Silicon Valley is hidden within sight and is home to thousands of stray and feral cats that roam free in streams, parks, and trails. And in Mountain View, a possible spike in free-range cats has rekindled a controversial debate about how to deal with colonies of bite-sized predators.
At the Santiago Villa RV Park, North Bayshore’s only residential area, residents are seeing more cats showing up and reactions have been mixed. Some quietly fed the cats, while others – upset by the furry intruders – complained to the park administration.
In a RV park newsletter published in September, local resident Bee Hanson wrote that about 20 cats have been trapped and removed from the park to help contain the problem, but that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, it has caused a split and much heated argument among neighbors over what to do. Some argue that the cats must be removed and represent an unnatural predator that kills sensitive bird species. Others call for a compassionate approach and are reluctant to remove or euthanize cats.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble with feral cats in the last few months at the park,” said Hanson. “There were so many complaints that the office started looking for people who could do something about it.”
Feral cats have historically sparked passionate debates in Mountain View, often pitting bird protection groups like the Audubon Society against local cat organizations. Google employees had previously run a cat program with feeding stations in North Bayshore to support the cats, but those efforts are said to have ended.
Unlike most of the suburbs in the area, wildcat management in North Bayshore has some pretty tough requirements. Protected species such as the California ridgway rail, salt marsh harvest mouse, western sleeved plover, and western rabbit owl are all found in the area, raising serious predation concerns. The exact influence of the cats has not been measured, but there are reports from 2015 that a cat mauled one of the few rabbit owls left in the area.
Hanson said her neighbors’ anti-cat sentiment has been difficult to deal with and she is concerned about the health and safety of the cats roaming the RV park. Some are quick to call for the cat to be removed or for euthanasia, which they vehemently oppose.
“Environmentalists say cats kill a lot of birds, but what should we do about it? Kill the cats? That’s not a good answer, ”says Hanson.
Cat advocates have instead rallied for the Trap Neuter Release (TNR) strategy, which involves cats being trapped in a cage and taken to a shelter or animal control facility to be neutered or neutered before being released back wherever they were found. The method does little to solve the problem immediately, but it prevents another explosion in population growth from breeding cats.
Hanson said she caught four cats herself in support of TNR, but that it feels like an uphill battle. She has a full time job and cannot go all day looking for traps in the park. Meanwhile, complaints are still mounting and residents are angry at finding cat poop in their gardens or accusing cats of spreading fleas, she said.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” said Hanson. “But don’t blame me or blame the cats.”
A difficult problem to solve
Local Bay Area trappers say there are far more feral cats than meets the eye. And while it’s difficult to get an accurate count, it is possible that the numbers have increased this year.
The 2020 COVID-19 lockdown forced many local animal shelters to temporarily close, making it difficult to fix cats. Although many of the TNR programs continued, it was poorly promoted and made people think that TNR efforts needed to be interrupted during the public health crisis.
Vanessa Forney, who has been trapping cats since August 2020, said there were too many requests for too few trappers in South Bay. Their Facebook group is inundated with requests to trap cats, and a quick look at Nextdoor reveals that residents constantly stumble upon stray cats, often mistaking them for lost pets. At one point, she said the San Jose animal shelter staff had hundreds more cats than usual.
“There are just a lot more cats here than I thought I have to put on blinders because there are so many,” Forney said. “That sounds like a lot, but when you walk past a house and it’s three cats, take what you see and multiply that by five or ten. There are usually so many. “
The main problem is that irresponsible people make unfixed kittens, Forney said, and those cats are either abandoned or run away and start breeding, which can quickly get out of hand. And it doesn’t help that sympathetic residents choose to feed these free-range cats instead of taking steps to fix them.
“There are people who feed cats en masse and think of themselves as rescuers, but in reality they cause suffering. These kittens are dying, these kittens are sick,” Forney said. “My first reaction when I see a cat is that it needs to be fixed while others say, ‘Oh, I need to feed it.'”
