Oregon Humane Society to stop accepting stray cats in Marion County

A kitten awaits surgery at a shelter in Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This article was updated Wednesday, Nov. 16 after Marion County provided more detail about the proposed memorandum.

The Oregon Humane Society’s Salem campus will no longer accept stray cats from Marion County starting Tuesday, removing a major home for wayward felines as rescuers say the region faces a cat overpopulation crisis.

Sharon Harmon, the president and chief executive officer for the Humane Society, said the Portland-based animal rescue can’t continue to take in strays without a legal agreement with Marion County authorizing them to hold animals.

Harmon said that’s required because stray animals are considered found property under state law, and private organizations don’t have the authority to take in or rehome found property. The rescue isn’t seeking money from the county.

“It’s just like any other personal property – there’s a holding period, there’s a notification period,” she said.

Harmon said the rescue has been unable to reach an agreement since the Oregon Humane Society merged with Willamette Humane Society on July 1. Other counties served, including Polk, Multnomah and Clackamas, have signed similar agreements.

“It’s a huge loss to the community,” Harmon said. “We’re offering a critical service at no cost.”

Marion County operates a shelter for stray and lost dogs, but has no county programs for cats.

Prior to its merger, Willamette Humane Society never had an agreement about stray cats with Marion County, Oregon Humane Society spokeswoman Laura Klink said. The organization still took in stray cats.

“While we have been taking in stray cats and kittens for some time, we have been doing it without formal legal authority that is held by the county. We need to address the root issue: ensuring that stray cats and kittens have protection under municipal codes in Marion County,” Klink said in an email.

Marion County spokesman Jon Heynen said the Humane Society “is aware of the county’s concern with certain provisions in the (memorandum of understanding) which serve to shift liability for stray cats to taxpayers, an obligation taxpayers do not have under Oregon law.”

He said the county took issue with language in the proposed memorandum saying the Humane Society would act as an agent of the county by taking in stray cats.

“Responsibility for cats, that’s not the county’s responsibility,” he said.

A county delegating authority it doesn’t have raised legal concerns, he said.

“It is our understanding that the Oregon Humane Society may continue to receive cats whether or not they have an MOU with Marion County. That said, we continue to work with the Oregon Humane Society, as we do with all of our community partners, to further the health and safety of our community,” Heynen’s email said.

The Humane Society shared a copy of a similar agreement signed in October with Polk County, which says the Humane Society will notify the county when it takes in cats, provide a description and hold strays for 24 hours.

The change has smaller rescues in the area concerned and confused.

Kathi Buchta, a longtime volunteer and former board president for Meow Village, said the foster-based rescue in Aurora has never had an agreement with the county to take in strays. 

Other small rescues in the area don’t either, and Buchta said she was confused why the issue was just coming up now.

“None of us have the size that the Humane Society has and it’s just always kind of been a standard, we refer people on: ‘We’re pretty full right now but check with the Humane Society,’” she said.

Harmon said the rescue stopping intake for Marion County strays shouldn’t affect the availability of adoptable cats in Salem because there are ample intakes of cats from other areas covered by the Humane Society.

The rescue will continue to accept owner-surrendered cats in Marion County.

But it will significantly reduce the intake of local cats. She said over half the cats currently taken in at the Salem campus are strays.

“That’s going to be a big shift. There’s no doubt about it,” she said.

Harmon encouraged people who come across cats they believe are stray to try to find an owner using social media. Unlike dogs, she said it’s not unusual for cats with owners to wander a neighborhood or search for additional sources of food, and people sometimes mistake those owned cats for strays.

“Cats can have in their minds multiple places they call home,” she said. “The cat you think is lost may very well have a home.”

People with existing intake appointments to bring stray cats to the Humane Society’s Salem campus can still do so as long as the appointment was made by Nov. 14, according to a frequently asked questions page on the Humane Society website.

Salemites who find stray cats in Polk County can continue to contact the shelter about them.

“I hope they can figure something out because everybody’s pretty anxiety-ridden,” Buchta said. “We’re just concerned what’s going to happen.”

Correction: This article was updated to correct Sharon Harmon’s title. She is president and CEO, not executive director. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.