Experts question town ban on feeding stray cats | News

Sandy Browne said she didn’t realize stray cats were becoming an issue at the 2,035-home Trilogy Golf Club at Power Ranch until she met another resident Margaret Graham who was also feeding them.

“That is when we thought, this is a problem and started TNR,” the Gilbert woman recalled. “Over the years up until now we’ve trapped 86 cats.”

TNR or Trap-Neuter-Return is a method where traps are baited with food to capture feral cats that are then spayed or neutered, returned to the location and fed until the colony dies off. Removing the cats creates a vacuum effect where unsterilized cats move into the area and start breeding and cause nuisance behavior like spraying, yowling and fighting, according to experts.

Browne said since the first trapping in December 2013, the number of free-roaming cats in her community has dwindled from approximately 50 to about 20-plus. 

“I honestly believe that if Margaret and I had not started the feral cat program here in 2013, we would have very serious problems,” Browne said. Graham died in 2021.

TNR is endorsed by Trilogy’s HOA, which pays for the spaying and neutering. Initially there was pushback from some residents but over time they saw the benefits and have even donated money toward the food, Brown said.

The 16 current volunteers raise additional monies through garage sales to pay for the cats’ medical care, testing for feline leukemia and vaccinations like rabies. 

 Browne said if it weren’t for people who practice TNR in Gilbert, the town would be overrun by cats.

But the Town remains unmoved on the issue of allowing it on its properties.

In 2018, Town Council adopted an ordinance that prohibited the feeding of stray cats on public property. Staff at the time explained the ban addressed nuisance issues rising out of cat food dumped on town property and public rights-of-way.  

But cat caregivers say the law hinders their ability to help reduce the feral cat population in town because they can’t bait their traps with food on public property.

The caregivers have pleaded for the Town to repeal or amend the ordinance and have asked Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona to exercise a provision in the ban enabling him to make an exception in cases of “animal rescue, rehabilitation or management,” which he’s been reluctant to do.

 Although town officials maintain the ordinance doesn’t prevent people from practicing TNR on private property, caregivers argue that cats don’t know boundaries.

 “I spoken to staff and there are no new problems to date that would change our current polices,” said Councilman Scott September, who was not on the Council in 2018. “I have to rely on the professionalism and experience of our staff.” The reason why Gilbert isn’t seeing a problem with stray cats is likely due to caregivers practicing TNR secretly on public property, driven underground by the ordinance.

A few caregivers have been cited and police arrested resident Paul Rodriguez in 2019 for running afoul of the ban. Rodriguez agreed to a settlement of his criminal case, which cost him over $12,000 in attorney fees. Like most caregivers, he paid for the food and medical care.

 One longtime caregiver said last week he still puts out food for a cat colony on town property but not as often since the ban took effect in fear of being caught. He didn’t want his identity or the location revealed.

“That would not be smart for a feeder/trapper to do as that would be an admission of guilt with proof provided on a platter,” he said. “I would be outed and have cops hounding me.”

Town officials are mistaken if they think there’s no feral cat problem in Gilbert, said Michael Morefield, spokesman for Altered Tails, the state’s largest nonprofit spay/neuter clinic with locations in Mesa and Phoenix,

 “How is it 512 cats came from Gilbert last year to our clinic?” he asked.

The total number of TNR surgeries performed at both clinics in 2021 was 11,339. Of that, the Mesa Clinic accounted for 4,724  surgeries, which means 11% of the surgeries were performed on cats from Gilbert, Morefield said.  

  “Those (cats) are either through rescue partners or through concerned citizens whose addresses are in Gilbert,” he said. “If the address is in Gilbert, you have to assume they are trapping in Gilbert. People don’t travel for TNR.”

Maricopa County has an estimated 350,000 feral and homeless cats, according to H.A.R.T or Homeless Anmals Rescue Team in Mesa.

 “So Phoenix is affected, Tempe, Mesa and Anthem but not Gilbert?” Morefield said. “It’s disingenuous of Gilbert to say they are not affected.” 

Left unaltered, the 512 Gilbert cats in two year’s time can reproduce to 9,000 felines, according to Morefield.

Cats are prolific reproducers with an intact female able to produce up to three litters a season with two to four kittens per litter, according to The Wildlife Society.

Because the breeding season for cats in the Phoenix area is practically year-round, “you can have adult cats who have kittens in the beginning of the season and those kittens have kittens by the end of kitten season,” Morefield said. “So, you’re talking about litters upon litters.” 

