An American Saturday Night with Operation Catnip Stillwater

October 7, 2014
by Jacqueline Paritte, PhD

Operation Catnip Stillwater volunteer traps cat (credit: Jacqueline Paritte)
Operation Catnip Stillwater volunteer, Macy Schneeberger, trapping cats. Jacqueline Paritte

It’s a Saturday evening in Stillwater, Okla.—America’s heartland. As the sun sets, most people are settling in for an evening at home or are getting ready for a night on the town.  But the trapping teams of Operation Catnip Stillwater are heading to work.

Teams disperse to various locations around northern Oklahoma. Their goal: Humanely catch as many stray cats as possible before morning. Saturday night is the best time for trapping to occur because on Sunday morning, all stray cats trapped will arrive at the Operation Catnip Stillwater medical clinic, where they will be spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies, and treated for fleas.  Then, after a day of rest and recovery, all cats are released back where they were caught.  To identify these cats as spayed or neutered, they will have their left ear “tipped,” which means that while under anesthesia for spaying/neutering, the top quarter-inch of their left ears are surgically removed.  This process is called TNR, or trap-neuter-return.

This story is retold around the second Sunday of every month at Operation Catnip Stillwater, or OCS, Oklahoma’s non-profit organization providing medical care for free-roaming, un-owned cats at once-a-month clinics. The OCS clinic model is based on strategies implemented at two other clinics, Operation Catnip Gainesville in Gainesville, Fla., and the original Operation Catnip Clinic founded in 1997 in Raleigh, N.C.  Catnip organizations like OCS organize larger clinics once each month rather than operating more frequently.  To compensate, each monthly clinic can handle up to 300 cats at once, more than the capacity of a typical spay/neuter/vaccination clinic.

Operation Catnip Stillwater volunteer does IV reversal (credit: Jacqueline Paritte)
Veterinary student, Eurie Han does an IV reversal on a feline patient. Jacqueline Paritte

The strategy of holding large scale, less frequent clinics still provides effective vaccination and spay/neuter services to stray cat populations, but allows for ultra-efficient use of not only locations and resources, but also precious volunteer hours, the fuel that makes OCS clinics possible (each clinic requires the work of 80 volunteers!). The once-a-month strategy also builds an event atmosphere around clinic days, creating a sense of teamwork and camaraderie, not only among those who volunteer at the clinics themselves, but also to those who volunteer on cat-trapping teams and with other duties, such as working at the OCS Trap Depot, where 300 humane cat traps are available for free rental to community members.

When the Saturday night trapping teams arrive with their cats on clinic Sunday, clinic volunteers work efficiently to get animals checked in and ready for surgery. Each of the 80 OCS volunteers has a specific job—one person assigns intake numbers to cats, another transports them to a waiting area, while another verifies if they are male or female. When it comes time for surgery and vaccination, there are volunteers who check for microchips, give antibiotic injections, prep for surgery, give vaccinations, and help the cats recover from surgery until they are ready to go home.  Still yet, there are more volunteers who never see a cat during the day—these volunteers are in charge of doing laundry, cleaning cat traps, and sterilizing surgical equipment to keep up with clinic demand.  This division of duties is how OCS clinics can handle hundreds of cats in one day so efficiently.

Keep in mind that OCS volunteers must do all of this while also keeping themselves safe from harm, so two of the key rules of OCS clinics are that 1) anyone who handles a cat must have an up-to-date rabies vaccination, and 2) no awake cats are allowed to be handled outside a cage. Catnip anesthesia technicians are trained to anesthetize stray cats while the cats are still in a humane trap. This keeps volunteers safe from potential bites and scratches, and also keeps the cats safe from escape and injury in an unfamiliar environment.  Once all medical care is completed under anesthesia, cats are returned to their cages and wake up safely.

Operation Catnip Stillwater volunteers vaccinate cats (credit: Jacqueline Paritte)
Post surgery, volunteers Kate Cappe and Celena Quist, vaccinate each cat. Jacqueline Paritte

Operation Catnip Stillwater has provided veterinary care to thousands of cats. But OCS is more than just a spay/neuter clinic. OCS maintains a close relationship with the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which makes each clinic day an opportunity for veterinary students to get advanced experience in animal handling, peri-operative animal care, and even surgery.  The mission of OCS is not just to provide veterinary care, but also to strengthen the education and training of America’s future veterinary professionals.  Student volunteers are thoroughly trained in all procedures before being asked to do them, and work under the supervision of as many as 10 volunteer veterinarians to assure that even though clinic patients are un-owned cats, all animals still receive top-quality veterinary care.

With everything that OCS does, there are some things that it does not do. OCS does not accept owned cats for veterinary treatment. The OCS mission is to provide care to animals that would otherwise receive none.  Volunteers refer those looking for pet services to any one of Stillwater’s highly-trained private practice veterinarians.  OCS also does not trap cats for relocation or euthanasia.  Time and time again, the TNR strategy has been shown to be the best way to manage stray cat populations—best for both the cats and the communities they live in.  And while OCS does reserve the right to transfer any potientially adoptable cat to local animal rescue, OCS itself does not provide adoption services.  They leave that to their local experts—the Stillwater Humane Society and Tiny Paws Kitten Rescue.

So the next time you are relaxing on a Saturday evening, take a minute to remember all those hard-working volunteers that are out across America making sure homeless animals get the veterinary care they need. And consider volunteering yourself; you will surely meet some pretty cool cats.

Operation Catnip Stillwater team (credit: Erin Park)

The Operation Catnip Stillwater team!     Erin Park

Jacqueline Paritte is in the class of 2015 at Oklahoma State University College Of Veterinary Medicine.