But the question before the City Council last week was what impact neutering has on the instincts of feral and other cats that roam around the fields at Shoreline, near the nests of the city's cherished burrowing owls, an endangered species that could be threatened by an influx of felines. In the end, the council punted the most controversial clause of a new animal control ordinance out of contention, which would have banned feeding and releasing stray cats north of Highway 101.
After dropping that provision, members voted to pass the bulk of new rules governing pets without a problem. A few months ago, the first effort to pass the animal control measure was shouted down by an onslaught of cat owners who strongly objected to a cat licensing provision. The idea was dropped in the new ordinance, and now only dogs will require a license.
But the last word on whether to neuter feral cats at Shoreline or trap and move them to an uncertain fate at the Animal Shelter still awaits the findings of city staff, who have been asked by the council to assemble a "stakeholder group" to find an acceptable way to manage feral cats, and to determine the numbers and locations of feral cats in the city.
At last week's meeting, groups favoring a TNR (trap, neuter and release) program for feral cats at Shoreline claimed neutered felines would not be a threat to birds, and that if the city embarked on a campaign to remove all cats from the Shoreline area, other cats would simply move in to fill the vacuum. None of these arguments hold water for the Audubon Society, which, according to Mike Kasperzak, strongly lobbied the council to "come down hard" on stray cats. Audubon members claim the "trap, neuter and release" program without euthanasia allows cats to be a major threat to young birds, representatives told the council.
Bird-hunting is instinctive for cats, Audubon Society members said, adding that stray cats should be trapped and removed from the North Bayshore area.
It was no surprise that the council did not know who to believe, and in the end decided to send a "stakeholder group" including bird advocates and cat rescuers, on a hunt for more information. Time will tell if the group is productive or becomes mired in conflict.
There are some points to be made for the "trap, neuter and release"
• City records show that in recent years only two endangered burrowing owls have been killed by predators, although there is no record if the predators were cats, hawks or other raptors.
• Cat rescue groups, including the city's own contractor, Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, as well as the Palo Alto Humane Society, supported the effectiveness of the "trap, neuter and release" method in reducing the stray cat population in the North Bayshore.
•If cats are trapped and disappear, cat rescue groups say, territorial instincts will attract others to take over in a "vacuum effect."
• Just as adamantly, the Audubon Society believes there are dozens of stray cats that go into creek corridors and Shoreline Park and prey on the "...most vulnerable, the nestlings, the fledglings."
Is there a right or wrong answer to this fight over the safety of endangered birds at Shoreline? Is there a middle ground? Will city staff and the stakeholder group be able to mediate this dispute? No matter whether it favors birds or cats, the other side is certain to be outraged and protest to the council.
Whatever happens, the city should make sure the endangered birds are protected, and the outdoor cat population is neutered, so it will not blossom into an unmanageable herd. Everyone loves cats, but unspayed and in the wild, they are hunters and their prey is often birds.