Morefield said one unsprayed female and her offspring over a period of seven years can populate Gilbert with 279,000 cats – higher than the number of people who live in Town today.

 “It’s crazy the growth that can happen,” he said.

Morefield addressed the concern that putting out food attracts outdoor cats to an area.

“Lot of people look at it as a chicken-and-egg problem,” he said, adding that people don’t leave food unless cats are already present. “People don’t wander around with food looking for cats.

“It’s not the food that’s attracting cats but food was placed to manage the cats.”

He said homeless cats are drawn to a location such as a park because of the resources it provides –foliage for shelter, a water supply and food such as rodents.

“So, cats came here for a reason,” Morefield said. “Cats don’t wander aimlessly. They explore and establish a territory and it’s defined by something they can have and continue to have.”

If the Town partnered with a TNR group, it would be able to educate the public on how to put out food and not cause a nuisance, according to Morefield.  

“Working hand in hand with a responsible group would give the best resources, best education and ensuring people aren’t dumping a bag of food next to a library,” he said. “When Gilbert says you can’t trap in a public area or can’t feed on city property they are taking away a tool to control the issue, assuming they don’t want to have outdoor cats.

 “It’s such a weird thing the Town would be insensitive to people who want to help the community and do TNR on their own time and own money.”

  Nonetheless, Council members Laurin Hendrix, Yung Koprowski, Kathy Tilque and September all said they don’t have enough information about TNR to make a decision.

 “I don’t have a position one way or the other,” Koprowski said. “I would be open to further conversation with the mayor and other council members if it becomes a major problem that would threaten the health of our residents or the health and wellbeing of our animals.”

 Tilque also said deeper conversation is needed by the Council about feeding cats on town property. She also is concerned about the liability for allowing TNR.

“I have a problem when releasing (cats) back out to town property,” she said. 

But, she added, “I’m perfectly willing to have a study session on it and get the facts and look at all the opportunities.”

 Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes and Councilman Scott Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.

 Anderson, however, in 2020, while running for re-election, told the Gilbert Feral Cat Coalition that he “would be hesitant to support a TNR program in Gilbert unless it is practiced according to current law and supported widely by Town residents.”

The local group had queried the candidates for their position on supporting a town-wide TNR program.

Mayor Brigette Peterson during her 2020 campaign said she was willing to take another look at the ordinance that she helped passed as a councilwoman.

 When Peterson took office in 2021, she began working with staff on a potential solution, according to an email she sent the Gilbert Feral Cat Coalition earlier in February.

Peterson said staff “reached out to the Town Council and the members did not wish to have a follow-up discussion about feral cats or the wildlife-feeding ordinance.”

September, Tilque, Hendrix and Koprowski said they recalled meeting individually with Carmona last year, who gave an update about the cat situation in Gilbert but did not ask for their position on TNR.

Peterson also said in her email that she had reached out to a council member and “I do not have any support on this topic. It would take four members to approve any changes to the ordinance.

“I’m very disappointed that I can’t find the support needed on this topic.” 

While Gilbert is reluctant to embrace TNR, its East Valley neighbors are not.

Mesa not only educates the public about benefits of TNR on its city website but lends out traps for people and Chandler has a grant program that gives up to $1,000 to a registered neighborhood in the city to help with TNR.

 Tempe in 2020 designated an employee to oversee a pilot program that’s helped 600 cats so far, according to city spokeswoman Nikki Ripley. The city has a contract with Altered Tails to provide TNR services and staff is pursuing a budget request for the 2022-23 fiscal year to add another person to assist with the program.

“TNR is the humane and effective approach for stray and feral cats,” Ripley said. “Studies show that TNR improves the lives of feral cats, helps the neighbors who live near them and decreases the size of colonies over time.”

A key part in preventing overpopulation is teaching residents the effects of cat colonies on neighborhoods, according to Ripley.

“If caregivers can understand the impact feral cats have on their neighbors and things that can be done to keep cats out of neighboring yards, it would help make a difference,” she said. “Teaching caregivers how to humanely trap cats for inclusion in the TNR events is also key.

“Over time, with consistent TNR events and diligent efforts, we believe that Tempe will be able to help control and decrease the colonies.”

Leslie Prast, chairwoman of the Feral Cat Coalition, has been trying to persuade the Town to get on board with TNR.

“Our volunteers know how many cats are there and they keep reproducing,” Prast said. “We are trying to put a finger in the dike by performing TNR in Gilbert because our hands are tied in the parks and public rights-of-way.

“Cats don’t know what is public property. They just have their colonies where they have them.”