But “Tweety-&-Sylvester” conflicts rage on, despite success of Project Bay Cat neuter/return program just across San Francisco Bay
OAKLAND, California––The latest of least 30 years of frequent “Tweety-&-Sylvester” battles between East Bay Regional Park District biologists trying to preserve endangered bird species within the biggest urban park district in the U.S. and feral cat advocates may have simmered down into a ceasefire.
Shooting cats within the 73 East Bay Regional Park District properties, totaling 125,000 acres including 1,250 miles of trails and 55 miles of San Francisco Bay shoreline, actually halted when the park district on December 11, 2020 suspended the previous Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy, pending review and amendment, after at least 18 cats were allegedly shot by park staff.
East Bay Regional Park District holds guns in reserve
The guns appear to have been put away, for the time being, but remain held in reserve under updates to the Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy which were on February 25, 2021 unanimously accepted by the Natural & Cultural Resources Committee of the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors.
The Natural & Cultural Resources Committee recommended that the updates be considered and ratified by the full East Bay Regional Park District board of directors at an unspecified future date.
The recommended cat policy updates call for “Formal collaboration with local animal services agencies and shelters, including quarterly meetings, to help trap and remove feral and abandoned cat colonies found in [East Bay] Regional Parks, particularly within protected shoreline habitats.”
“Keep cats out of sensitive habitats or else”
The recommended cat policy updates also call for “Increased public education to inform the public about the importance of keeping cats out of sensitive habitats and preventing the abandonment and feeding of cats, including signage, brochures, and social media,” to be funded by the [East Bay] Regional Parks Foundation.
But the cat policy updates would continue to accept “Lethal removal as a last resort,” albeit with “Increased transparency and reporting, with required annual reports,” to ensure that cats are not again shot in secrecy.
Argued Kristina Kelchner, assistant general manager of acquisition, stewardship, and development for the East Bay Regional Park District, “Feral and abandoned cat colonies are a problem in many Regional Parks that threaten the survival of numerous endangered species.
“More than two dozen endangered species live in our regional parks and shorelines,” Kelchner mentioned. Many of these species, mostly birds, have become the focus of previous Tweety-&-Sylvester policy conflicts.
No feeding cats in parks
“We need public cooperation and support in not abandoning or feeding cats in parks,” Kelchner continued. “Cats threatening wildlife in sensitive areas is completely preventable.”
The East Bay Regional Park District “takes seriously its mission to protect wildlife in its parks and is legally required to remove predators from areas where listed endangered species are found,” added Kelchner.
“To protect endangered wildlife, Park District rules and regulations do not permit abandoning or feeding cats. Park visitors found abandoning or feeding cats in parks are subject to citation and fines.
“The recommended policy update,” Kelchner finished, “requires collaboration with local municipal animal shelters with the intent of removing cats safely for care by animal shelter partners, with lethal removal as the absolute last resort if trapping or collaboration efforts fail.”
Six shelters endorse amended cat policy
Kelchner emphasized that the recommended East Bay Regional Park District amendments to the district Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy were endorsed on February 23, 2021 by the chief executives of the six biggest humane societies and animal control agencies serving the cities hosting East Bay Regional Parks and trails.
Co-signers of the letter of endorsement included Oakland Animal Services director Ann Dunn; Berkeley Animal Care Services manager Amelia Funghi; Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter chief executive John L. Lipp; Tri-City Animal Shelter animal services manager Kelly Miott; Hayward Animal Services Bureau administrator Jennie Comstock; and Contra Costa Animal Services director Beth Ward.
Kelchner also noted that the proposed Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy updates are “consistent with the American SPCA policy, which states, ‘Lethal control may be employed only as a last resort to alleviate suffering, protect human life or ensure the survival of an endangered species.’”
KGO/ABC-7 claims victory
“Thanks to public outcry after an ABC-7 I-Team investigation,” claimed KGO reporter Laura Anthony, “the East Bay Regional Parks District is revising its feral cat management program. However, the proposed guidelines stop short of a pledge to never resort to lethal force.
“The ABC-7 News I-Team first uncovered the controversial policy in December 2020,” responding to a complaint by viewer Cecelia Theis, Anthony recalled.
Theis “had been feeding and caring for a colony of about 30 feral cats at an East Oakland office park––only to discover that a dozen had been shot and killed by EBRPD staff,” Anthony narrated, “after the cats wandered into a nearby marsh, inhabited by endangered species.”
Observed Anthony, “The issue seems to be most concerning at parks like Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in East Oakland, where feral cats might interact with endangered bird species.”