The number of cats coming in from trapping is “slightly” higher than usual right now, said Janet Alexander, a member of the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, which serves as the animal control agency for Mountain View and surrounding towns. She said the effects of COVID are limited as they only closed for a few weeks and didn’t handle the same massive volume as San Jose.
For years, Silicon Valley Animal Control has adopted TNR as the official method for dealing with the local wild cat population, and cat trappers are encouraged to bring cats for castration or neutering, vaccination, flea treatment, and deworming. Many of the kittens are fostered and eventually adopted, while older cats are returned to where they were found.
While it annoys some to bring back a perceived nuisance instead of being relocated or taken to a nursing home, Alexander said there isn’t much choice. Cats have difficulty getting used to a new location and rarely have another place to go.
“They know the area they come from and when you try to relocate them it is very difficult to get used to a new environment, especially the cats that need to be fed in the area,” said Alexander.
The term wildcats is a somewhat charged term, and Silicon Valley Animal Control has since referred to them as “community cats” – a collective term for the mix of stray cats, wild cats, and free range cats that make up the feline population. They include native mixes of all races and colors, including tabbies, tortoiseshell, Siamese, black, and white cats.
Alexander said her agency doesn’t actually trap itself and that it relies heavily on community members to conduct TNR and control the local cat population. She encouraged anyone interested in helping to learn more, and snap a trap courtesy of Silicon Valley Animal Control.
“It takes a village and while we can certainly do our part, we need human help to catch the kittens,” said Alexander. “We introduced TNR a few years ago and I think it worked, but there’s a lot to be done out there.”
A threat to birds
Is catching and releasing cats really enough to make the difference? According to bird advocates and some studies, the answer seems to be no.
Outdoor feral cats and domestic cats are responsible for more than 1 billion bird deaths in the United States each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. A 2011 study of bird death in the Washington DC area found that 79% of deaths were due to predators and 47% of known predators were domestic cats, who regularly beheaded birds and left their bodies uneaten.
There is overwhelming evidence that wild cats pose a serious threat to wild birds and other animals, said Matthew Dodder, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. And feral cats in the North Bayshore area of Mountain View make their way to Shoreline Park, where they have prayed on burrowing owls. Migratory birds in search of a nesting site will encounter predators to which they have not adapted and will end up praying easily.
“There are far more of these introduced cats, these feral cats, than ever before,” said Dodder. “As for wild birds, they are an unfamiliar threat – they were not evolved to deal with these introduced predators.”
Dodder said the Audubon Society is firmly against cats outdoors and is encouraging pet owners to keep them indoors at all times to protect native birds, mice and amphibians from attack. But when it comes to feral cats without an owner, the solution gets more complicated. Dodder said TNR could ultimately reduce the number of cats, but it is unlikely to contain the number of bird deaths if the cats are simply repaired and returned.
“TNR takes them out of their surroundings and puts them right back,” said Dodder. “You keep them from reproducing, which is good, but you still give it back to the environment where it will continue to cause damage.”
Dodder was quick to say the organization doesn’t recommend euthanasia, but he said there needs to be a way to get cats out of the area, whether through increased adoption services or some other method of keeping them indoors.
The Audubon Society points to a publication from 2010 that comes to roughly the same conclusion, namely that trap-and-release alone does not work. It suggests that “no real example of colony elimination” by TNR exists and that it would take a cat colony four to ten years to die off completely.
But unlike the Audubon Society, the same study argues that “integrated pest control,” including non-lethal and lethal agents, is the most effective approach to dealing with feral cats. These include trapping with euthanasia, “kill trapping” and shooting.
“These methods provide an immediate reduction in the population and can be necessary when there are too many wild cats and have a significant impact,” the study says.
Dodder acknowledged that the feral cat problem can spark tension and fuel disputes, and that he hopes education can help pro-cat groups understand the need to protect endangered bird species. There is an instinct for helping and feeding the cats, he said, but they shouldn’t be sneaking around North Bayshore at first.
“We run into this problem all the time and it’s flammable,” said Dodder. “It makes friends quarrel, but ultimately I hope we can all agree that the natural world is preferable to an artificial environment.”