Community Columns

Whiskered assassins take a heavy toll on riverfront wildlife in Stanislaus County

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

This is a column about cats. Mostly river or park cats, but any cat that hasn’t been given a name — that’s what we’re dealing with. As a topic, cats are beneath you and me. We are cosmopolitan, thinking people way too sophisticated to spend time considering kitties.

But the furry little murderers are changing the ecosystems of places I go and love and the sudden disappearance of Woodrow forces me to demand enforcement of environmental policy on parkland countywide.

My problem started April Fool’s day, when I counted nine ducklings out of one of my boxes. I hung and maintain two wood duck boxes on a spit of land north of town along the Stanislaus River. Your phone will say it’s the Oakdale Recreation Area but everyone calls it the Dog Pound because the city’s animal control shelter squats at the entrance.

I was deliriously happy with that hatch because wildlife is making a comeback at the Dog Pound and I believe it’s because the crazy cat-feeding people are only spilling chow around the shelter area, which leaves a half-mile of riverbank for critters to breathe. I’m seeing lizards and even quail running across the road by the point again. Beautiful.

I found the slow-moving man to thank for this sudden bounty as he was getting out of his truck near the Dog Pound gate. He said he was in his 80s and “fixed (spayed and neutered) hundreds of cats down here” and has been “feeding them with permission since 2008.” He spoke proudly how he had “reduced the cat population from hundreds to dozens” but that it wasn’t easy. He paid for all the food and “there was even a guy who threatened me” for feeding the feral cats.

Finally, a benefit to losing hair and gaining weight — he didn’t recognize me.

The year was 2013 when I read, “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States” in Nature Communications where they claimed between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. I certainly didn’t threaten him, but I remember telling him, “No more feeding past this point. The rest is for Woodrow.” I call all wood ducks “Woodrow.”

We can have cats in our parks, or wildlife; we won’t have both.

Four days later, only five Woodrows came out of my box and I started checking the man’s story. The Army Corps of Engineers administrates many parks along the Stanislaus and certainly wouldn’t let our public spaces become swollen with invasive felines, would they? Kerr Park in Oakdale, Jacob Myers in Riverbank — all have well-known cat feeding stations. Fox Grove Park on the Tuolumne River is the most egregious, with pounds of kitty kibble piled about the base of trees around the parking lot. All this for cats.

Heather Wright, manager of the Stanislaus River parks, confirmed they have a “special use agreement with an individual to help us manage feral cats.” So this guy gets to decide what’s in our parks? “No. It’s the people who drop their cats off at the river who are changing the fauna of our parks,” Wright corrected. I sighed, then offered my services with a scoped .22 and subsonic rounds as a solution, but Wright just shook her head.

I doubled back to the Oakdale Animal Shelter where Officer Beth Crowley says they take “owner surrender” dogs and cats “whenever we aren’t full.” You need an ID showing an address in Oakdale or Riverbank and you can leave your unwanted pet at the shelter, for any reason. Crowley said animal drop-offs happen outside the office. “Two or three times a year, we find a dog running around here. Doesn’t happen a lot.” I tried my .22 joke again, but it went over just as well.

Going lethal on wild cats just got real last week when the Australian government announced plans to airdrop poisonous sausages to kill millions of feral cats across their continent, “to prevent mass extinction of our native species,” according to reports. That’s how serious this kitty thing is.

We have state laws against abandoning cats as well as feeding feral cats, so I’m demanding both laws be enforced immediately in all Stanislaus County parks and public spaces. This will certainly pain the well-meaning people who feed these whiskered assassins, but understand these misguided individuals are the same people that anthropomorphize wild animals and probably even name them. Pathetic.

Steve Taylor, a behavior analyst, lives in Oakdale.

Editor’s note: Local commentary is offered to stimulate debate and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Modesto Bee.

This story was originally published May 3, 2019 4:06 PM.

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