By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Paul Rodriguez was showing up every night at a dirt lot on the northwest corner of Elliot and Gilbert roads to feed seven homeless cats in the area.

But that years-long practice came to an abrupt halt for the investment counselor last October at 10 p.m. He had just put down some food when two Gilbert bicycle cops stopped by.

“They gave me a ticket for feeding the cats,” Rodriguez said. “It was the only place I’ve been putting food out. I had to sweep it up and take it home with me.”

Rodriguez was nabbed under the town’s newly minted law that bans people from feeding feral cats on public property. He was slapped with a $100 civil fine.

Gilbert may be the first in the Valley to have this ban – which cat supporters say will only increase the feral cat population in Gilbert.

“I know of no cities who have taken this approach – other than the recent Gilbert ordinance,” said Stephanie Nichols-Young, president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona. “Based on the academic journal articles and studies I’ve read, I predict this approach will increase the number of unwanted cats on Gilbert streets.”

Gilbert Council in May passed the ordinance outlawing feeding or placing food for any wild or feral animal on town-owned property or public right-of-way such as sidewalks, parking lots and streets.

Council years earlier adopted a law that prohibited feeding of any animal, except waterfowl, in Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve after the town dealt with feral cats there.

Feeding the cats is an integral part of a management program that traps free-roaming outdoor cats, which are then sterilized and returned back to their colony – which dies off through natural attrition, cat advocates say.

“It is essential as part of the trap, neuter and return protocol to feed the cats subsequent to their return,” Rodriguez said. “Otherwise they will either starve in place or roam in search of nutrition.

“If they roam and leave the vicinity, this will produce a vacuum effect and other cats will move into that vicinity,” he added. “This defeats the purpose of stabilizing the population in the specific area.”


Residents complained

Research has shown a regular feeding schedule helps ensure a successful trap, neuter and return or TNR program, according to Carla Jewell, director of The Foundation for Homeless Cats.

“When you don’t know where the cats are being fed or no one is feeding them, they will continue to roam, looking for food and may cause nuisance issues,” she said.

According to a staff report at the time of the council’s adoption of the new law, residents had been complaining to town officials about the feeding of wild or feral animals on Gilbert-owned property, suggesting that it increased the feral animal population and inconvenienced those who lived near feeding areas.

However, town spokeswoman Jennifer Alvarez Harrison said the council adopted the feeding ban to address issues stemming from food left out on town property and rights-of-way for cats – which had to be remedied at taxpayers’ expense.

“My understanding is the town’s intent in adopting the ordinances was not to solve the feral population issue and not to prevent or prohibit any TNR program,” she said.

The food issues include attracting predators and disease at the Riparian – and putting the bird population at risk and causing dangerous or nuisance-like conditions on town property, she said.

“Certain areas in town, including Town Hall, there was food left in the parking lot and sidewalks and so that ordinance was meant to address it,” said Nancy Davidson, assistant town attorney. “The whole point was managing our rights-of-way.”

Davidson said, for example, that food left out for cats in the Heritage District somehow got onto Gilbert Road and disrupted traffic with motorists slowing down because they were unsure of what was in the roadway.

She said cat food also can attract predators and noted there were feedings taking place near the Boys and Girls Clubs on Oak Street, near Elliott Road.

“In theory it’s great if only cats are attracted to the food,” Davidson said. “But in practice we have a duty to keep our property safe and free from any types of nuisance and any wild animals.

“Anytime we go in there and clean stuff up and make conditions safe is where taxpayers’ funds are used,” she added.


Town defends action

Alvarez Harrison noted it’s a civil penalty under the town’s ordinances for a violation versus the state’s criminal penalty

“It is important to note that the town ordinances are less severe than the state law,” she said.

However, the Arizona statute she referenced is A.R.S. 13-2927, which makes it unlawful to feed wildlife and doesn’t apply to cats.

“Under state law, feral cats are not considered wildlife,” said Tom Cadden, spokesman for Arizona Game and Fish Department. “They are considered feral animals. They are not a species we have any management authority over.”

Alvarez Harrison also pointed out that under the ordinance, the town’s park and recreation director has the discretion to allow specific people to feed some stray creatures, but only for wildlife rescue, rehabilitation or management related to the protection of native or migratory wildlife.

