Spay Baton Rouge, a nonprofit organization that encourages low-income pet owners to spay or neuter their pets, began with a soaked kitten on a rainy day.

On a sopping November day, Sandra DiTusa, an LSU research biologist, went to the animal shelter in Baton Rouge looking for her missing cat.

“I walked in and there was this tiny, drenched cat hanging onto the cage just screaming for help,” DiTusa said.

“I knew what would happen to the kitten if it stayed there past so many days,” she said. “I wanted to take ALL of them home and put them in the backyard where my husband wouldn’t see them.”

There are 60,000 feral cats in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ formula based on a city or county’s human population.

According to the ASPCA, 63 percent of households own pets, DiTusa said. “We help those who are financially stretched.

“About 110,000 people meet our financial criteria to be helped,” she said. “Out of 110,000 people, if 63 percent are pet owners, we would have 69,300 pets to help, if each of those owners had only one pet. Many have more than one pet.”

DiTusa didn’t find her once feral cat at the pound. She eventually trapped the cat in a neighborhood next to hers.

The memory of the wet kitten clinging to the cage stayed with DiTusa.

“I started researching,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a shelter. I thought, ‘Fix the problem, literally and figuratively.’”

DiTusa founded Spay Baton Rouge. The nonprofit organization, which has no paid workers and about 30 volunteers, has helped to spay or neuter 5,000 animals in a year.

East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control euthanized 8,222 dogs and cats in 2009. That number had dropped to 6,023, a 27 percent decrease, by 2010, DiTusa said.

She credited the efforts of “all the animal welfare groups working together” to spay/neuter animals and promote adoption, she said.

DiTusa and friends are about to launch a mail solicitation fundraiser called “Strive for 5,000,” to raise money for Spay Baton Rouge.

“We think we’ve done really well closing in on 10,000,” said fundraising chairwoman Noelle Harper, a project manager at Franklin Press when she isn’t raising money for Spay Baton Rouge.

“The reality is we could do 5,000 a year with the support of the community,” Harper said.

Though only “spay,” which means altering a female animal, is in the name, Spay Baton Rouge helps low-income pet owners neuter male pets, as well.

With the help of Azalea Lakes Veterinary Clinic, Baton Rouge Spay Neuter, the not-for-profit arm of Associated Veterinary Services clinic; and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, Spay Baton Rouge saves low-income pet owners hundreds of dollars in vet bills. Spay Baton Rouge has a budget of close to $80,000, DiTusa said.

In addition to mail solicitation, the group raises money through grants, a spring “Spay Soiree” and donations from individuals and businesses. For more information or to volunteer, call (225) 775-0101 or go to http://www.spaybatonrouge.org. Click on “Need Help Apply Here” or the “Donations” button.

Research shows that spaying and neutering 75 percent of the feral cat population in a city and county results in fewer wild cats within five years, DiTusa said.

A statewide initiative in New Hampshire that got 80 percent of the veterinarians to spay or neuter the pets of low-income families lowered the number of homeless cats and dogs, DiTusa said.

“Initially, it wasn’t just for low-income families,” she said. But the numbers went down significantly when pets among the poor were targeted, DiTusa said.

In 2008, almost 11,000 cats and dogs were brought to the East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control Center, DiTusa said. Many of those animals were picked up or brought to the shelter from low-income neighborhoods, she said. More than 80 percent of those animals were put to death, she said.