Hiding in plain sight, Silicon Valley is home to thousands of stray and feral cats that freely roam creeks, parks and trails. And in Mountain View, a possible uptick in free-roaming felines has revived a controversial debate over how to manage colonies of bite-sized predators.
At the Santiago Villa mobile home park, North Bayshore's only residential area, residents are noticing more cats showing up and the reaction has been mixed. Some have been quietly feeding the cats, while others -- upset with the furry invaders -- have complained to park management.
In a mobile home park newsletter published in September, resident Bee Hanson wrote that some 20 cats had been trapped and taken from the park as a means to contain the problem, but that it's just the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, it's causing a schism and plenty of heated arguments among neighbors over what to do. Some argue the cats must be removed, and amount to an unnatural predator that's killing off sensitive bird species. Others call for a compassionate approach, and bristle at the idea of removing or euthanizing cats.
"In the last few months in the park we had been having a lot of difficulties with feral cats," Hanson said. "There were so many complaints that the office started looking for people who could do something about this."
Feral cats have a history of igniting passionate debates in Mountain View, often pitting bird advocacy groups like the Audubon Society against local cat organizations. Google employees had previously run a cat program in North Bayshore with feeding stations to support the cats, but that effort has reportedly ended.
Unlike most suburban neighborhoods in the area, managing feral cats in North Bayshore has some pretty high stakes attached to it. Protected species like the California Ridgway's rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, the western snowy plover and the western burrowing owl are all found in the area, raising serious concerns about predation. The precise impact of the cats has not been measured, but there are reports from 2015 of a cat mauling one of the few burrowing owls left in the area.
Hanson said it's been difficult to deal with the anti-cat sentiment among her neighbors, and she worries for the health and safety of the felines roaming around the mobile home park. Some are quick to call for cat removal or euthanasia, which she vehemently opposes.
"Environmentalists say cats kill a lot of birds, but what are we going to do about that? Kill the cats? That's not a good answer," Hanson aid.
Cat advocates have instead rallied behind the strategy of trap-neuter-release (TNR), in which cats are trapped in a cage and taken to a shelter or animal control facility to be spayed or neutered before being released back where they were found. The method does little to solve the problem immediately, but prevents a further explosion in population growth caused by breeding cats.
Hanson said she herself has trapped four cats in support of TNR, but that it feels like an uphill battle. She has a fulltime job and can't be leaving throughout the day to check traps across the park. Meanwhile, complaints are still flooding in, with residents angry to find cat poop in their gardens or accusing felines of spreading fleas, she said.
"I don't know what to do about it," Hanson said. "But don't blame me, and don't blame the cats."
A tough problem to solve
Local trappers in the Bay Area say there are far more feral cats than meets the eye. And while it's difficult to get an accurate count, it's possible that the numbers are up this year.
The COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 forced many local animals shelters to temporarily close, making it difficult to get cats fixed. Even though many of the TNR programs continued, it was poorly advertised and left people thinking that TNR efforts had to be put on pause during the public health crisis.
Vanessa Forney, who has been trapping cats since August 2020, said there are too many requests for too few trappers in the South Bay. Her Facebook group is inundated with requests for cat trapping, and a quick look at Nextdoor shows residents are constantly stumbling into stray felines -- often mistaking them for lost pets. At one point, she said San Jose animal shelter staff said they had hundreds of cats more than usual.
"There are just way more cats than I thought here, I have to put blinders on because there are so many," Forney said. "It sounds like a lot, but if you go by a house and there are three cats, take what you see and multiply that by five or ten. That's usually how many there are there."
The root problem is that irresponsible people are giving away unfixed kittens, Forney said, and those cats are either being abandoned or run away and begin breeding, which can get out of hand quickly. And it doesn't help that sympathetic residents are opting to feed these outdoor cats rather than taking action to get them fixed.
"There are people who do mass feedings of cats and they consider themselves rescuers, but really they're creating suffering. These kittens are dying, these kittens are sick," Forney said. "My first reaction when I see a cat is that it needs to be fixed, whereas others say, 'Oh, I need to feed it.'"
