WESTBROOK — Beware of black cats.

A Gorham police officer and an animal control officer are being investigated after the policeman used his shotgun to shoot a stray cat suspected of being rabid. The cat did not die and was found four days later by a resident.

The cat does not have rabies and is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds.

The Police Department is investigating the incident, while footing the medical bills for Clark, the former stray that is recovering in a Westbrook shelter from wounds that include shattered bones in both front legs.

The cat was shot Aug. 20 by a police officer after the stray reportedly bit or scratched a 7-year-old girl on Maple Ridge Road, according to Gorham police. The girl was not seriously injured.

The cat, meanwhile, ran off into the woods and officers could not find it.

Gorham police are investigating whether the town’s animal control officer and a supervisor followed proper protocol.

State law requires animal control officers to capture stray domesticated animals, such as cats, suspected of having rabies so the animals can be held in quarantine. But the law also allows officers to shoot or euthanize a suspected rabid animal “if harm to humans or other animals is imminent.”

Police refused to release the names of the officers involved because of the investigation. Both officers continue to work for the department, Lt. Chris Sanborn said.

Animal Refuge League officials say this is the first time they have treated a cat that was shot by a police officer.

“This is not a typical way for a cat to be brought to us,” said Jeana Roth, community relations manager for the animal shelter. “We never want to see a situation like this again.”

Eric Sakach, a senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, said in his 38-year career, he has never heard of a situation in which a police officer shot a domestic cat suspected of having rabies.

“I haven’t heard of any animal control officer shooting a cat for any reason,” he said. “This may be the first time I’ve ever heard of a police officer responding to help an animal control officer with a cat. Animal control officers should be trained and have the equipment to properly trap a cat.”

The Gorham animal control officer was called to Maple Ridge Road around 7 p.m. Aug. 20 after a man reported his 7-year-old daughter was either bitten or scratched by a stray cat that was known to hang around the neighborhood. The man told police the cat, which walked with a limp, appeared to be rabid, Sanborn said.

Sanborn said the animal control officer tried unsuccessfully to trap the cat and called for help from a supervisor after the cat tried to bite him.

“After some discussion, they had some concern there was a rabid cat in the neighborhood that they were unable to capture,” he said. “They decided the best way to deal with it so no on else was harmed was to shoot the cat.”

The police officer who responded to assist the animal control officers shot at the cat with a 16-gauge shotgun loaded with pellets. The cat ran off into the woods and the officer thought he had missed it, Sanborn said. Officers searched for it for “an extended period of time” that night and the following day, he said.

The cat was trapped four days later when it showed up near where it had been shot in the yard of Deb Webb. She had fed the cat on her back deck for the past three years.

The cat was deemed to be free of rabies after the 10-day quarantine period. The girl was not treated for rabies.

Sanborn said his department follows state protocol for dealing with animals that police suspect may be rabid, including trapping the animal so it can be quarantined while veterinarians determine whether it is infected. Sanborn said he didn’t know what the protocol is for situations in which the animal eludes capture.

“We want to do what’s right by the animal, but we also need to make sure the public is safe,” Sanborn said. “Obviously it’s a judgment call on what’s in the best interest of public safety.”

Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said state law requires animal control officers to capture animals suspected of being rabid and bring them to a veterinarian or animal shelter to be observed in isolation. However, officers also can shoot an animal if they think it is an imminent threat to humans or other animals. Officers are not allowed to shoot the animal in the head, which must be submitted for testing, she said.

Webb was able to trap the cat, but she worried that it might be euthanized at the animal shelter. Her eyes filled with tears when she talked about the level of care it has been receiving at the shelter.

“I had a really hard time wrapping my brain around why this happened and how it happened,” she said. “I just feel really sad that this innocent, sweet animal was hunted down and shot in a yard where he felt safe.”

Roth, from the animal shelter, said the injured cat was taken to an emergency veterinary hospital for initial treatment and is being monitored by an orthopedic surgeon. Now named Clark after Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, it is on strict cage rest while veterinarians wait to see if its bones will start healing without surgery. It’s unclear how much his medical care will cost the Police Department.

Roth said Clark does not have rabies, despite initial concerns by police that the cat was acting strangely. The cat, believed to be 5 to 8 years old, walks with a limp but is otherwise friendly, she said. Shelter staff describe the black-and-white cat as a “love bug” and say it seems to be adjusting well to living inside.

“He was outside for four days after he was shot before he was brought to us,” Roth said. “Who knows what kind of pain he was in?”

Sanborn said it is important for residents to call police for help if there is a stray animal in their neighborhood, especially if it is acting strangely. Sanborn and Pinette said Maine residents should not feed or handle stray animals.

Cats can get rabies from contact with infected wild animals. Because state law requires pet owners to vaccinate cats and dogs, the risk of infection is higher for stray cats that are not vaccinated.

However, cases of cats testing positive for the deadly disease have been relatively rare in Maine. There have been eight confirmed cases of rabies in cats in Maine since January 2010, a fraction of the 297 confirmed cases of rabies during that period, according to state records. Raccoons and skunks accounted for most of the cases.

Rabies peaked in Maine in 2012 with 87 confirmed cases, including four cats. Since January 2013, there have been 76 confirmed rabies cases, including one cat.

The last confirmed case of a human infected with rabies in Maine was in 1937.

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