Horry County Animal Care Center reinstitutes euthanizing feral cats sooner

A feral cat waits to be fed by a Sav-R-Cats volunteer in an alley off of S. Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach.
A feral cat waits to be fed by a Sav-R-Cats volunteer in an alley off of S. Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach. The Sun News

A near monthlong program to keep all cats taken to the Horry County Animal Care Center for five days, regardless of them being determined feral, has shown an increase in adoptions, an increase in natural deaths and a risk to staff members that the county doesn’t see worth continuing the effort.

From March 25 through April 14, the animal care center experimented with a request from cat activists to keep all cats for five days at the shelter before euthanizing them, which is a similar practice used for dogs. Of the 190 cats taken in during that time, 9 percent were adopted, less than 1 percent were seen by a clinic, 12 percent died within five days and 73 percent were euthanized. Less than 1 percent were taken back to their owners.

Kelly Bonome, operations manager at the Animal Care Center, compared those figures to a high-volume month like July when 4 percent were adopted, 8 percent were seen by a clinic, 4 percent died within five days and 82 percent were euthanized.

“The ACC discovered no increase in reclaims and the ACC’s mission to provide a clean and healthy environment could not be met because the staff could not clean all the cages,” Bonome said. “As a result, more cats got sick.”

“If you compare the two numbers, it means that yes, a couple less animals were euthanized, but they died while they were waiting for five days. We weren’t able to see an increase in our live-release rate through this program. Our housing increased significantly and the risk to the staff through public safety issues with dealing with these cats increased significantly.”

Cat activists, including Frankie Bonnette, said the program was not long enough for the county to gauge its effectiveness, and moving forward, she said the county needs to work with the public more to help them become more responsible cat owners.

“We don’t think a month is long enough to really judge how effective this program is,” Bonnette told the county’s public safety meeting Monday. “We need the public to be more involved and more responsible for their cats.”

The county follows best practices set by, among other agencies, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to define a feral cat, which is one that shows signs it has not had much human contact during its life. John Coulter, the center’s newest veterinarian, said he reviewed the county’s practice of euthanizing feral cats as soon as the day after the cat is brought to the care center.

“I was very impressed with their procedures,” Coulter said. “They’re doing everything they can to segregate and isolate the cats to figure out which animal is which.”

Center officials check for collars, tags, microchips and indications of cats being a part of a colony if officials are able to get close enough to the cat. There is a three-step process where a team leader examines cats brought into their area daily, then a state-certified euthanasia technician examines the cats and then finally a list is brought to Bonome who checks websites like Craigslist, Facebook and more for those who may be missing their cat.

“We go through a rather lengthy process,” Bonome said.

But there are some cats who slip through the cracks, said Diana Canady, a cat activist. Canaday said she knows of a woman who lost two cats because of the rapid decision the county made to euthanize what they determined as a feral cat.

“All the definition of feral cat is subjective,” Canady said. “My concern is that saying a cat is feral is just a method to destroy the cat quicker to save money.”

Paul Whitten, assistant administrator for public safety for Horry County, assured Canady that is not the case and the county is following nationally recognized practices to make sure it has the best interest of the cat in mind.

“It’s a difficult situation, but at this time I am not prepared to recommend any modification to our procedures,” Whitten said, affirming the county’s stance on not keeping feral cats for five days. “It appears our procedures are solid... I think part of a concern is we’ll take a cat in that might be upset or stressed because of the cage, but we’re following best practices to identify feral cats.”

The idea of trying to make the county’s shelter a low-kill shelter like the Grand Strand Humane Society, which uses euthanasia as a last resort, is a noble one, Whitten said, but there are some differences in a state-mandated county animal shelter.

“I think the objective of getting to a low-kill shelter is a good goal... however, we are different than every other shelter,” Whitten said. “We do not have the ability to shut the doors and say no more animals. If I could do that, life would be a lot easier.”