Auckland cat shelters struggling after 'overwhelming' kitten baby-boom

Cat shelters are struggling to stay afloat as an "overwhelming" kitten baby-boom ravages Tāmaki Makaurau. 

Alisha Sinclair of 9 Lives Orphanage, a network of shelters and foster families run from the homes of cat lovers, says their organisation has over 300 cats in their care. The need for their services is growing. 

9 Lives Orphanage, like other Auckland-based shelters, is receiving multiple calls a day alerting them to sick, injured and homeless strays. 

"We've really noticed it the last six to eight months, it's just insane."

Many of the kittens taken in by shelters are sick, injured, and need urgent veterinary attention.
Many of the kittens taken in by shelters are sick, injured, and need urgent veterinary attention. Photo credit: Eva Wilson

The volunteer-run shelter has had to cover vet bills exceeding $23,000 since the beginning of the year. 

Sinclair says the boom is partially attributed to the halt of "non-emergency" vet visits during the lockdowns. The limited availability of vets who were desexing cats has led to an explosion in the cat population in the following breeding seasons. 

Sarah Christie of the Pet Whisperer Rescue Trust, says that the lockdowns also meant that shelters were caring for animals longer while "adoptions were paused", leading to increased medical and food bills.

"Kittens and cats were in our care for 6-8 weeks longer than anticipated, which means more expenses... last financial year we made half of what we did for our normal adoptions, and yet our vet bills are still the same."

To make matters worse, the shorter cold seasons and longer breeding periods have left the shelters without their usual "off-season" to recoup costs and resources.

Pet Whisperer Rescue has taken in "80% females this season". Desexing female cats is a more complicated procedure and requires more resources, putting increased pressure on the shelter. 

"We're all drowning... we need help." 

Wendy Woodd (left) and Sarah Christie (right) of the Pet Whisperer Rescue Trust.
Wendy Woodd (left) and Sarah Christie (right) of the Pet Whisperer Rescue Trust. Photo credit: Eva Wilson

Burnout is common amongst volunteers, with both organisations commenting on the strain the cat population is putting on both shelters and veterinary workers. 

"You start it because you love cats, but then once you get more involved you realise the extent of what the problem is, especially in Auckland," reflects Sinclair. 

"As much as we hate to say no, we have to think about our own wellbeing as well as the cats."

Christie worries that more animals will be left to suffer due to the strain small rescues are facing. 

"We do this for love, sometimes we burn out as well." 

Even New Zealand's largest and most resourced animal welfare group, the SPCA, is having 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 as we need to focus on the 35,000 injured, sick or abused animals that come into our care each year." 

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 to alleviate some of the pressure put on animal welfare groups. 

Leanne Simpkin, Manager of the 'New Zealand Lost Pet Register' Facebook page, uses the platform to reunite lost pets with owners, reducing the number of animals in "overrun" shelters. 

The page aims to "provide a totally free service for everyone to use and help reunite as many pets as possible. We are here to support and help owners in what is often one of the worst times of their lives."

The New Zealand Lost Pet Register which is currently sitting at 72,000 followers, like its small shelter counterparts, is run solely by volunteers. 

"Desex your pets. It's the number one thing," pleads Sinclair; a sentiment echoed across the board by animal welfare groups. 

Christie describes Pet Whisperer Rescue as the "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" while funding is directed to those working in education and other preventative measures. She says the organisations like hers can't maintain their role as rescuers without the help of the public. 

"Donate, so then we can treat the sick."

A cat and her litter of kittens was rescued by 9 Lives Orphanage.
A cat and her litter of kittens was rescued by 9 Lives Orphanage. Photo credit: Eva Wilson

While the organisations use social media pleas for donations and pop-up 'kitten cuddling' events to raise funds, they are not enough to cover their growing costs. Donations of food are also a continuous need for organisations. 

Christie wants the public to know that rescues need their patience and support for the work that they do and, where possible, their support through donations and cat food. 

"If you see a sick animal, call a rescue. Urgently, don't wait. If they don't reply they're busy, just keep trying."

This story was by Te Rito - Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.