DRAS Report on Feral Cats at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch Park

The Riparian Preserve at Gilbert’s Water Ranch Park has a feral cat problem.  In a survey conducted by Town of Gilbert employees at the end of October, 72 feral cats were counted.  Two hidden litters of kittens were also suspected to be present because of the presence of two lactating mother cats.  Dozens of cats were running amok in a facility conceived and designed for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.  What went wrong?

This problem has been building for many years.  Riparian Preserve Director Scott Anderson first noticed eight years ago that cats were becoming more visible in the Preserve.  No one is sure how the problem began, but we are certain of what has caused it to grow.  Irresponsible cat owners have dumped their unwanted cats in the Riparian Preserve.  The town has partnered with a cat rescue group, Save the Cats Arizona, which has used the scientifically dubious practice of Trap, Neuter, and Return, known by the acronym TNR.  However, as long as two and a half years ago, it became obvious that Save the Cats Arizona was not being successful at managing the problem, let alone resolving the problem.

Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats (owned, stray, and feral) kill hundreds of millions of birds and possibly more than a billion small mammals in the U.S. each year.  Not only are birds and other wildlife at risk, but cats who roam free often lead short and painful lives, living on average less than 5 years, whereas indoor cats often live to 17 or more years of age. Outdoor cats themselves are also at increased risk. They can get hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, or wildlife; contract fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus; get lost, stolen, or poisoned; or suffer during severe weather conditions.  

Outdoor cat colonies, sustained through the practice of Trap Neuter Release are bad for birds, do not help reduce the overpopulation of feral cats, and, as already stated, are often bad for the cats themselves, which lead short, harsh lives. Instead, feral cats should be kept in enclosures, trapped and adopted to loving homes, or euthanized.  

Free-roaming and feral cats also pose a health hazard to humans from the spread of diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, and cat scratch fever. The feral cat colony in the preserve was not receiving veterinary care nor had they been vaccinated.  Diseases such as toxoplasmosis are spread to humans through contact with the cat’s feces.  The abundance of cat feces at the preserve is of particular danger to those in wheelchairs, who have to touch the wheels of their chairs in order to move through the preserve. They end up with hands soiled by the feces.   Additionally, a popular amenity at the preserve is the “Dino Dig,” where children can play paleontologist and dig for dinosaur “bones” in the sand.  Unfortunately, this area has been used as a litter box by the feral cats.

Desert Rivers Audubon Society (DRAS) first spoke to town officials about the problem in 2006.  At one point, a “cat summit” was called and representatives of several cat rescue groups, Town of Gilbert employees, and DRAS were set to sit down and hash out a solution agreeable to all sides.  But, the meeting was called off at the last minute because of planned protests by militant feral cat advocates. 

The problem continued to grow, with the assumption being made that the ongoing housing crisis was increasing the dumping of unwanted cats.  With the obvious increase in the number of cats, how to deal with the problem became a regular part of conversation among the birders visiting the Preserve.

Constructed as an urban wetland, the Preserve attracts over 200 species of birds.  It has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society because of the great number of waters birds that it attracts.  Many of these birds build nests on the ground and are defenseless against the non-native predatory cats.  Birders from throughout the region and across our nation have found the Riparian Preserve to be one of the premier birding locations in Arizona.  Increasingly, the preserve has become a stop on the itinerary of international birders who come to Arizona to find some of our rare birds.  Unfortunately, this growing reputation was being fouled by the presence of feral cats.

This past July, on behalf of the Desert Rivers Audubon Board, I met with Gilbert Mayor John Lewis, Town Manager Colin Dewitt, Community Services Director Jim Norman and Mr. Anderson to express the concern of the DRAS Board and to propose a set of policy changes to deal with the cat problem.  We shared with the town leaders an article, Felines Fatales, from a recent Audubon magazine.  Here is a link to that article:  http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html .   We requested that the policy of Trap, Neuter, and Release be stopped and trap and remove used instead.  We also asked for an ordinance to outlaw the feeding of feral cats on town property.  We further proposed that the town start a media education program on the evil of dumping house cats at the preserve and to advocate an indoors only policy for the family cat.  Finally, we offered to partner with the town on all of these efforts.  Our meeting was positively received and commitments to pursue some of the policy options were made.

In late October, Riparian Institute Director Scott Anderson called me and said that the problem had become critical.  He asked for another meeting and wanted to focus on trapping and removing the cats.  DRAS President Krys Hammers and I met with Mr. Anderson and his staff.  We discussed a program to trap and remove all of the cats.

One of the items needed by the Riparian Institute was a supply of live traps.  We realized that if TNR was no longer going to be used, then the preserve employees and their volunteers would need to regularly trap to remove any new cats that showed up.  We spoke with fellow Audubon members at the Audubon Arizona office and with the Maricopa Audubon Society.  Both agreed to assist in the purchase and donation of live traps to the Riparian Institute, a registered nonprofit organization.

Once we began to trap, we were quite surprised by our results.  Of the 26 cats we trapped, only 2 had been sterilized, a dismal 8%.  All of the cats were one to two years old.  As Mr. Anderson said, “We knew why the population was exploding.  It was no longer cats being abandoned at the preserve.  Cats were being born, fed, and raised in the preserve.”  Four of the trapped cats were placed for private adoption and 22 were taken to the Arizona Humane Society.

Save the Cats Arizona has asked for one more chance to trap and remove the cats themselves.  They have been given until February 18th to remove all of the cats.  On February 18th, trapping will resume by the town and the team of Audubon volunteers.  All cat food found in the preserve will be removed and the feeding of the feral cats will cease.  A feral cat management plan, as well as a plan to deal with the dumping of any other household pets, is in development by the Town and we will continue to assist in that process.  Stay tuned for more to come on this.

For further reading on birding and feral cats, here are eight links, containing many more links:
Information from the University of Michigan: http://umd.umich.edu/dept/rouge_river/cats.html.
Information from the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoor campaign supported by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and National Audubon Society: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/.
National Audubon’s Cats Indoor campaign: http://web4.audubon.org/bird/cat/.
More from the Audubon magazine: http://magblog.audubon.org/feral-cat-predation-birds-costs-billions-dollars-year.
Here are two links to local author Jim Burns articles on feral cats at the Riparian Preserve: 
.   & http://www.jimburnsphotos.com/pages/7-18-08.html.
Here’s Wikipedia’s info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap-Neuter-Return.
This is a very comprehensive site, but anonymous, with anti-TNR position statements from 22 organizations: http://tnrrealitycheck.com/welcome.asp.



Editor’s note:  The principal author of this report is Mike Evans.  Mr. Evans is the Conservation Director for Desert Rivers Audubon and a former Gilbert Town Council member.  Additional content and editing was supplied by Krys Hammers, DRAS President, Marion Saffell, DRAS Volunteer Coordinator, Eileen Kane, DRAS Public Relations Director, Kathleen Evans, DRAS member, and Aaron Evans, DRAS member.