A number of volunteer cat caregivers said Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona has not granted any exceptions for feeding the free-roaming cats.

“Feeding bans are tricky,” said Dr. Rachel Kreisler, assistant professor of Shelter Medicine at Midwestern University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Glendale. “In other communities that have had this ban, some were overturned because they just don’t work out very well.

“Cats are so well-adapted with living with us. We have not actually taken away their food source, but we may be changing the places they are hanging out.”

She said the ban will drive cat feeders underground, force cats to seek food elsewhere like in dumpsters and result in other unsavory outcomes.

“If you are a hungry cat who can no longer take advantage of a free meal of cat kibble, there is a chance for an increase in predation, which is something we don’t desire,” she said.

“If the problem is with food being inappropriately placed, perhaps a more successful statute would cover the placement of food rather than a feeding ban,” she added.

Although Gilbert’s law does not prohibit people from trapping cats on town property and getting them neutered or spayed, Carmona is doing just that.

Police called 8 times

Resident Katrina West has asked to do a volunteer TNR program on town property but was denied by Carmona.

In his rejection memo, dated Aug. 14, Carmona added that the department will continue to evaluate the TNR program and provide updates if there are any further decisions. Carmona did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.

The TNR program is the most humane and effective way to stabilize and help reduce outdoor feral cat populations through natural attrition, according to Arizona Humane Society.

Feral cats are not adoptable, so after sterilization by a veterinarian and their ears tipped, they are returned to the location they were trapped and live out the rest of their lives in their colony.

Sterilization also helps reduce nuisance cat behaviors that humans don’t enjoy such as spraying, fighting and caterwauling, according to Kreisler.

That said, she added such a program is challenging.

“If you continue to trap, it will reduce the population over time and we have good evidence for that,” she said. “The trick is the over time part. It takes time to see success and you have to have a continued effort. It’s not a simple equation where you go in one weekend, trap, neuter and return and your mission is finished. It’s more challenging.”

The good news is everyone who has a stake in this issue wants to reduce the outdoor cat population, even those who love and feed these cats, she said.

“They all want fewer cats,” she added. “The disagreement is the best way to go about that.”

Gilbert Police has so far issued one citation for violating the new law, according to Sgt. Mark Marino. There were no citations found for violating the feeding ban at the Riparian Preserve, he said.

Since the May law took effect, Gilbert Police have responded eight times to incidents over the feeding ban. Code enforcement officers are sent to deal with the issue when they are working 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

One case involved Rodriguez and another involved a man who was feeding cats at Gilbert Recreation Center and was given a warning, according to Gilbert police reports.

The remaining five reports involved West, who each time when confronted by officers told them she was feeding cats on private property, although she could not provide proof of the owner’s permission.

In each incident, the case was forwarded to Code Enforcement for follow-up. In at least three of the complaints against West, it was the same woman who called police on her.


Ordinance is ‘animal cruelty’

Recently, Rodriguez, West and a handful of other volunteer caregivers have showed up at council meetings, asking officials to rescind the ordinance and to allow them to trap and feed feral and stray cats on public property.

They also demanded to know the town’s solution for controlling the cat population because it was not allowing the trap, neuter and return program.

“How on earth could you pass an ordinance, which on its face legalizes animal cruelty?” Rodriguez said. “Many (cats) are on town property.”

So far, they’ve hit a brick wall with no response from the town.

Rodriquez said he’s been sending an email to Mayor Jenn Daniels weekly, requesting she put the issue on an agenda so it can be discussed.

Daniels did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s unknown how big the feral cat population is in Gilbert, but Maricopa County has an estimated 250,000 free-roaming outdoor or stray cats, according to the Humane Society.

West said Gilbert’s problem resulted from farmers selling off their acreage to developers, displacing cats that were once allowed on site to control the rodent population.

While other Valley communities such as Mesa, Glendale, Tempe and Chandler have embraced the TNR program, Gilbert has not. For example, Chandler in January co-hosted a class teaching residents on how to trap, neuter and return outdoor cats.

The trap, neuter and return program is all handled by volunteer caregivers, Jewell said.

