Feral feline feeding prohibition rankles Fort Bragg cat lovers

Fort Bragg cat lovers and city officials will be meeting to find solutions to problems associated with feeding feral felines.|

A crackdown on feeding feral felines in Noyo Harbor has triggered an online hissy fit. Now, cat lovers and Fort Bragg officials are negotiating on how to deal with a decades-old situation that many area residents consider benign, even charming.

The city removed kitty condos and feeding stations from its property in the harbor earlier this week after federal and state wildlife officials expressed concern about diseases and other health problems that the cats and other animals - including raccoons and opossums - could be harboring.

The city last week had warned the animal welfare group Coast Cat Project to stop feeding the estimated 50 cats.

“Tempers immediately flared,” City Manager Linda Ruffing said.

Comments critical of the city exploded this week on a Facebook page normally focused on local sports and news.

“They would be better served doing something about the free-range ‘feral’ transients drinking, drugging, littering and using the harbor as their outdoor bathroom,” one woman posted on Mendocinosportsplus.

“Shame on whoever did this! Who do I call?!” ranted another.

“Do our council members ever get drug tested?” one woman emailed to city officials.

Fort Bragg City Councilman Lindy Peters is a professed cat lover. He’s hoping a solution can be found that includes both caring for the cats and reducing potential public health hazards associated with feeding them.

Those could include rabies, parasites and plague, according to a letter Fort Bragg officials received from Rebecca Mihalco, wildlife disease biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Human feeding of feral cat colonies creates a situation in which feral cats and wildlife interact at a much higher rate than they would under normal conditions,” she wrote.

Large concentrations of animals increase the potential for people to come into contact with infected feces and with animals that have lost their fear of humans, Mihalco wrote. She also cited concerns about cats killing wildlife, noting studies indicate feral cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 birds species worldwide.

Members of the Coast Cat Project said they’ve done their best to reduce the cat colonies that live along the Noyo Harbor. For a decade, they’ve been catching and neutering the cats and trying to find them homes. Only ones that aren’t adoptable are turned loose again, member Carla Dimondstein said.

Peters recalled there being a much larger population of cats in the harbor about 30 years ago, when there were many more fishing boats and multiple fish-processing facilities.

“There’s always been feral cats down in the harbor. This is nothing new,” he said. He estimated there were 150 cats at one time. The Coast Cat Project’s efforts to cut the population through neutering has had some success, Peters said.

But the feeding has been another issue, attracting unwanted wildlife, especially raccoons.

At least one person reported being frightened away from the city trail - the only dedicated walking path down to the harbor - because of aggressive raccoons, Peters said.

Owners of a couple of harbor businesses say there always have been cats and raccoons, and they haven’t noticed a big increase in problems with either.

On rare occasions, Jason Hurst, owner of the Harbor Lite Lodge, said he has had to call wildlife trappers to capture raccoons that become overly aggressive.

But there only has been one cat that anyone can recall becoming a problem, and it likely was because of its chronic, painful ear infection, said Ralph Umbertis, owner of Cap’n Flints restaurant.

The female cat, named Stewart, would go up to people in a friendly manner, then attack when they petted her. One boy was savaged when he picked her up and had to be taken to the hospital, Umbertis said.

He said he twice took the cat for medical treatment, but it failed to heal the infection or the bad behavior. The cat has since been trapped and taken to a feline sanctuary.

City officials and cat advocates think they can solve the problems associated with feeding and caring for feral cats. They’ve created a committee that includes Peters and representatives of the Coast Cat Project and the Mendocino Coast Humane Society to craft a solution.

Dimondstein is not waiting around. She’s already altered the times she feeds the cats. Instead of twice a day, it’s once around midday, when the raccoons aren’t as likely to be around. But she’s not sure what can be done to stop the people who’ve been leaving whole bags of cat food out for the animals.

“It’s complicated, but I think we can figure something out,” Dimondstein said. “There’s a lot of support for those cats.”

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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