By Corey Young
PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
A program designed to let feral cats live out their lives in managed colonies will go forward, despite concerns from animal advocates that the new law is too restrictive.
The City Council on Monday granted its second approval for a “trap-neuter-return” policy for feral cat colonies, declining to lift a restriction on feeding stations near the Petaluma River wetlands or drop an insurance requirement for nonprofit groups that participate.
Those provisions proved to be two of the most contentious features of the program the council approved on Oct. 5. In a flurry of e-mails sent to city officials since that meeting, advocates said the city had ignored their recommendations on how to make the program work.
However, city officials defended the new program, saying it balanced the interests of many different groups and came together after three years of input and review.
“From my point of view, we’ve done a tremendous amount of process on this,” Police Lt. Mike Cook said at Monday’s meeting. The council was scheduled to conduct a routine “second reading” of the Oct. 5 ordinance, but the dissatisfaction of some feral cat advocates prompted a new debate about the law’s merits.
Some speakers said the requirement that feral cat colonies be managed under an umbrella nonprofit group left independent caretakers open to being in violation of the ordinance, noting that the law calls feral cats a “nuisance” unless cared for under its regulations.
For the ordinance to work effectively, “all the caretakers would have to come forward,” said Angela Zumsteg, a feral cat caretaker. Requiring individual caretakers to register their colonies is a burden “that’s going to make them go underground again,” she said.
City officials pointed out, however, that the existing animal code allows up to six cats per home, effectively authorizing small feral cat colonies for backyard caretakers.
“You can still take care of six stray cats in your home,” Councilmember David Rabbitt said. “I think that’s pretty liberal.”
Under the ordinance, larger colonies would be managed by volunteers associated with a nonprofit group and would be registered with the city. Caretakers would be required to bring new feral cats in to be neutered and newborn kittens in for possible adoption.
The “trap-neuter-return” approach allows sterile feral cats to live out their lives, causing a colony’s numbers to slowly drop as the cats die off, advocates said.
A similar approach on the books since 2004 never took off, advocates said, because of mistrust between the animal shelter and caretakers.
But in a series of meetings with feral cat advocates and other parties over the past three years, the city crafted the new law that allows managed colonies while restricting their presence near Shollenberger Park and other “sensitive” wetlands areas in the southeast part of town.
The ordinance says no feeding stations will be allowed between Lakeville Highway and the Petaluma River, from the marina to the holding ponds near the Ellis Creek sewer plant. Wetlands docents said feral cats pose a danger to native birds and other small wildlife and should not be allowed to roam near Shollenberger Park.
Some advocates said that restriction includes too much private property, preventing residents and businesses there from establishing or continuing cat colonies.
One existing colony in that area is being managed well and “accomplishing what we want to accomplish,” Cook said. “The goal is certainly cooperation with any colonies that are within those boundaries now.”
Cook said the city is not going to “aggressively track down” existing colonies that aren’t posing a problem.
Council members encouraged cat advocates who don’t support the ordinance to put their energy into making it work, saying that it depends on trust between caretakers and the city. They said the ordinance will be reviewed in a year.
“I really want to ask the public to look at this next year as a trust exercise,” Councilmember Tiffany Renée said.
Councilmember David Glass, who voted against the ordinance two weeks ago because he disagreed with provisions allowing potbellied pigs and beekeeping within the city, said he would vote for it this time because it offers an improved feral cat program.
“If people focus their attention on trying to make this work instead of picking it apart, it will be an improvement,” Glass said.
The new policy takes effect 30 days from Monday’s meeting. So far, no nonprofit groups have said they will take on the role of managing Petaluma’s feral cat colonies.
(Contact Corey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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