East Bay Regional Park District agrees to ceasefire if cat rescuers remove cats from sensitive wildlife areas
OAKLAND, California––Histrionic headlines and activist alerts aside, what the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors really did at a heated June 15, 2021 meeting over cat policy was to:
- Permanently reassign staff biologist David “Doctor Quack” Riensche from shooting cats (see Cat killer “Doctor Quack” paid well by East Bay Regional Park District);
- Try to cover their litter box against public criticism of Riensche’s actions and their own failure to exercise supervisory authority over what he did in the name of predator control;
- Reaffirm a 22-year-old policy against killing cats, except as a last resort to protect endangered species after other measures have failed;
- Move to revive a 24-year-old nonlethal response program that volunteers long ago abandoned; and
- Remind all concerned that District Ordinance 38, under Rules & Regulations, “does not allow dogs or cats in protected resource areas and prohibits abandonment or feeding of feral or wild animals in all parks.”
“Don’t feed the animals”
“Don’t feed the animals” has been standard advice to wildlife viewing venue visitors, including zoo goers, for generations.
Most city parks have discouraged pigeon-feeding and duck-feeding since forever.
Reiterating “don’t feed the animals” in the form of rules and regulations is rarely controversial, except when people disregard maxims such as that “A fed bear is a dead bear,” because the bear becomes dangerously habituated to humans, and feed animals anyway.
Feeding feral cats can habituate the cats, much as feeding habituates bears, but with different symptoms. Instead of becoming more dangerous to humans in more frequent accidental encounters, as occurs with bears, fed cats tend to become much more dangerous to birds.
The gist of it is that feeding feral cats changes the behavior of an energy-efficient nocturnal rodent-hunter, who might rarely see a healthy bird, into that of an outdoor pet, who awaits daily food handouts and meanwhile inefficiently hunts birds in broad daylight for entertainment, while truly feral cats are sleeping.
Alley Cat Allies hails victory as defeat
The East Bay Regional Park District gave feral cat advocates who were outraged over Riensche’s shootings practically everything they asked for.
Yet, “East Bay Parks are again set to become killing fields for cats,” fumed a media release from Alley Cat Allies president and founder Becky Robinson.
“Hunting cats has nothing to do with conservation in parks, and the claims of shooting cats ‘humanely’ is as ridiculous as it sounds,” Robinson raged on.
“Killing has been totally discredited as a means of population control,” Robinson said. “The East Bay Parks are making a terrible mistake by turning away from nonlethal options and embracing a deadly path that is extremely opposed by the residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.”
Robinson touted a May 2021 poll by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates of Oakland, California that found, based on 600 responses, that “78% of people in the East Bay view hunting and shooting of free-roaming cats with guns as unacceptable in East Bay communities.”
Overtime pay for shooting cats
But the focus of the poll somewhat missed the mark. The East Bay Regional Park District is not governed by public opinion, either directly or indirectly. It is governed by an appointed board who are mandated to work within the constraints of a variety of laws pertaining to habitat and endangered species conservation.
Trying to work within these constraints are how “Doctor Quack” Riensche came to be shooting cats for fun and profit, taking one board mandate to an extreme without the apparent awareness or concern of many board members.
Riensche received $56,050 in overtime pay in 2019, believed to include “overnight hours spent shooting animals in EBRPD’s parks,” according to the blogger who dug up the pay data, a veteran journalist known to ANIMALS 24-7.
Riensche reportedly killed 13 to 18 cats in 2020. Cat rescuer/feeder Cecelia Theis alleged that many of those cats, perhaps all of them, were part of a feral cat colony she fed between a couple of parking lots, across a ditch from East Bay Regional Park District protected habitat, on land believed to be owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
Riensche had already controversially shot other species for supposedly jeopardizing endangered species within East Bay Regional Park District protected habitat, notably California gulls in 2013, whom he likened to serial killer Charles Manson.