“So, because you have a volunteer workforce, if you will, it is not necessary for municipalities to adopt it,” she said. “But certainly they support it. Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe, you can go to many of those city websites and see they have information about TNR and what to do when you find feral cats. It’s a great service for those municipalities because they don’t have to worry about the cats, there’s no administration cost, no labor cost.”

The volunteer caregivers pay for the food, sterilization, vaccinations and other veterinarian care out of their own pockets.

“They take care of medical issues and if we were supported in the community, we will address any complaint with a solution that has worked before,” Jewell said.

In September 2002, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution endorsing the trap, neuter and return program as the official policy for reducing the feral cat population in the county.

The county doesn’t keep any stats on feral cats and so there are no figures to show how effective the TNR program has been, according to Jose Santiago, spokesman for the county’s Animal Care and Control Services.


Bird lovers balk

Although animal welfare groups embrace the TNR program, there are critics.

Both the National Audubon Society and its chapter Desert Rivers Audubon Society are opposed to the program, according to Michael Evans, Conservation director of the local chapter.

“TNR is not a scientifically valid approach to the management of feral cats,” he said. “TNR is not effective at all. Scientific research has shown it to be ineffective. The only thing that will work to address the problem of feral is to trap and remove the cats.”

He said Desert Rivers Audubon Society and the town previously dealt with this problem at the Riparian Preserve. Evans, a former Gilbert councilman, and other Audubon members helped trap and remove the cats at the preserve, which is a haven for birds.

“The town’s recent update to its ordinance regarding feral cats is a result of the public policy discussion previously held seven and eight years ago,” Evans said, adding his chapter will oppose any attempts to alter the ordinance to permit the feeding of feral cats on public property or in public rights-of-way.

“I believe we are getting a handle on cat populations by doing trap, neuter, return throughout the Valley,” said  Nichols-Young. “We have data at the colony level. When TNR is done per our protocols, no more kittens are born.”

The 31-year-old statewide animal protection organization handles a bulk of the sterilization of free-roaming cats – about 15,000 cats a year in Maricopa County.

Its largest program is a Spay Neuter Hotline for people to call in for help in trapping and sterilizing outdoor cats. The nonprofit organization also makes statewide referrals to low cost and no cost spay/neuter services

Nichols-Young said the organization is part of the Fix Adopt Save campaign, where five groups are working together to tackle pet overpopulation.

“In developing our campaign plan, we looked at dogs and cats and underlying data separately,” she said. “One of our tools to reduce cat overpopulation is trap, neuter, return. The campaign has reduced euthanasia in the Valley by 86 percent between 2012 and 2017.”


TNR practiced widely

The feral cat problem is all over the Valley with a lot of participants who do TNR, according to Mesa resident Lucy Linder.

Phoenix Feral Friends, a group of volunteers and colony caregivers who practice TNR, count 503 members since its formation in 2008.

“It’s a statically validated method of controlling the cat population,” Linder said. “People are very concerned that stopping the feeding will be harmful and detrimental to the cats.”

Linder suspected the food problem may stem from rogue feeders, who indiscriminately leave out food.

Linder said caregivers monitor established cat colonies, watching out for new cats and sick cats and cleaning up after them.

“I feed at Gilbert at places where I have agreements established with the private property owner,” she said. “If you want to trap and try to control the population, you have to go where the cats are.”

Linder ticked off a number of locations in the Valley that allow for the program to take place, including Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe Village Square at Dana Park in Mesa, HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center and a Trilogy community in east Mesa.

She shared a letter from Mark Lo Schiavo, security director for Allied Universal that services Arizona Mills.

“We would have upwards of 20 to 30 stray cats that would prowl the property all night and some during the daytime hours,” he wrote. “TNR had trapped the cats, spayed or neutered them, released them back onto the property and come out on a regular basis to feed them.”

Since the use of TNR, there has been a significant drop in the stray cat population with only a few cats on the property even late at night, according to Lo Schiavo.

Linder said the feeding ban will only just force cats to move to another location for food.

“If they are a problem in your neighborhood and now they go on down the road, you are allowing the problem to move down the road,” she said. “It will be the same problem somewhere else, and therefore address the problem where it does something about the population.”