PALMER — Mat-Su has a feral cat problem that some say is made worse by a local ban on free-roaming felines.
Like many parts of Alaska, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough plays host to scattered colonies of feral cats abandoned by owners or born wild outside. Often, the cats live and breed on the fringes of human contact to get food and rough shelter.
Feral cats account for the majority of cats killed at the borough animal shelter. They are judged poor candidates for adoption because of potentially dangerous behavior or disease.
The borough's animal shelter euthanized 364 cats in 2016 — about a third of the live animals that came in, according to borough statistics. That's up about 10 percent from the year before.
Many of them were probably feral, according to animal care and regulation manager Kirsten Vesel.
The shelter tries to give feral cats plenty of time — weeks if necessary — to adjust and get socialized, Vesel said. But many don't ultimately qualify for adoption at the already crowded shelter.
Cat rescue groups work with some Alaska shelters in communities like Homer or Houston to find places for feral cats. Some of the cats calm down enough to be adopted, rescuers say. Others go to people looking for mousers or barn cats outside.
But a Mat-Su borough leash law requires pets, including cats, be "continuously under restraint." So the shelter can't release cats to a rescue group knowing they'll be released to run wild after they're spayed or neutered.
The euthanasia rate is a painful reality for shelter staff and volunteers who took the jobs out of a love for animals, Vesel said.
But some of the cats are so wild they're dangerous, she said. Others may spread disease. Feral cats can come in with painfully frostbitten ears, lumps or missing parts.
"It's inhumane, in my opinion, not to put some of them down," Vesel said.
The leading cat rescue group in the Valley, however, says the borough ban on free-roaming cats coupled with the high chances for euthanasia deters people from calling for help with feral cats.
Clear Creek Cat Rescue, a nonprofit based in Wasilla, opposes the borough killing any feral cats.
"Some people call and hate them and want them gone," said the group's director, Judy Price. "But a lot of people see these cats and they care, and the idea that somebody's going to come out and kill them is just not what they want."
Cats may seem feral initially, Price said. But some are former house cats having lived wild long enough that human contact terrifies them.
"When we give them a chance in a home, we find out they're not really feral cats. They're house cats. They're just really scared," she said.
All sides agree that the larger problem isn't cats but humans: a combination of population growth plus pet owners unwilling or unable to spay or neuter their cats.
Another issue in Mat-Su is the relative lack of affordable spay or neuter services, with generally just one a month that has limited appointment space, advocates say.
The Alaska SPCA runs a low-cost spay and neuter clinic in Anchorage but currently offers no similar service in Mat-Su, though the nonprofit does offer mobile clinics in remote areas on the road system.
SPCA officials say they're working with the Mat-Su animal shelter to provide a clinic there in the future.
Feral cats are a problem in Houston, the city of about 2,000 along the Parks Highway north of Wasilla.
The city fire department runs the animal shelter and live-trapped four feral colonies in as many years. Each consisted of more than 20 cats.
One year, someone leaving the state for medical reasons left behind a house full of cats. Months later, the bank repossessed the home.
"They called us because there were 34 cats in the house," said Houston Fire Chief Christian Hartley.
Five firefighters ended up at various clinics getting tetanus shots and other treatment for disease linked to cat scratches, Hartley said. The chief at the time received a scratch that got so infected it nearly cost him his hand.
The most recent feline cat colony rescued in Houston involved a couple whose roaming cats created several litters of kittens and more than 20 cats total.
The city, together with Clear Creek Cat Rescue, is slowly finding homes for them.
"The most important thing is, if you are going to have a cat that you allow outside your door, it needs to be fixed — spayed or neutered," Hartley said. "Never let an unaltered cat outside."
Wildlife advocates say even spayed or neutered feral cats can take a tremendous toll on wild birds, small mammals and even frogs and other amphibians.
Besides predation, cats allowed to roam also spread diseases to native species, according to Toby Schwoerer, a senior research economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research.
"Cats are probably one of the most problematic and unrecognized invasive species in the world," Schwoerer wrote in an email.