But times have changed and so has the wildlife. Birds have grown more violent; squirrels more confident; and coyotes more aggressive, according to a new report from Daren Anderson, the city's open space manager. At the same time, the consensus in the park-management community has shifted, with rangers and naturalists now educating nature lovers not to feed the animals because of fears that this well-intentioned activity will disrupt the natural ecosystem and lead to death of endangered species.
All national and California state parks have laws in place prohibiting the feeding of animals.
This philosophy could soon become Palo Alto law. On Tuesday night, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted 6-1, with Stacey Ashlund dissenting, to recommend a new ordinance that would ban the feeding of wildlife and feral cats in the city's parks and open space preserves. The vote came despite criticism from some residents, including several cat trappers, that the new law is too blunt an instrument and that the city is rushing to adopt it without doing sufficient outreach.
Anderson, who recommended the ban, called it a much-needed measure aimed at protecting wildlife. The feeding of ducks at the Baylands pond, he said, results in intense feeding frenzies that leave many a duck injured and most areas around the pond covered in duck poop.
"When birds feed on scattered corn or bread, they eat in the same place where they defecate," Anderson wrote in a report. "Diseases, generally not transmissible in a wild setting, spread readily in these overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Feeding also causes large groups of birds to fight over the hand-outs, which leads to competition, stress and injuries."
It's not just birds, either. Anderson told the commission that squirrels have become increasingly assertive as they have adapted to human altruism. One squirrel he recently encountered would not back away no matter how aggressively he tried to shoo it away, Anderson said.
"I'm thinking: 'I'm 6-foot-4 and I'm stomping the ground and kicking my foot, and it won't budge,'" Anderson said.
What, he asked, is a little kid with a banana supposed to do in such a situation?
Commissioner Deirdre Crommie concurred that things have gotten particularly messy at the duck pond, where food donations have become increasingly generous.
"I know what I view in the duck pond is an extreme overuse of feeding," Crommie said. "Some of us have this very lovely image of just a few crumbs thrown. I've never seen that. I've seen a huge number of loaves of bread being dumped, not a delicate distributing of the food. I've even seen bacon down there. I don't know why."
The ordinance, which will now go to the City Council for approval, includes a $250 fine for those who violate the ban. The city had consulted with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before drafting the ordinance.
Some people argued on Tuesday that the city should have done more outreach. This included several cat trappers, who objected to the city's decision late in the process to include feral cats in the ordinance. Christina Peck, co-founder of the Stanford Cat Network, which cares for feral felines, said she was "disappointed and shocked" that the city would "blindly and in private discussions" decide to ban the feeding of feral cats.
"If the commission has concerns about feral cats, I urge (it) to consult a local animal welfare organization to resolve any problems and focus on the issue at hand — prohibiting the feeding of wildlife," Peck said.
Reina Flexer, also a cat trapper, argued that banning the feeding of feral cats may merely push the cats further into the Baylands, making them harder to trap.
"Managing is key — not a general ban on feeding," Flexer said.
But others argued that the ordinance is timely and needed. Emily Renzel, a former councilwoman and one of the city's leading conservationists, admitted that she was once one of those people who would take a niece or a nephew to the pond to feed the ducks. But people know much more now about the effects of this activity, she said. Renzel also noted that the city's Comprehensive Plan specifically calls on the city to protect its wildlife.
"It's counterproductive for humans to interrupt the natural balance," Renzel said.
The commission agreed with Renzel and concurred with Anderson's observation that it's time to act. Ashlund dissented because she felt the city should have reached out to other organizations, such as the Palo Alto Humane Society.
"By not consulting an animal-welfare population in Palo Alto that offered its help, we're turning a blind eye on useful information," Ashlund said. "By not asking the question, I feel we're doing ourselves a disservice."
Her colleagues had no such quibbles, however.
"From my perspective, the evidence is clear: Feeding the wildlife is bad for wildlife and bad for people," Vice Chair Jennifer Hetterley said.
She and Crommie both said they were not convinced that outreach to other animal groups would have revealed any new arguments. Crommie argued that the groups taking care of dogs and cats are "different groups altogether" and have a different mission from the groups seeking to protect the wildlife. Hetterley agreed.
"As custodians of parks and open spaces in Palo Alto, I believe the preservation of the natural ecosystems is our first priority," she said.