Explained the East Bay Regional Park District board in the lengthy preamble to a multi-part recommendation ratified by board vote at the June 15, 2021 meeting, “As part of the Park District’s mission to preserve ‘a rich heritage of natural and cultural resources’ the Park District manages parklands for the protection of biodiversity, including protecting and encouraging the recovery of threatened or endangered species.”
The East Bay Regional Park District board acknowledged the presence of native wild cats, including pumas and bobcats, in some park district holdings, but pointed out that these native wild cats typically disperse to the carrying capacity of the habitat––as feral cats do when not fed by humans––whereas fed cats tend to congregate around the feeding station or other food source, for example a dumpster frequented by mice.
“Free-roaming cats are non-native predators,” the board said, who “pose a significant threat to endangered species on Park District properties, particularly within protected shoreline habitats.
“Lethal removal” supposed to be restricted to “extreme cases” since 1999
“To address this threat to at-risk species,” the board recommendation recounted, “in 1999 the Park District’s Natural & Cultural Resources Committee approved the current feral cat management program, following an extensive study of the impacts of free-roaming cats on endangered species in regional parks.
“The program adopted by the Committee includes the following statement: ‘The lethal removal of cats will not be permitted unless requested by State or Federal Wildlife Management Agencies, or in extreme cases where endangered or sensitive species are at risk and multiple attempts to remove cats have failed.’”
Concerning the latter point, biologist Riensche appears to have appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner, in usurpation of board and other supervisory authority, for which reason he will no longer be executioner, at least.
But the case may also be that the higher-ups just did not want to know the details of anything unpleasant and potentially controversial.
Much of the preamble to the newly ratified East Bay Regional Park District recommendation takes a defensive tone, as if trying to rationalize past practice before proceeding to the several significant changes.
“The Park District’s shoreline parks protect small fragments of what used to be an extensive complex of tidal wetlands that occurred throughout the San Francisco Bay Area,” the recommendation preamble outlines. “Today, only 5% of those wetlands remain.
“Two federally and state-endangered species, California Ridgway’s rails and salt marsh harvest mice, live exclusively within salt or brackish marshes. These species have declined along with this loss of their habitat, and currently only persist in isolated fragments,” the recommendation preamble recites.
“Both of these species, along with state-threatened black rails and western burrowing owls, a state species-of-special-concern, occur within MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline,” the vicinity where the cats fed by Theis were shot.
“All these species are potential prey for free-roaming cats,” the recommendation preamble continues. But it does not cite any actual evidence that cats have preyed upon any of them, either at the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline or anywhere else within the East Bay Regional Park District purview.
Three of the four named species might be within a cat’s prey range, if the cat could hunt them without having to swim or wade in a salt march.
But since predators rarely prey upon other predators, who might injure them, only an immature western burrowing owl would be likely to tempt a cat.
Otherwise, beaks and talons would present a significant deterrent.
Reports and references listing cats as potential predators of western burrowing owls abound, but finding any documented record of such predation is not an easy task. It appears to be more a suggestion based on respective size than a demonstrable verity.
Predator removal vs. management
Asserts the East Bay Regional Park District recommendation preamble, “The Park District conducts predator removal in parks as required by federal and state law protecting endangered species, as well as regulatory permits that require predator management to ensure that restored habitat does not create an ecological trap by attracting nesting shorebirds which are then predated by free-roaming cats.”
This is a half-truth, because neither federal nor state law protecting endangered species specifically requires “predator removal.”
Regulatory permits issued under those laws may require “predator management,” but the manner of that management is typically left up to the habitat managers, who may, for instance, find building a fence more effective than firing a shotgun.
Predation on birds
The next several paragraphs of the East Bay Regional Park District recommendation preamble offer several highly questionable claims about the cumulative effects of cat predation, including citing a 2013 study that claimed “An average of 2.4 billion birds per year are killed by domestic cats in the United States.”
The total U.S. bird population, exclusive of sea birds, is believed to be about 3.2 billion, of whom cats most certainly do not kill 75% per year.
