BELFAST, Maine — On Saturday, Amber Springer and her friend Misti Blair were driving on Back Belmont Road and bemoaning all the litter on the side of the road when they noticed a burlap sack starting to roll all by itself into a ditch.
“We were like, ‘What the heck?’” Springer recalled on Thursday.
The women pulled over and Springer untied the drawstring that had been used to tightly close the bag. Inside it there were two small black kittens, painfully skinny and infested with fleas.
“I don’t think they’re wild, because they come to us. They play with us,” Springer said of the cats. “I feel like [someone] was trying to drown them and just didn’t have the heart.”
So she and Blair took the kittens home and tried to figure out what to do with the animals, which they have dubbed Salem and Midnight.
“I’m an animal lover,” Blair said. “I’m not going to leave the cats on the side of the road.”
But this week they have been learning that even once the cats — or kittens — are out of the bag, it’s not easy to find a safe home for them. Springer’s husband is allergic to cats, so she couldn’t keep them, and Blair already has a house full of animals.
The city of Belfast does not at this time have a dedicated animal control officer, after longtime official Steve Boguen stepped down from the position in early July. The Belfast Police Department is now acting as de facto animal control officer for the city, and when Springer called to ask for help, she was told by an officer that she should seek out an animal shelter.
But the animal shelter that has contracted to serve Belfast for the last 18 months, P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Center in Rockport, is overflowing with cats.
There are 70 to 80 cats there now, and comfortable feline capacity is 60 to 65, according to Lisa Dresser, administrative director of the center.
“This time of year, it’s really not unusual for us and every shelter to just get overrun with cats and kittens,” she said. “The strays and the ferals are looking to have their kittens in a quiet, secluded space.”
That space can often be a barn or garage, she said, and the people who live in the adjacent houses usually don’t want the uninvited guests.
“Summer is just a prime time for cats and kittens at all the shelters,” she said.
But hers is so full of cats that they are not taking in any more felines — unless they are brought in by an animal control officer or a police officer from one of the shelter’s contracted communities.
“If an animal control officer or police officer takes in a stray animal, we will accept it, no questions asked,” Dresser said.
Belfast is by far the largest community to contract with P.A.W.S., she said, and last year more than 200 animals, including cats, were shuttled the half hour or so between the city and the shelter by residents or the former animal control officer.
Chief Mike McFadden of the Belfast Police Department said Thursday that until talking that day to a P.A.W.S. employee, he had not understood that Boguen on occasion had driven stray cats to the shelter.
“I’d been told we don’t do that,” he said. “Today, I learned that they will accept stray cats.”
He said that the police report stemming from Springer’s call did not specify that she had found the kittens tied up in a bag on the side of the road.
Belfast does not have a policy to bring feral cats to the shelter.
“Cats are a big issue, not only in our state but in other states as well,” McFadden said. “The numbers of cats are increasing at such a rate there’s just no way municipalities can afford to do what some people think should be done, which is to bring every cat to a shelter. We can’t just run to Rockport every time someone calls up and says, ‘There’s a cat running around my yard.’”
He said the city soon will be advertising for a new animal control officer. While it will be nice to have that position filled, police officers are taking their temporary task in stride. They have handled 14 animal complaints in the last week, he said. Most of those are about dogs, not about cats.
Dresser said that her shelter is running a special back-to-school sale on cats and kittens, with adoption fees for felines 50 percent off through Sept. 9. Those animals are all spayed, neutered and tested for heartworm, she said.
Two of those cats might be the roadside kittens, which Springer and Blair were packing up in plastic crates Thursday morning to make the trip south.
After the circumstances were explained, the shelter did agree to take in Salem and Midnight.
The active kittens meowed and tried their best to escape from the crates while the women were getting them ready.
“I hope that they find a good home with somebody who can take care of them,” Springer said. “And give them the medical attention they need.”