Not long after the Mobile County Animal Shelter was sued over over a pet that was euthanized, the facility moved away from accepting healthy cats altogether — a shift in policy rescue groups now believe is driving up the number of feral cats in the area.

Seven minutes after he arrived, the cat, Porkchop, was euthanized after staff there incorrectly determined he was feral. His owner filed a lawsuit against Mobile County that spanned several years before being settled out of court in late 2016.

Today, the shelter only accepts feral or domesticated cats exhibiting an injury or sickness, those on commercial or public property posing a danger to the public and orphaned kittens younger than eight weeks.

MCAS doesn’t attribute the change to the lawsuit, as there was an active review of its policies by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program going on in 2013, but whatever the reason, statistics show cat intakes plummeted drastically after its implementation.

Since 2012, the number of cats taken in by MCAS has dropped from 2,732 to just 262 in 2017, according to data provided by humane officer and shelter director Carmelo Miranda.

“We started to implement changes in the shelter cat intake in 2013, and this started to reduce the [number of] cats being brought into the shelter and lowered the euthanasia rates,” he said. “Keep in mind, the shelter staff had to handle that number of cats, along with the holding period mandate, with little to no spaces to hold [them] for adoption.”

The facility has just 22 housing cages for cats, and 11 of those must remain empty so cats can be transferred during daily cleaning procedures according to MCAS’ disease prevention protocols. Miranda also said the adoption rate of cats brought to the shelter has been as low as 1 percent‚ another factor he attributed to the previously high rate of cat euthanization.

The mandated holding period for domesticated cats is seven days, after which they can be adopted, rescued or euthanized. It’s just three days for feral cats, and in cases of injuries or illnesses, cats can be rescued early or, in some cases, euthanized immediately.

Still, fewer cats in the door has meant fewer cats being put down.

Of the 2,732 cats brought to MCAS in 2012, around 80 percent (2,365) were euthanized. Last year, only 96 had to be put down and most of those were sick, injured or ill tempered.

However, Valerie Blankenship, a cat coordinator with Save a Stray in Mobile, told Lagniappe the change has led to a significant uptick in the number of feral cats in the county and left residents having to deal with them on their own.

Currently, MMAS’ only advice to residents is to remove any “food” or “shelter” strays might use or to call volunteer organizations facilitating Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs such as the Azalea City Cat Coalition — which doesn’t remove cats but helps curtail the overall population.

“With our weather, a cat can have a litter any time of the year. They can get pregnant as young as four months, they can have two or three litters a year and an average litter is about three to six cats,” Blankenship said. “If you do the math, that’s a lot of cats.”

Blankenship said she’s been receiving more and more calls about unwanted cats on people’s property and businesses, adding that there are even so-called “feral cat colonies” in a number places throughout the county. It’s not just Blankenship who has seen an uptick in cat calls, either.

Susan Young has worked with the Azalea City Cat Coalition, another all-volunteer organization, for the past decade and said her phone has been ringing off the hook lately.

“Some days we get up to 50 calls a day, and we’ve had to go to email and voicemail because we can’t keep up with it all,” she said. “It’d be nice if we had the support and collaboration of MCAS. They refer to us, which is great, but since they’re not taking cats, it places a tremendous burden on little grassroots organizations like ours.”

To be clear, Blankenship and Young both said they’re pleased the rate of euthanizations at the shelter has dropped, but ideally would like to see the county and city of Mobile move toward the TNR programs encouraged by most national animal welfare organizations.

Miranda said feral cats are considered wild animals, so there’s no law preventing them from roaming freely or a requirement to impound them, but most cat groups have been asking the same question: If there was a 90 percent reduction in cat intakes, where did the savings go?

“The reduction in the number of cats entering the shelter per year did result in less expenditure for cats that require housing, euthanasia drugs and other necessary sustenance,” Miranda said, addressing what he called a “fractional savings.” “[That] helped lower the expenditures in certain areas [around] $15,000 or less, but the savings was minimal compared to the increase of more than $100,000 in financial responsibilities implemented into the shelter budget.”

Miranda said those extra dollars went toward hiring a veterinarian, medical supplies and testing to prevent diseases and to creating a microchipping program for adopted pets — most of which were recommendations from the 2013 Maddie’s study. This year, MCAS was allocated $1.3 million from the county, the vast majority of which went to personnel expenses.

Young noted that other cities and counties, including some locally, have adopted or are moving toward adopting TNR program, which she claims is not only more humane than mass euthanization, but the only way to effectively address the county’s feral cat problem.

In 2017, Orange Beach partnered with local animal groups to start a TNR program through its police department, and County Administrator Ron Cink recently disclosed that the Baldwin County Animal Shelter is working toward establishing its own program.

Across the bay, Young hopes the city and county can eventually take a similar approach.

“If we’ve quit taking cats in — which, again, is a good thing — why can’t we take that savings and turn it into TNR vouchers? Volunteer organizations can’t pay for all of it,” she said. “City and county governments have been trapping and killing cats for 60 years. It’s horrible, it doesn’t work and it costs a lot of money. Why don’t we do something more humane now that we have a solution?”