The 2013 study authors derived their notion that cats kill 2.4 billion birds per year by inflating the U.S. pet cat population by ten million over the American Veterinary Medical Association estimate, the outdoor pet cat population by closer to 50 million over any estimate based on actual field data, and the best documented estimates of the feral cat population by as much as 64 million.
The East Bay Regional Park District recommendation further mentioned that “Worldwide, domestic cats have been linked to the extinction of 63 different species of reptiles, bird, and mammals.”
This claim, often recited in varying form, appears to include 33 bird species listed in a 1967 study which looked at extirpations from island habitats, not actual extinctions, though some of these birds later became extinct.
Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf, looking at the data in depth in his August 11, 2011 posting “Fantasy Islands,” found that a feline primary role is verifiable in only two of these extirpations, those of the Stephen’s Island wren in 1894 and the Macquarie Island kakariki in 1879, both of which were also extinctions.
Otherwise, two of the purported extinct species turn out to be still around. Goats, pigs, rats, hunting, and avian malaria were the major factors in the loss of the others. All of the extinctions occurred before World War II, and only one after 1913.
Glass, cars, & disease
The East Bay Regional Park District recommendation continued to state that “Cats are the single biggest direct cause of bird mortalities, followed by window strikes and automobiles,” though disease and parasites appear to kill more birds than cats, window strikes and automobiles combined.
The recommendation preamble then segued into a mention of toxoplasmosis, a disease often identified with domestic cats, but likely of marine origin, documented in cats only several decades after fish processing waste became a common ingredient of canned cat food.
Toxoplasmosis is also now known to be carried by both pumas and bobcats.
1997 policy ignored
Proceeding at last from rationalizations of past practice to policy, the June 15, 2021 East Bay Regional Park District recommendation preamble recalled that, “On April 1, 1997, the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Park District accepted the recommendation of the Board’s Natural Resources Committee to establish an 18-month pilot program to manage free-roaming cats in the Regional Parks.
“The pilot program stated that to protect endangered wildlife, the Park District’s rules and regulations do not permit free-roaming cat colonies or free-roaming cats on District property.
According to policy, which Riensche allegedly ignored, “Predator removal in parks is handled with sensitivity and outreach to individuals or groups who are illegally feeding them. If cooperation with the individual(s) feeding the predators to remove the cats is not successful, trapping is the next step to remove the threat to endangered species.
“Only as a last resort are cats removed by firearm from sensitive habitat areas after hours when the park is securely closed. Park District employees who perform this duty are biologists certified in the use of firearms,” such as Riensche, “and always coordinate with other park staff to ensure for safety to the public.”
“Volunteer program faded away”
The 1997 recommendation apparently quelled whatever controversy was underway at the time over East Bay Regional Park District cat shootings, but only for a while .
“At the conclusion of the 1997 pilot program,” the June 15, 2021 East Bay Regional Park District recommendation continued, “in 1999 the Board of Directors adopted additional recommendations that included more signage and collaboration with volunteers.
“However, in the intervening years, the volunteer program faded away and the Park District resumed sole responsibility for trapping of free-roaming cats in the parks.”
On June 15, 2021, the East Bay Regional Park District board resolved that, “The 1999 program recommendations summarized above will be updated with a revised Free-Roaming Cat Management Policy, which provides improved practices including the following:
- Increased efforts in education, especially in prevention of cat abandonment;
- Regular coordination meetings and collaboration with the directors of local animal shelters, rather than solely with volunteers as in the 1999 program;
- Consideration of current science and best practices regarding effective management including other methods of capture for trap-shy cats;
- Increased restrictions and protocols on lethal control, including requirements for advanced coordination with animal services agencies, and enhanced education, trapping and rehoming, efforts; and
- Increased record-keeping and transparency, including issuing an annual report of Park District activities in implementing the revised Policy.”
“Empathy & support”
Further, the June 15, 2021 East Bay Regional Park District board recommendation included that, “Information and messaging will treat the issue of cat abandonment with empathy and support. Most people do not want to give up a household pet, yet sometimes have few options for various reasons. Some people believe that releasing animals outside is more humane than surrendering them to an animal shelter.
