The cases differ in nature, but Palo Alto officials believe they arise from the same source: people who feed animals in city parks and open-space preserves. On Tuesday night, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission moved to clamp down on this well-meant but occasionally counterproductive practice when it unanimously backed a ban on the feeding of feral cats and wildlife in all parks and nature areas.
Daren Anderson, manager of the Open Space, Parks and Golf Division in the Community Services Department, listed in a report myriad reasons for the ban, including potential dangers to both animals and humans, an increased probability of diseases spreading among animals and damage to park amenities. Park benches and pathways around the Duck Pond in the Palo Alto Baylands, for instance, are often covered with bird droppings. And golfers at the city's nearby course get discouraged by the large amount of guano, or excrement, from the large and well-fed population of Canada geese. The city spends about $20,000 annually for a dog service to chase geese off the golf course, the report notes.
Safety, however, is the top concern. Edible gifts, paradoxically, bring out the worst in many critters. Park rangers, Anderson wrote, regularly remove sick, injured and dead birds from the Duck Pond that are a "direct result of the intense aggression and competition that occurs when waterfowl populations become concentrated."
"Every year staff finds dozens of severely injured female ducks each spring that have been attacked by gangs of aggressive drakes (male ducks)," the report states.
The city has also been receiving complaints about aggressive squirrels (including a 2010 biting incident in Mitchell Park, which prompted an installation of a sign requesting that visitors not feed the animals), and problematic foxes and coyotes.
"There's nothing in (the city code now) to legally stop you from feeding a coyote at Arastradero Preserve," Anderson said. "That's a terrible thing, for everyone's sake."
The citation for violating the new ordinance would be up to $250, according to Anderson.
For the commission, the Tuesday vote was in some ways deja vu. Last September the group voted 6-1 to adopt the ban on feeding wildlife. But Commissioner Stacey Ashlund, who dissented, asked staff to reach out to local animal-welfare groups to get their feedback on the proposal.
Since then, Anderson has discussed the ordinance with Carole Hyde, executive director of the Palo Alto Humane Society, and with Scottie Zimmerman, co-founder of the group Friends of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter. Both said that while they have no objections to banning the feeding of wildlife in open-space areas, they were concerned that the restriction would later spread to other parts of the city and imperil animal-welfare groups' efforts to trap feral cats for spaying and neutering. The work of those groups, which also remove litters of kittens for adoption, curbs the growth of the city's homeless cat population, Anderson acknowledged in his report.
As a result of the outreach, the ban discussed this week is limited to parks and open space. Hyde and Zimmerman said they had no qualms about the new ordinance.
In addition, staff assured the animal-welfare groups that they would be able to submit requests for permits to feed feral cats in parks and open-space areas. Each request, Anderson's report states, will be "considered on a case-by-case basis by justification provided by the applicant."
After a brief presentation and no members of the public speaking in opposition, the commission quickly and unanimously voted for the ordinance, which states:
"No person shall feed, cause to be fed, scatter or leave food, seed or other matter edible to any wildlife animal, including any bird or feral animal, including any feral cat, in any park or open space lands or building located within a park or open space lands, without the written consent of the director."
Ashlund, last fall's dissenting vote, this time joined her colleagues in supporting the ban.
The ordinance will now go to the City Council for approval.