By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert’s park staff will step up enforcement of a feeding ban on feral cats on town property.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Robert Carmona said the ban will be enforced especially at Page Park.

Gilbert currently has four park rangers but is hiring two more and will shortly focus on the hours when the illegal feedings are taking place, according to Carmona.

Rangers now work 5 a.m.-10:30 p.m. and the feedings are taking place 4 a.m.-5:15 a.m.

“We are aware of feedings happening,” Carmona said at last week’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting. “Park rangers are following the guideline of the ordinance.”

He said the department may possibly erect signs prohibiting feeding of the animals, and trim the oleander bushes at Page Park, located next to the Gilbert Community Center and the Heritage Center.

The department was prompted to take action after Heritage District resident Doralis Machado-Liddell complained to the board in January about lack of enforcement.

Besides asking for signs and the oleander trimming, she also requested the town consider animal guards in the park culverts to prevent homeless cats from seeking shelter.

Machado-Liddell has been sending emails and asking to meet with town staff and council on the issue since 2017, according to copies of her correspondence obtained by the Gilbert Sun News.

Her latest meeting on the subject was scheduled with the mayor in February.

Outside of the hours when park rangers are on duty, Gilbert police are tasked with enforcement and so far have issued three citations to two people since the ordinance was adopted in May. Gilbert is the only municipality in the Valley to ban feeding ferals.

Machado-Liddell told the board last week the town needed to educate the public about the ordinance, enforce the ban and remove homeless cats. She said some cats are not feral and can be adopted.

She added she observed a person feeding cats in a town parking lot on Feb. 21 and alerted a police officer who just happened to park at Gilbert Senior Center. She said the officer failed to investigate her complaint.

“I’ve asked Parks and Recreation and police to please enforce the ordinance,” she said. “If it’s not enforced, it’s condoned.”

She said the town needs to put up signs alerting the public about the ban.

She also said the people who are trapping feral cats, having them sterilized, returning them to where they were trapped and feeding them are making the situation worse. She said other people end up abandoning their cats in the area because they know they are being fed.

“If they want it in their neighborhood, go ahead,” she said. “What happens is it’s disturbing our neighborhood. Feral cats shouldn’t have more rights than me as a property owner. I’ve been doing this for almost two years. I’m at my wits’ end.”

She said the program, known as Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR, doesn’t have any scientific evidence to prove it works.

The idea behind TNR is a sterilized feral cat colony would keep other cats from coming into an area and would naturally die off.

Nearby municipalities such as Mesa, Tempe and Chandler have embraced TNR. Community volunteers who call themselves caregivers feed and take care of veterinarian bills out of their own pockets.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine noted while TNR has grown in use in recent decades, there was a relative scarcity of data associated with the program.

That said, it looked at a case study of 300 free-roaming cats at a Massachusetts waterfront. After a 17-year period since TNR was implemented there in 1992, none remained. One-third of the population was reduced due to adoption of sociable cats.

But an integral part of the program involves ongoing feeding of the colony.  Staff also considers putting food in a trap to lure a cat on town property as a violation of the ordinance.

“The town by no means with this ordinance say you can’t take a feral cat home with you and feed it on private property,” said Vice Mayor Eddie Cook. “You have the right to do that.”

He said caregivers don’t have the right to feed stray cats on town property just like he isn’t able to change his car’s engine oil on town property.

“We are not picking on them,” Cook said. “They come to our council every time we meet to talk about this instead of speaking with us in our office. They refuse to meet with us. They know the ordinance is in place and they are not very happy about this.”

He said the council would be glad to meet with the caregivers if they were to come up with a prudent compromise.

Paul Rodriguez, who has spoken at every council meeting since last year, said at the March 7 meeting he would consider. He was cited twice for violating the ban.

A couple of volunteer caregivers also have been meeting with Carmona and the Town attorney recently to find a workable solution.