Madi R. Hawkins, Director of Habersham County Animal Care & Control in Georgia, loves cats. She especially loves being in charge of a shelter that’s committed to saving them — even though it hasn’t always been that way.

“The polices in place when I first started, especially in regards to feral cats, were heartbreaking,” she said. “I remember days when 30-40 cats would be euthanized. There were hardly any cat adoptions, no cat rescues pulling from us, and no TNR options. If a cat came in trapped, that cat was euthanized for being feral. Residents could call and request removal of feral cats being fed, and animal control would respond, trapping dozens of cats and bringing them to the shelter to pretty much be euthanized as owner surrenders.

“If the cats were sneezing, coughing, or had any medical issue, they were euthanized. There was no treating of medical conditions. FIV and FeLV cats were immediately euthanized. There were no spay/neuter programs in place, and litter after litter was surrendered each spring.”

Today, Hawkins and the cats in her community have a lot to purr about. While the euthanasia rate in 2012, when Hawkins started, was around 95 percent, in the third quarter of 2016 it was 2.1 percent — just six cats. What happened?

“The Million Cat Challenge has helped us stay on track with positive ideas,” Hawkins said. “Seeing the numbers ‘on paper’ means so much more! And with the assistance of Alley Cat Allies, we completely changed trapping protocols.” Here’s what happens now:

  • Animal Control no longer responds to remove feral cats from residents.
  • Residents feeding cats now come check out traps (minimum two traps at a time) with a refundable deposit when the traps are returned. This greatly reduced daily cat intake.
  • When grant funds are available, Animal Control volunteers will trap and transport community cats and offer free TNR services to residents willing to allow the cats to return.
  • The shelter drafted and adopted a “nuisance feeding”  ordinance, which exempts TNR colonies, which Hawkins says has greatly helped convince folks to opt for TNR.
  • Cats brought to the shelter by the public are networked on social media, and donations are used to vet the cats.
  • Medical issues are now treated by a veterinarian who donates time Friday mornings to visit the shelter, the vet then comes up with treatment plans.
  • Social media is used to promote cat adoption and rescues.
  • Fosters are utilized for kittens, helping them stay out of the germ-y environment while their vaccines take effect.
  • A newly formed local cat rescue, which consists of many of the shelter’s volunteers, has been a remarkable help, especially during times of overcrowding and kitten season.
  • They currently have a low-cost spay program to help prevent unwanted litters, and have had 50+ felines signed up in the past four months.

“All these combined have helped to increase adoptions and rescues, and lower euthanasia rates at our shelter,” Hawkins said. One of her favorite programs? “The not-so-socialized ‘Blue Collar Cats’ are altered, ear-tipped, and vaccinated, then adopted out at no charge to barn homes. They even have a colony at the shelter — and no more mouse problems in the food storage areas!”

Aristocat (pictured above) is one of their original shelter colony cats. “He was trapped in 2014,” she said. “While he still doesn’t like being confined or held, he comes and sits with me in the early mornings while I have a cup of coffee and really enjoys getting petted and giving us head bumps!”

Like many successful communities, support from local government has been key to improvements at the shelter. “We have been blessed with having an understanding and compassionate local government that understands that sometimes we may need to spend a little more to save many lives,” she said. “They have been supportive in our endeavors and understand the importance of Animal Control establishing a positive relationship with the citizens we serve.”

Are things perfect at the shelter yet? Absolutely not, says Hawkins. “There’s always room for improvement. But cats were disposable here years ago. I remember thinking when I first started working here, ‘I can’t do this.’ It was too depressing.”

“I never thought that things could change like they did. Sure, some days are harder than others, trying to juggle cats to make space, frantically searching for temporary fosters, even giving up my bathroom to house sick kitties or staying up all night bottle feeding babies. Spending all day cleaning due to temporary housing set up for the extra intakes is hard. But it’s all worth it in the end.”