BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) Animal rescuers at the Animal Shelter of Sullivan County are working round-the-clock to get hundreds of community, outdoor cats spayed or neutered to help prevent an influx of ‘kitten season’ litters from overwhelming the shelter this spring.

Every year, thousands of kittens and cats are brought into shelters from outdoor cat colonies that are exploding, especially in rural areas.

Often these cats who have lived their whole lives outside end up in the shelter, most of them unadoptable, and their litters of kittens end up there too, usually very ill. Often times they are euthanized because shelters are unable to deal with them at high volumes.

Community cats are the majority of what makes up animal shelter population. So, what if all of this could be prevented? The Sullivan County shelter’s “community cat program” is working to do just that.

“Right now we are running twice a week at least,” said Karen Fox, outreach coordinator for the shelter.

She is talking about loading up transport vans full of community cats and taking them to be spayed or neutered. This is a program that is gaining popularity nationwide as one of the most ethical ways to get a handle on cat overpopulation, called trap-neuter-release. Once altered, the cats are taken back to where they were found and are set free.

“Just within Sullivan County I’ve got 300 waiting right now. There’s just so many out there and we can only do so many,” said Fox.

The Margaret B. Mitchel Spay/Neuter Clinic in Bristol, Tenn. plays a huge role in the efforts of the Sullivan County shelter to fix as many cats as possible.

“Our mission is to provide low-cost spay and neuter surgeries to help reduce the animal overpopulation and reduce shelter numbers,” said Christy Morrison with the clinic.

Open for 16 years now, the clinic has altered over 150 thousand dogs and cats locally. They say right now they are fixing around 200 cats a week on average.

“We actually thought our clinic wouldn’t be here this long because we didn’t know how great the need was when we got started. Obviously, we were wrong,” said Morrison.

Executive director of the Animal Shelter of Sullivan County Cindy Holmes knows first hand that need is great.

“We are going to reach a point that there are so many cats, there is no way to reverse that. We are seeing colonies with 30, 40, 60 cats in them in a very small area,” said Holmes.

When she took over the shelter in 2019, Holmes saw it as a top priority to create a program that focused on spaying and neutering community cats to help lower the numbers at the very high-volume shelter she inherited.

“These cats, they wanna be outside. They wanna be in the environment they know, but we do not need them breeding,” said Holmes.

She says too, the program is working. In 2020 she estimates they prevented 2,320 unwanted kittens from being born. Euthanization numbers at the shelter speak to the program’s success.

In 2019 the shelter reports 693 cats were euthanized. In 2020, just 18 were euthanized. The intakes each year respectively were 1,486 and 577.

Due to the community cat program and managed intake Holmes says they have been able to operate as a ‘no-kill’ shelter.

Come fall 2021, they want to take their efforts a step further by opening an on-site spay/neuter clinic at the Blountville shelter that will be used for shelter animals, community cats and eventually low-cost surgeries for the public. The clinic is under construction now.

“One thing that the pandemic has shown for shelters is the necessity to have more of these services in house,” said Holmes.

Just around the corner, ‘kitten season’ is fast-approaching.

“We’re gonna have a lot of calls coming in,” said Morrison. “We cannot escape it.”

For Holmes, “Kittens are cute but kitten season is not cute. They come in sick and unhealthy and they need a lot of work to get to the adoption floor.”

The community cat program last year helped Sullivan County delay the start of kitten season by a month. This year, it is a race to fix as many outdoor cats as possible to keep that going.

“If we can delay it until June we have almost cut it in half. So that’s critical,” said Holmes.

The biggest barrier here is cost. The shelter hopes to reach 1,000 community cats altered by the end of the year. They are asking the public to support their cause by donating money or volunteering to help trap and transport cats. Donations can be made online, type ‘community cat’ in the comment box for the money to go directly to this program.

As of the airing of this story on February 23, 2021 the shelter reports 367 community cats are on the waiting list to be altered. The form to be added to this list can be found on their website. You must be a Sullivan County resident to be accepted, Bristol City and Kingsport City have their own services.