The number of cats coming in from trapping are "slightly" higher than usual right now, said Janet Alexander, a staff member of Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, which serves as the animal control agency for Mountain View and surrounding cities. She said the impact of COVID was limited because they only shut down for a few weeks, and doesn't handle the same massive volume that San Jose does.
For years, Silicon Valley Animal Control has adopted TNR as its official method for handling the local feral cat population, and cat trappers are encouraged to bring in cats to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, treated for fleas and de-wormed. Many of the kittens go into foster care and are ultimately adopted, while older cats are returned to where they were found.
While it rankles some to see a perceived nuisance brought back rather than relocated or placed in a foster home, Alexander said there isn't much choice. Cats have a difficult time adjusting to a new location, and rarely have another place to go.
"They're familiar with the area they come from and when you try to relocate them its very difficult to acclimate to a new surrounding, especially the cats that are relying on being fed in the area," Alexander said.
The term feral cats is a somewhat loaded term, and Silicon Valley Animal Control has since started calling them "community" cats -- a catch-all for the mix of stray cats, feral cats and outdoor cats that make up the feline population. They encompass domestic mixes of all breeds and colors, including tabbies, tortoiseshells, Siamese, black and white cats.
Alexander said her agency does not actually do trapping of its own, and that it relies heavily on community members to carry out TNR and control the local feline population. She encouraged anyone interesting in helping out to learn more and pick up a trap courtesy of Silicon Valley Animal Control.
"It takes a village and while we certainly do our part, we do depend on people for help to trap the kitties," Alexander said. "We adopted TNR a few years and I think it's worked, but there's a lot to do out there."
A threat to birds
Is trapping and releasing cats really enough to tip the scales? According to bird advocates and some studies, the answer appears to be no.
Feral cats and outdoor housecats account for upwards of 1 billion bird deaths per year across the U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy, amounting to a "stunning level of predation" that threatens bird species that already on the ropes. A 2011 study of bird deaths in the Washington D.C. area found that 79% of the deaths were due to predators, and 47% of the known predators were domestic house cats -- regularly decapitating birds and leaving the bodies uneaten.
There is overwhelming evidence that feral cats are a serious threat to wild birds and other animals, said Matthew Dodder, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. And feral cats in Mountain View's North Bayshore area do find their way to Shoreline Park, where they have prey upon burrowing owls. Migratory birds in search of a nesting location arrive to encounter predators they haven't adapted to, and end up being easy prey.
"There are far more of these introduced cats, these feral cats, than ever before," Dodder said. "As far as wild birds are concerned, they are an unfamiliar threat -- they haven't evolved to deal with these introduced predators."
Dodder said the Audubon Society strongly opposes outdoor cats, and encourages pet owners to keep them inside at all times in order to protect native birds, mice and amphibians from being attacked. But when it comes to feral cats with no owner, the solution gets more complicated. Dodder said TNR may eventually cut down on the number of cats, but it's unlikely to curb the number of avian deaths when the cats are simply being fixed and returned.
"TNR is taking them out of their environment and putting them right back," Dodder said. "You are preventing them from reproducing, which is good, but you're still returning it to the environment where it will continue to do damage."
Dodder was quick to say that the organization does not recommend euthanasia, but he said there needs to be some way to get cats out of the environment, whether through beefed-up adoption services or some other method to keep them inside.
The Audubon Society links to a 2010 publication that roughly comes to the same conclusion, namely that trap-and-release does not work on its own. It suggests that "no real-world example of an eliminating a colony" through TNR exists, and that a cat colony would take four to 10 years to fully die off.
But differing from the Audubon Society, the same study makes the case that "integrated pest management," including nonlethal and lethal means, is the most effective approach in dealing with feral cats. That includes trapping with euthanasia, "kill-trapping" and shooting.
"These methods provide an immediate reduction in the population and may be necessary when feral cats are over-abundant and causing significant impacts," according to the study.
Dodder acknowledged that the feral cat problem can inflame tension and get like-minded people into arguments, and that his hope is that education can help pro-cat groups understand the need to protect vulnerable bird species. There's an instinct to help the cats and feed them, he said, but they shouldn't be prowling around North Bayshore to begin with.
"We bump into this issue all the time and it is inflammatory," Dodder said. "It causes friends to argue, but ultimately I'm hoping that we can all agree that the natural world is preferable to an artificial environment."