While cats believed to be jeopardizing endangered species might still be killed, Anthony continued, “under the proposed new guidelines, the act of euthanizing the cats would be done by someone other than East Bay Regional Parks District staff.”
Alley Cat Allies calls policy “unconscionable”
Alley Cat Allies president and founder Becky Robinson. on December 22, 2020 issued a media release denouncing the East Bay Regional Park District cat shooting eleven days after it was suspended.
Robinson issued another media release on February 25, 2021, objecting to the proposed updates to East Bay Regional Park District Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy because the option of lethal control would remain in place.
“It is unconscionable,” Robinson said, “to think that any policy which allows for the lethal removal of cats, a cruel and ineffective practice which must be eliminated, could be adopted in the Bay Area.
“Moving forward as [the East Bay Regional Park District] did today amounts to making uninformed decisions to kill innocent animals,” Robinson charged.
“East Bay Regional Park District operates with little media attention and almost no public scrutiny”
Recalled Charles Wollenberg in his 2002 book Berkeley, A City in History, “The East Bay Regional Park District was created in 1933. In the following year, in spite of the deep national depression, East Bay voters agreed to tax themselves to operate the new district and purchase the former watershed land [in Wildcat Canyon, beyond Grizzly Peak at the eastern edge of Berkeley.] Two thousand acre Tilden Park, named after the park district’s first president,” Charles Lee Tilden, “was the beginning of what today is a remarkable urban greenbelt that is one of region’s most important public amenities.
“But the [East Bay Regional Park District],” Wollenberg charged, is a “powerful government agency whose elected board operates with little media attention and almost no public scrutiny.”
Nearly 20 years later, Wollenberg’s assessment is reputedly still accurate. Periodic media discoveries of lethal animal control activities going on within East Bay Regional Parks are among the few times that park policies come to public notice.
Gunned for gulls
Cats are scarcely the only targeted species. In July 2013 a similar fracas erupted on behalf of sea gulls, after San Jose Mercury News environment reporter Paul Rogers disclosed that gull hazing to protect least terns during their nesting season at Hayward Regional Shoreline Park was occasionally augmented by sharpshooters.
“The gulls greatly outnumber endangered species,” wrote Rogers. “Most recent counts show only 202 Western snowy plovers and 509 breeding pairs of California least terns living in San Francisco Bay,” compared to more than 50,000 gulls.
In March 2012, Rogers mentioned, “scientists at the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont,” not part of the East Bay Regional Park District, obtained a “depredation permit that allows them to destroy eggs and kill problem gulls and other birds that kill endangered terns and snowy plovers. But the permit caps the number of California gulls the refuge can kill at 40 per year,” Rogers lamented.
Earlier, Rogers recalled, “When 150 California gulls descended on a colony of endangered least terns at Hayward Regional Shoreline Park in 2005 and 2006 to feast on their eggs, the terns abandoned their nests. But East Bay parks officials fought back, securing a permit to kill up to 45 gulls a year.
Killing cats, foxes, & coyotes allowed gull population explosion
“USDA Wildlife Services officials used shotguns to kill 20 of the most aggressive gulls a year on average from 2007 to 2011. And now the park is home to the second-largest least tern colony in the bay,” Rogers said.
What Rogers did not mention was that the gulls, far more numerous in the East Bay than at any time since the Berkeley shoreline landfill was capped and closed nearly 50 years earlier, had proliferated in part because mice had proliferated and become the gulls’ primary prey.
This occurred after purges of cats, foxes, and coyotes meant to help the endangered clapper rail.
There are parts of the East Bay Regional Park District within which feral cats and other small predators are apparently of little if any official concern because of the presence of bobcats and pumas, the much larger predators for whom Wildcat Canyon was named.
A 2015 California Department of Fish and Wildlife study found that among 107 pumas who were legally killed under special depredation permits, 49 had eaten cats, dogs or other domestic animals.
Project Bay Cat
Just sixteen miles from the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, meanwhile, crossing the southern end of San Francisco Bay on the San Mateo or Dunbarton bridge, and closer than that to two East Bay Regional Park District holdings, Coyote Hills Regional Park and Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, Project Bay Cat has for 17 years now maintained an internationally renowned example of endangered bird and feral cat coexistence.
Tired of playing stereotypical opposing roles in endless political re-runs of the Sylvester & Tweety cats-vs.-birds battle, then-Homeless Cat Network cat manager Cimeron Morrissey, then-Sequoia Audubon Society conservation committee chair Robin Winslow Smith, who died at age 77 in 2011, and Foster City management analyst Andra Lorenz in 2004 quit competing for TV sound bites and formed Project Bay Cat instead.
