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Organizations aim to curb growing Pinal feral cat population

CASA GRANDE — Feral cat communities throughout Pinal County are experiencing a population boom.

And animal advocates say they’re seeing an alarming increase in health problems among the homeless felines, including more cases of feline leukemia, upper respiratory conditions and large kitten litters with offspring that are small and struggling.

“I’ve been working with feral cats in this area for six years and this is the sickest I’ve seen them. We find a lot of deceased cats,” said Arizona City resident Cathy Ehninger, who started Itty Bitty Bottle Babies to save orphaned kittens, including those produced by sick feral cats.

She attributes much of the problem to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID made the feral cat situation worse because for about three months we couldn’t trap feral cats and have them spayed or neutered,” Ehninger said. “A feral cat can have two to three litters of kittens a year or more. Because they’re having so many kittens, we’re seeing a lot of problems in the mother cat as well as the litters.”

Ehninger, who recently attained nonprofit status for Itty Bitty Bottle Babies, often takes in kitten litters as young as a few days old. Many of the litters produced by feral cats require medical attention and round-the-clock bottle feeding.

She shares updates of the kitten litters on Facebook, posting videos showing happy, healthy kittens playing or finding new homes. But some posts are more somber.

“Mini Cooper has joined his siblings in kitten Heaven today. He went to sleep peacefully. What a precious little angel,” one post in July said.

In Casa Grande, it has been difficult to get an accurate count of exactly how many feral cats there are, said Julie Stocke, animal control supervisor with the Casa Grande Police Department.

Each month, between 50 and 100 cats are brought to the city animal shelter, she said.

“We don’t have very many residents show up at the shelter looking for missing cats,” she said. “Because we get so many cats, we can’t hold them any longer than is required by law. Seventy-two hours is the longest we can hold a cat if it doesn’t have a tag or microchip.”

Feral cats are found throughout the city.

“The cat situation is very difficult,” Stocke said. “We have very heavy feral cat colonies on the south side of Casa Grande, but wherever there are birds there are feral cats, so we have cat colonies in neighborhoods throughout the city. We are working very hard to find a solution.”

Casa Grande Animal Control often coordinates with other groups, including Ehninger’s Itty Bitty Bottle Babies and Mary Eitel’s Valley Kitten Nursery & Rescue, to have adult cats trapped, spayed or neutered and to find homes for the kittens.

At a recent spay-neuter clinic arranged by Pets In Need Action League, Eitel brought in several trapped feral cats from throughout the county, including Apache Junction, Coolidge and Maricopa. Casa Grande Animal Control also brought in several cats from Casa Grande.

“Pets In Need has been helping the city pay to have some of the feral cats spayed or neutered using some of their grant funding,” Stocke said. “We hope to get our own grant to help with the feral cat problem, but for now, it’s the other groups that are helping us. We’re one of the few agencies that will pick up feral cats.”

Pet owners who don’t spay or neuter a pet cat are part of the problem, she said.

“One loose or abandoned unaltered cat can start a chain reaction,” she said. “Some pet owners don’t take actions to keep their pets from reproducing. Over seven years, one cat and its offspring can produce nearly 500,000 cats.”

Many of the orphaned litters are nursed back to health by Ehninger or Eitel, then efforts are made to find the animals a permanent home.

Stopping feral cats from reproducing is key to solving the problem, Eitel said.

“We try to get as many as we can from a colony,” Eitel said. “We trap them, then have them spayed or neutered. Once that’s done, their ear gets tipped; that’s the international symbol for a spayed or neutered cat. The cats are then released back into their colony but they can’t reproduce.”

Feral cats are not unique to Casa Grande.

“Every city across the country is inundated with feral cats right now. It’s what happens when people don’t fix their pet cats, then let them go wild or let them roam to reproduce,” Ehninger said. “That’s a scenario that’s everywhere.”

Area residents who like to feed feral cats can help solve the problem of overpopulation.

“If people want to feed the cats, they should at least help us trap them so we can have them spayed or neutered,” she said. “The cat won’t be hurt and it’s back in 24 hours. Cats are territorial. They like to return to the same place. But once the cats are altered, the population dwindles out by natural attrition.”

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CG movie fans excited to return to theaters

CASA GRANDE — Jan Miles and Marcia Bridgewater were ready to munch on popcorn and sip soda Friday afternoon as they headed toward an afternoon showing of “Unhinged.”