“Under the revised Policy,” the June 15, 2021 recommendation added, “the Park District will increase both education and collaborative trapping efforts particularly during critical avian nesting seasons when a free-roaming cat can inflict extensive damage in a short time span.
“A survey will be conducted to aid in the initial identification of free-roaming cat colonies and individual cats in regional parks. Once colony locations are identified, the Park District will continue to observe and track cat observations and will work with identified animal services agencies to initiate trapping and removal efforts,” in lieu of shooting cats.
“Most of the efforts have been prioritized at two parks,” the East Bay Regional Park District board said, specifically “MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline and Hayward Regional Shoreline, where cat colonies are near breeding bird habitat.
“To date, the Park District has established seven camera stations to photo-document free-roaming cats in or near these two parks,” the board stipulated, “and identified six primary cat colony locations (five at MLK Jr. and one at Hayward).”
The East Bay Regional Park District board pronounced itself “optimistic that with significant efforts into education, prevention, and collaboration, the need to use lethal control will be significantly diminished or even eliminated.
“However,” the board hedged, “there may be extreme situations when the threat to a critically endangered species is imminent and all other options have been exhausted.
“An example of such a situation would be when trapping is not successful for a small number of trap-shy cats that are foraging in the marsh or shoreline during the peak of nesting bird season or accessing a nesting colony of breeding California least terns or western snowy plovers.”
At the same time, the East Bay Regional Park District board resolved “that lethal control may only be used in parks where federally or state protected species are known to occur and are at risk from predation by free-roaming cats.”
“Lethal control will not be done by staff”
In addition, the East Bay Regional Park District board resolved that, “In the rare and unavoidable situation that lethal control as a last resort cannot be avoided, lethal control of free-roaming cats will not be conducted by District staff,” meaning Riensche and other biologists, “but by external agency partners with appropriate expertise and certifications and only after notification and approval from the Assistant General Manager or her designee.
“In addition,” the board resolved, “no lethal control will occur without prior coordination with animal service agencies, and only after all trapping efforts have been exhausted, and then only in areas of sensitive habitat where protected species are known to be at risk from cat predation.
“Under such field conditions in sensitive habitats, humane euthanasia will be employed in compliance with American Veterinary Medical Association 2020 guidelines.”
USDA Wildlife Services
The American Veterinary Medical Association 2020 guidelines allow the use of gunshot to kill animals who cannot be easily and efficiently captured.
Therefore, cats might still be shot, but the phrases “external agency partners” and “animal service agencies” suggest that the East Bay Regional Park District would contract with USDA Wildlife Services, the official U.S. government extermination agency––which, however, does not always opt to remove cats by lethal means.
USDA Wildlife Services agents acknowledged killing 505 cats in 2020, across the entire U.S., while “freeing/releasing” and/or “dispersing” 764 cats.
(See complete species data at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/pdr/?file=PDR-G_Report&p=2020:INDEX:
The East Bay Regional Park District board also resolved that it “will invest in improvements to infrastructure, such as reinforcing existing fences or installing new fencing around sensitive habitats,” and that “Removing attractants such as open garbage cans and feeding stations will also be a priority at shoreline parks.
“Improvements to site conditions have begun,” the board said, “including improvements to fencing around sensitive habitats and replacement of standard garbage cans at shoreline parks.”
Feral vs. outdoor pets
Predictably, none of this appears to have pleased Cecelia Theis, any more than it did Becky Robinson of Alley Cat Allies.
Theis, as of June 17, 2021, was posting to Facebook seeking “any others interested in helping me organize a day of action to protest the USDA being on contract with East Bay regional parks to kill wildlife and domestic cats and call it environmentalism.”
