so helps alleviate some of the pressure put on animal welfare groups."
The New Zealand Lost Pet Register has a Facebook page that reunites lost pets with owners. It has 72,000 followers and, like its small shelter counterparts, is also run solely by volunteers.