For animal rescue volunteers and shelter workers, spring means "kitten season" -- an increase in cat mating, kitten births and deaths by euthanasia. These deaths take a toll on people, too.

Karen Walther, who manages an animal shelter in Elko, Nev., knows how tough it is to look in an animal's eyes and be directly responsible for its death. The Elko shelter takes in animals from all over Elko County, one of the West's largest counties. Twelve kittens were dropped off during just four days in early May.

"We try hard not to euthanize a kitten, but too often we have to," Walther says. With euthanasia, she adds, "you can find a place in your mind for it if it's a behavioral problem, but if we just have no room, it's terrible."

One fertile, unspayed female can give birth to three litters a year for a total of some 21 kittens. If those kittens aren't sterilized, and the kittens of those kittens aren't sterilized and so on, within seven years up to 420,000 cats may be born. In a 1997 survey, the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy calculated that 71 percent of cats entering shelters were euthanized.

A shelter volunteer in Sacramento says people keep coming in to drop off litters of week-old kittens, claiming that they found them -- "but they aren't turning in the mom." The shelter had to euthanize more than a dozen newborn kittens in one day in May. The kitten season lasts nine months, from March to November.

Consistent and pervasive spay-neuter programs are the key to reducing the numbers of unwanted cats. The challenge, however, is keeping the cost low. Sacramento, Calif., participates in an annual, inter-agency Spay Day event, making $15 spay and neuter operations available for cats.

But in Elko, Nev., spaying a female cat costs between $75 and $97, and neutering a male cat costs between $40 and $97. The shelter estimates that only 33 percent of adopters who sign a contract agreeing to alter their pet actually do so, in spite of an available $25 refund.

In western Colorado, the Montrose Animal Shelter cut its euthanasia rate in half last year, thanks in part to a spay-neuter clinic offered every other month and a charge of only $20 for sterilizing cats. In neighboring Delta County, there is no county shelter, so residents formed Citizens for Animal Welfare and Shelter (CAWS), an all-volunteer nonprofit funded by thrift store sales and donations. Their goal is to make spay-neuter free and accessible.

CAWS president Debbie Faulkner says, "We average 130 calls a month on the CAWS cell phone, and most of those are asking for coupons for spay-neuter. When we gave free coupons recently in one location we had a line of 140 people, and we only had 100 coupons." Of the  $101,000 income CAWS is budgeting for 2009, the group will spend $78,000 on spay-neuter programs, enough for approximately 1,000 pets.

CAWS representatives joined a task force, which included the Delta County sheriff's department, to officially make CAWS the recipient of unclaimed animals in the area. Because no shelter existed, stray animals were wandering along roads, getting hit by cars or shot by people.

CAWS places unclaimed pets throughout Colorado and as far away as California and Washington. Faulkner estimates that CAWS has rescued 3,500 animals with a core of just four volunteers.

In Montrose, volunteers created a network for transferring animals to approved agencies outside the area. As for the busy kitten season, "We have foster families taking care of the kittens until they are old enough to be adopted," says Montrose Police Department Officer and Shelter Supervisor Mike Duncan.

Starting this July, and thanks to corporate, private and business grants and donations, the Elko shelter plans to open a spay-neuter clinic to ensure that each adopted animal leaves the facility sterilized. "The Elko community should be very proud," Walther says.

In kitten season and year-round, people who love animals make the difference for them. As of this writing, there are six kittens waiting for new homes at the CAWS thrift store in Paonia. They'll probably find families by the time you finish reading this, and you can be sure that volunteers will follow up to make sure the cats are spayed and neutered.

Alexa Mergen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Sacramento, California.