An earlier Theis posting, from June 12, 2021, however, made clear that for her the real issue is not whether or not feral cats are free to be the self-sufficient feral wildlife that true ferals really are, while being sterilized out of any problematic presence anywhere, but rather whether she is allowed to keep cats as outdoor pets on property––either public or private––that is not her own.
Los Angeles & San Diego
This is the same issue that surfaced recently in Los Angeles, where the Citywide Cat Program approved by the city council in December 2020 separates the practice of neuter/return feral cat population control from the practice of feeding cats outdoors.
This is also the same issue that underlies a lawsuit recently filed in San Diego, where lawsuit brought against the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA by the Southern California animal rescue charities Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors seeks to establish, for the first time, a clear legal distinction between the neuter/return and return-to-field approaches to cat population control.
The bottom line is that neuter/return is a population control technique; feeding outdoor cats is a population maintenance method.
Neuter/return vs. feeding
Asked Theis in her June 12, 2021 posted, “How can we have all of these TNR [trap/neuter/return] programs and yet there are so many instances where feeding is a chargeable offense?”
The answer is simply that they are not the same thing.
Neuter/return is an approach developed to reduce the problematic presence of cats who want and need nothing from people, except to live out their usually short lives as the wild animals that they and most of their ancestors always have been, hunting rodents in the shadows at the edges of human society.
Feeding cats is the process of creating a dependency which may become taming. If a cat is already tame enough to be dependent, requiring feeding, the cat is not feral, not living as a wild animal, and should not be left in a halfway state of existence.
“Why do people complain?”
Continued Theis, “Why the heck do people complain about my adorable little straw filled shelters tucked away in an alley?”
Such structures indicate an intent that cats not living as wildlife should have a permanent presence.
“There are so many shades of gray and so many things you just don’t want to ask and you just have to go with your gut and hope you’re doing right by these animals,” Theis wrote.
“There are just so many homeless hungry cats out there. There is also the heartbreaking decision about how much you can take on. And if you can’t take it on, you wake up the next morning and can’t look at yourself in the mirror, so you go back and dodge the security guards and slip that black bowl of food and water under a bush somewhere and try to get an appointment for TNR and then you are adding another stop and another mouth to feed indefinitely.”
Most people trying to help outdoor cats can identify with much and perhaps all of that. But most of it amounts to adopting an outdoor pet.
“How to feed, what time to feed, how to know how much to feed, how to use best practices so people don’t get upset, how to stay safe if one chooses to feed at night, respiratory infections, does that cat have kittens somewhere, is she pregnant,” Theis continued.
“My eyes are not good enough to see if there is an ear tip,” a common indicator that a cat has been sterilized, “so I have to snap a picture and enlarge it and look really close,” Theis mentioned.
“Are those kittens old enough to remove, certain cats are so hard to trap, health check, flea treatments, identifying a stray versus a very unsocialized cat, how far do they roam, where do they use the bathroom, and who’s getting mad now?” Theis wrote further.
“The anxiety when one or a few go missing for a night or a few nights and all the possibilities that fill your head for them just to show up the next time you go to feed.”
“Homeless hungry cats” are not feral cats
These are the feelings of a pet-keeper, ironically enough also common to people who feed birds, and are the feelings that inspire many bird-feeders to want to kill any cats to harm the birds in whom they have taken a proprietary or even maternal interest.
Note, though, that “homeless hungry cats” are not feral cats to begin with, any more than feeder-dependent birds retain their wild self-sufficiency.
“Homeless hungry cats” are dependent strays, who have at some point previously at least had a feeder, if not someone who took full responsibility for them.
Truly feral cats have a home, the same home as birds, bobcats, pumas, their prey species, and other predators. Truly feral cats don’t want to share a home or anything else with humans, any more than wild birds want to live indoors in a cage.
Like truly wild birds, truly feral cats rarely go hungry.
While the “homeless, hungry cats” wait in colonies for their feeders to come, truly feral cats are dispersed, usually beyond human observation, hunting rodents by night, sleeping by day when most of the wild birds are out––except for owls, burrowing and otherwise, who are also typically hunting rodents.