YAKIMA -- In seven years, a single pair of unaltered cats and their offspring could produce 420,000 felines.
That's disregarding significant mortality rates in the wild, said Fred Hammes, a local volunteer trying to curb cat overpopulation by fixing feral cats. But the numbers still are high, and the rate of feline reproduction is overwhelming local animal groups.
In Yakima County, cat overpopulation has long been a problem as pet owners fail to spay or neuter their cats and their unwanted kittens end up roaming the streets.
"I don't think anybody has any numbers on it. There are probably hundreds of colonies" around town and in rural areas, with anywhere from 20 to 300 cats in each, Hammes said. She started working with feral cats last year, with the removal of 100 cats from the All Star Motel on North First Street in June as her first big project.
With the help and guidance of Puget Sound Working Cats, a nonprofit organization in the Seattle area, Hammes is working to implement a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program in which she traps feral cats, takes them to spay and neuter clinics in Lynnwood, then releases them or places them with people who want cats for rodent control.
The Feral Cat Spay-Neuter Project in Lynnwood provides free spay-neuter clinics for feral cats, and kicks in a free rabies shot with the procedure. There's no free clinic like that in Central Washington, so transportation is a big hurdle.
Hammes doesn't have the resources to adopt or host all those cats indefinitely, but by fixing them, she hopes to make a dent in the growing population of feral cats.
"I've already gotten close to 700 cats fixed, vaccinated and vetted," she said.
Spaying and neutering gets to the root of the problem: In Yakima, as in many other communities with large cat problems, owners often don't know how important it is to fix pets, or they don't want to spend the money, Hammes says.
"Cats are really not treated as pets in Yakima; they're kind of treated as vermin," Hammes said. "There's a disposable pet attitude. ... People go on Craigslist, get a free kitten, and don't get it fixed."
Cat problems also spring from people who think they're doing the right thing, she said: They see a stray in the neighborhood, put food out and soon find themselves with dozens of cats using their backyard as a litter box. Hammes said she took more than 40 cats out of one small house.
The issue isn't limited to feral cats. Last month, Hammes was called into an emergency situation where 14 pet cats were left for four months in the home of a woman who was hospitalized and unable to return to care for them.
Family members visited the house to put out fresh food and water each week, but no one was cleaning up. By the time Hammes got there, one of the cats was dead and rotting, and another was trapped under a pile of feces-soaked papers in a back room.
"I've never experienced anything like it in my life," Hammes said. She had to take four seriously ill cats to the vet, then found temporary foster homes for the others and is still working to get them all adopted. She brought several to the west side Tuesday.
But finding homes for cats, even tame ones, isn't easy. The nonprofit Humane Society of Central Washington's executive director Alan Landvoy said they see a much higher demand for dogs, and they only have a capacity for about 30 to 40 cats at a time.
Last year, he said, they took in 2,772 cats, but had to euthanize 1,960 -- a kill rate of about 70 percent.
Feral cats are almost impossible to adopt, so the Humane Society automatically euthanizes them unless they have a notch in their ear, a sign they've been fixed.
Hammes has asked to be contacted before they euthanize ear-tipped cats.
Wags to Riches, a nonprofit animal rescue group that is run by volunteers and depends on their homes, can't accept cats now because of limited space.
TNR is an alternative to euthanasia that has worked in other communities and is needed on a widespread level in Yakima, says Barb Horton, head of the Kent-based Puget Sound Working Cats, a Washington state registered charity.
On the west side, Horton said, the cat problem 15 years ago was similar to what Yakima has now, but the organization has brought it under control with a dedicated team of trained volunteers who fix cats and place them in barn homes to work as rodent hunters.
According to King County Animal Services statistics, the county's cat euthanasia rate dropped from nearly 50 percent in 2003 to about 17 percent in 2010. Conversely, numbers of cats released back to either the wild or adoptive homes rose from just above 50 percent to more than 80 percent.
"It's amazing," Horton said. She credits the change to the county working with TNR volunteers and instituting a barn cat program that's "cut the kill rate for cats to the lowest it's ever been."
After such success in the Seattle area, Horton and her volunteers are helping other communities: They spayed and neutered more than a thousand cats in Ocean Shores two years ago, and now they're reaching out to Yakima by transporting cats to the west side for clinics, finding barn homes for cats, and providing training to Yakima volunteers. Last year, Horton helped find homes for almost 40 kittens recovered by Hammes.
But she can't do it forever, she says.
"It shouldn't be the citizens of King County to take the overflow of Yakima because of irresponsible citizens over there," Horton said. "This is a chronic problem for your community, and you don't have the resources over there or the knowledge to take care of it."
Hammes has had a lot of equipment donated, and a program at the Humane Society provides vouchers to people who want to get their pets fixed but can't afford it.
Horton and Hammes say what Yakima really needs is volunteers: people who can trap cats, drive them to the Lynnwood clinics, wash towels, foster cats or keep cats in carriers in their garages for a few days before the clinics. There's also a demand for people who can house fixed feral cats as rodent control in their barns or warehouses.
"It's time for the people of Yakima to step up and help themselves," Horton said. "We're willing to show people the ropes."