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Newton is crawling with cats.
A booming population of what appears to be feral felines is causing problems and it has city leaders looking for solutions.
"Staff and citizens have observed a large number of feral cats throughout the city. As a result, animal control has captured a number of cats that were apparently homeless," said Newton City Manager Todd Clark. "The city of Newton is doing what is in the best interests of our citizens to protect their health, safety and welfare."
Illustrating the danger of the wild animals, Clark said that recently a woman was bitten by a cat on Ashe Avenue when she reached to pet the animal.
"The cat almost instantaneously fell over dead," he said, adding the incident occurred during the weekend, and a police officer didn't take proper steps to have the cat examined for rabies. "A medical evaluation of the cat could not be made, and the woman ended up taking a series of rabies shots."
Clark said a city meter reader has found at least one other dead cat.
"My concern is that if you have mice and rats feeding on the cats, the mice and rats spread disease, if there is disease," he said.
Newton Fire Department officials also began finding cats inside a training trailer parked in an empty parking lot on Ashe Avenue. Clark said each day a large number of cats gather for feeding in that empty parking lot.
"It is like ringing the dinner bell. The cats come from all areas of the city, it seems to exacerbate the problem," he said, adding the fire department was concerned cats could get trapped inside the trailer and either starve or possibly burn up during a training exercise.
When the city began capturing cats near the fire trailer another problem occurred. Cats considered pets â€” although they roamed free â€” were caught inside city traps. One of those cats was "Doris," the "office cat" of Lindy Caldwell who operates Therapeutic Solutions nearby.
"He had been spayed or neutered," she said, explaining the cat disappeared for four or five days. "Someone told me they had gone to the (Catawba County Animal Control) shelter and saw Doris. I went down there and got her out."
Caldwell paid $29 and Doris was released with a rabies shot and a microchip, but another pet cat wasn't as fortunate. One animal considered a pet by another nearby property owner was captured, taken to the animal shelter and, after a 72-hour hold during the weekend, was destroyed, Clark said.
These issues are just scratching the surface of the problem.
In 2010, Newton's Animal Control officer turned in 263 dogs and cats to the county's animal control shelter, according to Newton Police Chief Don Brown. Last year, Newton Animal Control turned in 240 dogs and cats to the county's animal shelter.
So far this year, the city has delivered 40 cats to the animal shelter, Clark said, and that doesn't include 20 cats that were reportedly dumped in a parking lot at Burger King on U.S. 321 Business.
"That is another example of where people are not really being responsible pet owners," Clark said.
To address some of the problems Newton has partnered with Humane Society of Catawba County to increase awareness and education about pet ownership and controlling the pet population.
Newton Mayor Anne Stedman, Clark, Humane Society Executive Director Jane Bowers and Caldwell met earlier this week to form the alliance.
"We talked about the issues in town, the fact that cats are being fed and no one seems to be taking care of them, and we talked about the exploding population," Clark said. "Jane educated us on how important it is for us to be an advocate for spay and neuter and to put the word out there that the humane society does offer rabies vaccinations."
The city is working with the humane society to sponsor a local spay and neuter clinic, a rabies clinic and other efforts in the future.
"It is important to have your pets spayed or neutered, not just for reducing the pet population, which is a significant concern, but also for the health of our pets," Bowers said. "Animals that have not been sterilized run increased chances of cancer and other health issues."
The city also encourages pet owners to properly collar and tag their cats. Some pets captured in city traps wore no identification even though they were considered pets. Some may have even been sterilized by citizens.
"If you spend that kind of money on the cats, why not just adopt the cat?" Clark said. "Why spend money on the cat and not really take responsibility for that cat's future health? We don't know what cat has been spayed or neutered, especially if they don't have a collar or identification."
Efforts by the city and humane society could have a positive financial impact. Each year, the city spends $81,484 for animal control, including almost $37,000 to Catawba County for use of the animal shelter and $44,748 for the animal control officer's salary and vehicle usage.
Catawba County is also exploring construction of an expanded animal control shelter. That shelter construction will create a new annual expense of $27,000 during the next 15 years for Newton. All total that could be a $400,000 expense for the city.
"If we can keep the number of animals down or reduce the burden the county has for housing the animals, maybe the county won't have to build another shelter. To me, it makes sense that we do everything we can to educate the public about spay and neuter to control our animal shelter costs," Clark said. "It is our duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, but we also understand the other side in terms of pet owners and people who are looking out for the interest of the cats. I think we have made some great progress in trying to at least recognize that if there are pet owners out there that let their pets out, maybe we need to help educate the public of the health and safety concerns."