The two friends and self-proclaimed movie buffs would go to the movies at least once a week before COVID-19 prompted the closure of theaters.

Friday, as Harkins Theatres reopened doors to the public once again, Miles and Bridgewater were among afternoon movie-goers eager to return to the theaters.

“We’re seeing ‘Unhinged’ but honestly, we’re so excited to be going to the movies again that we’d see anything,” Bridgewater said.

Mark and Karen Lundgren were taking their teen daughter and a friend to see the new sci-fi thriller “The New Mutants” and said they felt safe knowing social distancing and other safety measures would be implemented inside the theater.

For the past few months, the family has been streaming movies at home.

“Even before COVID, I didn’t go to the movies too often,” Mark said. “But with the theater reopening today, we’re all excited to be going again.”

Harkins Theatres, Arizona’s largest chain, announced on Tuesday that it would open its facilities on Friday, including in Casa Grande. In emails sent to fans and in an online announcement, the company said with reopening, it would have “rigorous and safety cleaning protocols in place.”

The theaters have been closed since March 20 as part of the state’s COVID-19 safety measures.

Among the updated safety protocols for movie attendees are socially distanced seating, facial covering requirements for all employees and patrons, reduced touch points and safety shields throughout the theater. Loyalty cup refills are now dispensed in disposable cups, the company website said.

For Krisenna and Levi Hancock of Casa Grande, the reopening of the movie theaters meant they could finally resume their regular Friday afternoon movie dates.

“Before COVID, we had a routine. We’d go to the movies once a week, usually on Fridays,” Krisenna said. “It feels so good to be going back to that routine again.”

County to receive $2.6M grant for COVID-19 testing, tracing

FLORENCE — Pinal County will receive a $2.6 million state grant for testing, case investigation and contact tracing related to COVID-19.

A portion of the grant will cover an emergency contract between the University of Arizona and Pinal County Public Health for COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing, Pinal County Health Director Tascha Spears told the Pinal Board of Supervisors Wednesday. The board voted to accept the grant and approve the contract.

Pinal County Manager Louis Andersen said the county is working with Casa Grande and Florence on two free COVID-19 test sites. “Public Health has been working hard on this. We’re hoping to get those up by the end of the month.” The lab has guaranteed a 48-hour turnaround on the results, Andersen said.

Also Wednesday, the board approved a new economic development coordinator position within the county’s Economic and Workforce Development Department. Economic Development Director Tim Kanavel told the board the employee will make direct contacts with small businesses for both the economic development and workforce development functions of the office.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said he envisioned this new job helping the county with business retention, which is sometimes overlooked in economic development. Andersen said the position is already in the county’s budget, and Wednesday’s action allows the county to recruit for it.

The board also voted to create a new senior drafting specialist position within the Pinal County Assessor’s Office and increase the office’s budget by $66,213. Pinal County Assessor Douglas Wolf told the board in a memo that this restores a position that was cut five years ago. Wolf added Wednesday it will help decrease processing times for subdivisions, not only helping developers but also helping the county by putting properties on the tax rolls faster.

In other business Wednesday:

  • The county’s application window for nonprofits to receive special federal Community Development Block Grant funding for COVID-19 relief is open until Sept. 18 and applications from small businesses for funding from the county’s Business Sustainability Program will be accepted until Oct. 16, Andersen told the board.

Businesses located in an incorporated city or town must apply to the municipality for help. About half the county’s cities have yet to finalize their plans, “and I think they’re getting some pressure” to do so, Andersen said.

  • Andersen reported the county continues to publicize and promote the U.S. Census and urge residents to respond to it before the Sept. 30 deadline. He said he asked the county’s federal lobbyist if the date could be extended because of the pandemic, but he wasn’t hopeful. He said he also learned census takers were reporting some residents won’t even answer the door for fear of exposure to the virus.
  • The four new county office buildings under construction in Florence, San Tan Valley and Maricopa are all on track, Andersen reported.
  • Miller thanked Andersen and the Public Works Department for the help given to the Stanfield community after the storm last week.
  • In “call to the public,” the board clerk read an email from a resident who asked that Wolf receive a reprimand or censure for a voice mail message he allegedly left for his opponent after the Aug. 4 primary election. Vice Chairman Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, responded the board would take the comment under advisement.