Cat shelter receptionist standing at counter helping a woman register her cat for services
Gidget Heldenbrand, right, helps a client register her cat for services at the Knox County Humane Society cat shelter. Credit: Cheryl Splain

Editor’s Note: This story is in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can submit questions to the staff.

MOUNT VERNON – In the span of one hour on Sept. 15, Knox Pages received four questions about the cat shelter. They came on the heels of four queries between Sept. 12 and 14.

The terminology was virtually identical in each email, and the overriding question was the same. Why isn’t the cat shelter taking cats? 

Additional questions include “Why does the shelter need a full-time vet?” and “Why is the Knox County Humane Society still asking for donations and holding fundraisers when it isn’t accepting cats?”

“We have been without cats for adoption almost a year,” humane society board chair Martha Otto acknowledged. 

Otto said the organization stopped taking in cats in October 2022. It still had a few onsite when the 501(c)(3) group started a fall renovation project.

Construction was completed in late spring of this year.

“We were getting ready for a grand opening when our full-time vet resigned to go to another position,” Otto said. “Even before that, last fall, we decided not to adopt out during construction and not to take any more cats because the stress isn’t good for the cats.

“Without a full-time vet, we didn’t feel able to take in cats for adoption,” she said. “We need someone here in case an animal gets sick. We need someone here when animals come in.”

Full-time veterinarian Dr. Elaine Sipka resigned in June. Board members scrambled to find a new one.

“We were able to gain the services of Dr. Vanessa Douglas mid-summer. Because of her presence, we were able to continue with our spay and neuter surgeries and the wellness clinic on a limited basis,” Otto said. 

The organization previously offered two clinics and two surgery days each week. Those services stopped when Sipka resigned.

The organization continued medication services to existing clients. 

Reducing the backlog

Otto said staff members referred calls about surrendering and adopting cats to other resources “to try to at least make the best accommodations for the inquiries that we were getting.”

Clinics and surgeries each resumed one day a week when Douglas came on board the first part of July. Douglas had retired from active practice. Dr. Katherine Cotter also helped provide services.

Otto said Douglas was hesitant about providing services beyond August due to other commitments. However, she was able to free up time in September and then through October.

The agency is now accepting October appointments and trying to catch up with the backlog.

Otto said the board is close to extending a hiring offer to a full-time vet.

“Hopefully by the end of October we might have that offer completed so that we can get back to our regular surgery and clinic schedule and start taking in cats,” she said.

Otto said the board prefers a full-time vet because the animals need constant care. 

“We don’t know what kind of emergencies might come in,” she said, adding there are also situations where people call about a debilitated animal that ultimately needs euthanasia. “We don’t always know when those calls will come in, but when they do, we like to accommodate them as quickly as possible.

“We’ve had a full-time vet for so long, we like that comfort level.”

Otto said having a group of veterinarians is possible but said “the consistency of having one is to our benefit.”


The organization typically has two staff members at the front desk. One resigned on Tuesday. 

Otto said the board will fill the position.

“As we start getting cats in for adoption, we will increase our staff to include animal caregivers during regular hours and weekends and holidays,” Otto said. “When we do get staffed up, we might go back to open hours on Saturday.” 

As far as fundraising, Otto said the society has not held a fundraiser for three years.

“We are a nonprofit organization. We don’t get any county funds or from the city, so all we live on is what donors will donate to us,” she said. “We’re not pushing it, but there’s always the hope that people are appreciative of what we do.

“We charge for services, but that is not the whole income.”

Otto said the organization has done things such as offering a special rabies clinic at reduced rates but noted that was done at the society’s expense and was not a money-making event. 

“We are in business. We are trying our best to provide services to the Knox County public. We are trying our best to help reduce the overpopulation of cats and dogs with our spay and neuter program,” she said.

“We’ve had a couple of incidents that have kept us from offering the full range of offerings that we would like to,” she continued. “We are in the process of trying to fix that, and I think we are getting close to where we are able to open for a full range of services to the public and to the animals of Knox County.”

The Knox Pages Open Source section is brought to you by Habitat for Humanity of Knox County.

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