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Government, Politics & Issues

Here’s How A Power Struggle In Madison County Led To The Neglect Of Feral Cats

A feral cat hunts on a Metro East Sanitary District levee as part of the district’s now abandoned Barn Cat program in partnership with the Metro East Humane Society. Only one of the 12 feral cats placed on the MESD levee was recovered after the program was abandoned.
Madison County
A feral cat hunts on a Metro East Sanitary District levee as part of the district’s now-abandoned Barn Cat program in partnership with the Metro East Humane Society. Only one of the 12 feral cats placed on the district's levee was recovered after the program was abandoned.

A program that aimed to save feral cats from being euthanized in Madison County may have led to their eventual neglect and possible deaths due to political power moves, according to the Metro East Humane Society.

Executive Director Anne Schmidt of the Metro East Humane Society said a political shift in power at the Metro East Sanitary District left nearly a dozen feral cats neglected and missing in January when they were supposed to be taken care of by the district while they patrolled for rodents on levees.

Metro East Sanitary District’s current Executive Director Rick Fancher did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Belleville News-Democrat about the abandonment of the levee cat program that occurred before he was named director.

A partnership forged by Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler and the humane society in 2018 put cats to work on the Metro East Sanitation District’s levee system through the Barn Cat Program.

“We’ve placed hundreds of cats through this program,” Schmidt said of the Barn Cat Program, a widespread initiative used across the country that puts feral cats to work in barns, warehouses and factories in lieu of euthanasia.

The program aimed to use feral cats to rid the levees of any burrowing rodents—which, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, can seriously harm the integrity of the levees—and help Madison County reach no-kill status for cats and dogs. Meanwhile, the levee district would provide shelter, food and water for the cats.

“It’s environmentally friendly pest control,” Schmidt said. “They live very happy lives, and this is where they live their whole lives anyway. It’s better than being euthanized, and that’s the alternative.”

Prenzler said he supported the partnership because making Madison County a no-kill county was one of his main goals as chairman.

“Before I was chairman in 2016, two-thirds of the cats and one-third of the dogs in Madison County were euthanized,” Prenzler said, noting that the county reached no-kill status in 2018. “It takes a big effort. We felt this was an innovative way to provide for the cats.”

Levee cat program ends

Schmidt said the program initially was a perfect match. She said the Metro East Sanitary District adopted the cats and provided them shelter on the levee, while the humane society had identity chips implanted in the cats, provided food for them and spayed or neutered the cats. The humane society also kept an eye on the cats through trail cameras and reported to the district if any predators, like coyotes, were in the area.

After several months of success, Schmidt said MESD informed the humane society that it had hired an individual to take care of the cats and requested that person be trained.

“We said, ‘This is great,’” she said. “If they wanted to take on the responsibility, that was great because we’re a nonprofit, and we pay for it out of pocket.”

The partnership continued, she said, with the new person watching over the cats, until she received a call in January from Prenzler. She said that Prenzler told her due to a power shift, the county had lost Republican control of the district and that, two weeks prior to his call, the sanitary district had abandoned the program.

This is the only cat rescued by the Metro East Humane Society after the Metro East Sanitary District ended a program to have cats hunt for rodents on levees.
This is the only cat rescued by the Metro East Humane Society after the Metro East Sanitary District ended a program to have cats hunt for rodents on levees.

Schmidt panicked. For two weeks, she said, the cats roamed the levee unfed and without anyone to look over them with predators in the area. By the time the humane society was notified and arrived to collect the feral cats, only one out of the 12 that were on the levee remained.

“The cats hadn’t had any care for two weeks,” she said. “When we went out there to catch our cats, we were only able to recover one cat. So we went from a colony of 12 down to one.”

She said it’s likely the cats roamed elsewhere searching for food, but there’s no way of telling what became of them. She said if any of the cats ended up in harm’s way, the blame should be MESD's.

“If anyone is talking about deaths of cats, that’s on MESD,” she said.

Control of levee district

Prenzler said the neglect of the cats was the opposite of the county’s intentions. He said it was only due to a drastic change that took place due to state legislation that shifted control and management of the district “overnight.”

In 2019, the state legislature approved a law, SB584, that would change the appointments of the MESD, removing one Madison County appointment and appointing Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer to the board. Along with flipping the Republican-controlled district to Democratic control, it also made it a requirement that the director of MESD live inside the district, a requirement then Executive Director Steve Adler did not meet.

In the power shuffle, Adler lost his job due to the legislation and former Metro East Sanitary District President Andy Economy was named executive director for a short time before Rick Fancher took the reigns of the district.

The district maintains several levees, 52.5 miles of canals, eight pump stations and 14 miles of sewers in Madison and St. Clair counties.

Prenzler said that within one night, three managers at the district were fired in January, and the levee cat program was abandoned.

“It was regrettable, but it was out of our control,” Prenzler said. “Three managers were let go at MESD, and the program they had helped was abandoned. It’s nothing we intended.”

Now, Schmidt said insult is being added to injury over the program due to campaign ads from Prenzler’s campaign praising the success of the program. Prenzler’s Democratic challenger, Bob Daiber, has called for a review of the Barn Cat Program by the Public Safety Committee, calling the way the program was operated by MESD dangerous to the animals it was supposed to protect.

Daiber said while he supports the overall program, he questions how safe it is to have cats on the levee at all.

Schmidt said that while Prenzler and Daiber are both supporters of the humane society and the Cat Barn Program, animals’ lives shouldn’t be part of politics.

“All of this is very politically charged, and it’s not fair for the animals,” Schmidt said. “We’re talking about the lives of animals, and politics shouldn’t come into this.”

In September, a similar program was approved in Wood River, where the Barn Cat Program would again be put to use in the Wood River Levee District.

Prenzler said he doesn’t foresee a “drastic” power change coming to the Wood River Levee District and doubted that problems would occur with the program. Schmidt said while Prenzler has issued news releases saying the humane society has endorsed and is participating in the program, that’s not the case as of now. She said the organization will wait until after the Nov. 3 election to get involved.

“We were screwed over ... but also the cats were screwed over,” she said. “It was just a mess.”

In September 2020, a program was approved in Wood River, where the Barn Cat Program would be put to use in the Wood River Levee District.
Derik Holtmann
In September, a program was approved in Wood River, where the Barn Cat Program would be put to use in the Wood River Levee District.

Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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