Mountain View Voice

News - April 4, 2014

Council balks at controversial cat rules

New city ordinance pits cat rescue groups against Audubon Society

by Daniel DeBolt

With weeks of controversy over new cat license requirements now resolved, you might think that a new city animal control ordinance would have passed without a hitch at Tuesday's City Council meeting. That wasn't the case.

The City Council approved a new animal control ordinance at its April 1 meeting that almost included new laws against feeding and releasing stray cats on public and private property north of Highway 101, where council members say feral cats could easily wipe out the few remaining burrowing owls at Shoreline Park. North Bayshore is also home to a large mobile home park and — if a campaign is successful in changing city zoning, it is the possible future site of a new residential neighborhood intended for the area's growing population of Google employees.

Heavily lobbied before the meeting began, council member Mike Kasperzak said council members were being "whipsawed" between cat rescue groups and bird habitat preservationists with the Audubon Society, whom he characterized as wanting the council to "come down hard" on stray cats. Audubon members criticized the "trap, neuter and release" (TNR) programs being used to reduce feral cat populations without euthanasia, including the city animal control provider's own "Feral Freedom" program, saying they allow cats to be a major threat to young birds, some species of which are increasingly rare.

After three hours of discussion, the council voted 6-1 to pass the animal control ordinance with several portions removed that would have prohibited trap, neuter and release activities in North Bayshore — along with the feeding that tends to go with it — for what the cat advocates called "community cats" and "homeless cats." Council member John Inks was opposed.

Hoping to find a compromise solution, council members directed city staff to assemble a "stakeholder group" to come up with an acceptable way to manage feral cats, and to figure out the locations and numbers of feral cats in the city. Council member Jac Siegel suggested a name, inspired by such a group in Hawaii: the "Mountain View Coalition for the Protection of Cats and Wildlife."

It was revealed at the meeting that Google employees have been running their own feral cat program near Google headquarters, which is located near the edge of Shoreline Park and Stevens Creek, where the Santa Clara Valley Water District prohibits cats to be released, said Brian Schmidt, a Water District board member.

"The information I have from Google is that there were about 170 cats they provided services for, over a several-year period, I believe," said Dan Soszynski , executive director of Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority. He added that SVACA receives 150 cats a year from Mountain View, about a dozen annually from the Shoreline Park area, where other cat rescue groups also service an unknown number of cats.

Cat rescue groups warned that ending TNR programs would mean trapping and killing cats, which they claim is not effective because cats learn to avoid such traps if it means cats disappear. And since cats are territorial, they would be replaced by other cats in a "vacuum effect." Cat rescue groups, the Palo Alto Humane Society and the city's own contractor, Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, all testified to the effectiveness of TNR programs in reducing local stray cat populations.

"The best we can do is manage the population," said a representative of Mountain View's Fat Cat Rescue. "The volunteers will not be doing the trapping and you will have an explosion of the problem and it will backfire." He asked the council to "make it easier for people to do the right thing."

Audubon Society members had a different opinion, saying that bird hunting was an "instinct" for cats, which should be trapped and removed from North Bayshore. Soszynski said SVACA has been able to do so because of their relatively small numbers, though relocating cats is usually a major challenge if no one wants to adopt them. Cat advocates said relocated cats end up fighting for territory with other cats or are killed in shelters. Soszynski said 16 percent of SVACA's cats had to be euthanized in 2013.

"There are dozens of stray cats in North Bayshore, I've seen a lot of them," said Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate for the Audubon Society. "There are many cats that go into the creek corridors and Shoreline Park. They usually catch the most vulnerable, the nestlings, the fledglings."

Local Audubon chapter director Stephanie Ellis said "studies have shown cats kill millions a birds a year. Cats are not native species and they are not in decline. However they are putting birds at risk that are in decline."

"If you remove cats the argument is more will move in," Ellis said, "but feeding areas and cat colonies are actually attractive to other cats because of pheromones (and mating behavior)."

City officials said that only two burrowing owls have been killed by predators in recent years, which include hawks and other raptors, but that it wasn't possible to tell what sort of predator was responsible for the deaths.

At one point during the meeting, it appeared that council members could have put put the entire ordinance on hold over the issue.

"There's really no urgency in passing this," said council member Ronit Bryant. "There's a lot of completely contradictory information. We truly have no information. I don't feel comfortable that we know what we are doing."

Ordinance approved

Though it was overshadowed by the stray cat issue and received little discussion, the council approved an entire overhaul of the city's animal control ordinance, which was first presented to the council a year ago. That was when residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposed requirement that cats be licensed and vaccinated. That stipulation was removed from the ordinance approved Tuesday night. Dogs do have to be vaccinated and licensed under the new ordinance.

Among its many provisions is a rule that households be allowed a total of only four dogs and cats, defines "adequate exercise" for animals, prohibits regular use of chain collars for dogs, restricts all but service dogs from entering restaurants, restricts pets from public properties except parks, open spaces and sidewalks, where council members added an exception to allow owners to feed their own animals.

There are also new provisions allowing beekeeping in backyards, the only part of the ordinance that council members approved last year.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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