GULFPORT -- The Humane Society of South Mississippi may have found the last piece of the puzzle of creating a no-kill community in Harrison County.
On Tuesday night, Coast residents gathered in Gulfport High School's auditorium to put the pieces together and learn from a success story in Jacksonville, Fla. That city has seen 68 percent fewer euthanized animals since 2002, thanks to a program founded by Rick DuCharme called First Coast No More Homeless Pets.
DuCharme, who has an MBA, takes a very business-minded approach to the issue of animal control.
Through the Target Zero Institute he travels the country helping other communities reach a no-kill status, which means 90 percent or more of the cats and dogs entering the shelters are saved.
A 100 percent rate is unrealistic for any shelter, as there will always be animals for whom euthanasia is the most humane option.
By the end of 2013, HSSM had a 72 percent live-release rate. In 2008, it was 38 percent.
"The progress that has been made in southern Mississippi is very, very impressive," DuCharme said.
He said he was astonished by the Gulfport program after touring other regional shelters.
"It is very progressive and is not something I expected to find in southern Mississippi after what I saw in Texas and Louisiana," he said.
And HSSM may be just one small step away from a no-kill status.
Scott Trebatoski, division chief for Jacksonville Animal Care & Protective Services, who also spoke on Tuesday, said not only is the Coast further along than many communities, but the solution is one of the cheaper ones.
DuCharme and Trebatoski said South Mississippi should look at implementing a Feral Freedom program, and HSSM Director Tara High agreed.
The program would trap, neuter, vaccinate and return cats to where they where they came from, allowing feral cat colonies to exist and stabilizing their populations.
"Everybody is having budget issues and this is what could be a quick and easy fix for municipalities, for HSSM and for these cats," said High.
Many times, property owners who are unhappy with cats on their land oppose the program. High said many of those complaints have a root issue HSSM can help solve.
"When there's a complainant that doesn't want that cat back, let us know," she said. "We'll go and talk to them, we'll find out what their real issue is and then we'll educate them on some things that can be done to overcome that."
She said residents have every right to not want cats on their property, and the HSSM could help educate them on how to keep them off.
She said a handful of complaints shouldn't be the reason hundreds of cats are euthanized each year.
One resident at the meeting expressed concern over feral cat populations' effects on bird populations.
Trebatoski said programs such as Feral Freedom don't create cat communities, they just stabilize existing populations.
High said both county and city ordinances would need to be altered to allow for the program, but that it would not cost nothing and would actually save money.
"It's proven to work and what we're doing isn't," High said.