They all knew what the problem was: 175 feral cats and kittens lived along the Foster City portion of the Bay Trail, a popular scenic hiking route that rings San Francisco Bay, and in Foster City follows a long abandoned shoreline railway.
Mostly the cats, like all cats, hunted small rodents. Like other predators, the cats caught mostly the old, the young, the sick, and the injured.
Cats were near clapper rails
But the cats were near various threatened and endangered species, including the California clapper rail, a bird whose last habitats include a marsh at the northern end of the Bay Trail, where Foster City meets San Mateo.
Efforts to protect the clapper rail from feral cats, coyotes, and foxes had included more than fifteen years of confrontations among animal advocates and government agencies.
Especially bitterly fought were proposals to use leghold traps to capture and kill potential clapper rail predators.
Although leghold traps have been banned in California since 1998, the ban––reinforced in 2019––exempts use to protect endangered species.
While lawyers battled, Morrissey, Smith, Lorenz and friends realized that none of them really wanted feral cats to be on the Bay Trail, none of them wanted to fight, and much could be done to reduce the feline presence if they brokered their own peace and worked together.
Sterilized 77% of the cats in first year
“The homeless cat population started as a result of illegal abandonment by irresponsible people,” recounted Morrissey on March 27, 2006, formally the first anniversary of Project Bay Cat.
By the time Morrissey, Smith, and Lorenz announced that Project Bay Cat existed, however, in March 2005, the founding participants had already sterilized 77% of the Bay Trail cat population.
Within another year, Morrissey said, “Thanks to the San Mateo Animal Hospital and Crystal Springs Pet Hospital veterinarians, 92% of the cats who live along the levee pedway (footpath) had been altered. This stabilized the population. The Homeless Cat Network,” active in the area since 1993, “also created an aggressive fostering and adoption program, and found homes for more than 60 kittens and friendly adult cats. This reduced the number of cats living along the levee pedway by 30%, thereby exceeding our initial goals.”
Sequoia Audubon helped to situate feeding stations
Added Smith, “Thanks to the feeding stations and the spay/neuter effort, the cats seem to have settled into the program, and don’t need to hunt.”
Though sterilized and fed cats often still hunt, and may hunt birds by daylight for recreation, rather than focusing on hunting rodents by night for food, few sterilized and fed cats hunt with the urgency of a pregnant or nursing cat mother.
“To protect birds and their habitat, and reduce debris along the levee pedway, where hikers often left food for cats, 10 cat feeding stations were built by the Homeless Cat Network and installed along the trail,” recounted Morrissey.
“Appropriate locations for the stations were jointly identified by our three groups,” Morrissey continued, “with special consideration given by Sequoia Audubon Society to insure that the stations were placed away from bird habitats. The program’s effectiveness is a result of keeping the cats well fed and concentrated away from avian nesting sites.
Clapper rail population increased
“Evidence of the program’s effectiveness,” Morrissey said, “ is that the Sequoia Audubon Society recently found that the endangered California clapper rail is thriving [in Foster City] and is not impacted by the cats. Rails are quite easily seen and heard at high tide.”
Neuter/return stabilized the Bay Trail feral cat population. Adopting out cats who could be handled reduced the cats numbers and their environmental impact.
The key to success, however, is educating the community while enlisting help, assessed Morrissey.
“To educate the public and encourage community involvement, Foster City erected four Project Bay Cat signs along the levee pedway,” Morrissey explained. “Because the homeless cat problem is a result of animal abandonment, which is an illegal and inhumane act, the signs discourage abandonment and ask the public to call the police if they see suspicious or malicious activity. The signs also ask the public not to feed the cats unless they are registered through the Homeless Cat Network as official feeders.
Down to one cat
“As a result of positive press coverage,” Morrissey continued, “we have been able to educate thousands of people about feral cats and how to humanely manage them, and have changed how people perceive feral cats. We have many more volunteers helping them now, trail users have become vigilant and have prevented animal abandonment, and many more people are protecting our furry outcasts. They are not really outcasts anymore; they’re celebrities,” Morrissey said.
By 2006 Project Bay Cat had already passed the transition from active program development to ongoing maintenance.
The Project Bay Cat founders documented a 30% feral cat population decline in the first two years it existed, a 40% decline in three years, a 65% decline in eight years, and a 95% decline in 15 years.
As of February 2019, only seven feral cats remained in the Project Bay Cat program area.
Only one cat was still there in February 2021.