This is the first part of a two-part series on saving Mooney’s Grove’s cats. The first part focuses on a volunteer group implementing the Trap and Release Program. Part two will focus on the county’s response and moving forward.
During the November 5th Tulare County Supervisors meeting, Dr. Larry Weber, a retired pharmacist, made an impassioned appeal to the Supervisors to stop trapping and killing the cats in Mooney’s Grove Park. He and a group of volunteers had successfully stabilized one colony, and hoped to stabilize the other two colonies through the Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) Program. His modest request that day was to ask for a one-year moratorium on the park’s practice of killing the cats. During that year, the TNR program could be evaluated for its effectiveness in controlling and reducing the cat population in Mooney’s Grove at no cost to the county.
The TNR Program is used all over the state except in the Central Valley, and is supported by all the major veterinaries. Tulare County’s kill rates at 84.4% are the highest in California and are an unnecessary expense to Tulare County taxpayers.
Mooney’s Grove is in Supervisor Phil Cox’s district and he was briefed about the program the month before. He wasn’t too interested in the cats, but appreciated the volunteer’s passion and didn’t oppose voting for the TNR Program. The supervisors listened politely to Dr. Weber, but their slight indifference was probably a sign that that they had bigger fish to fry and wished the staff would sort out the problem. Since Dr. Weber’s presentation, however, communication with the county staff has ground to a complete halt and the killing has continued.
The latest cat was killed on November 26th.
An adversarial relationship didn’t always exist between the county and the volunteers implementing the TNR Program.
The partnership started out amicably when Amy King, curator of the Tulare County Museum in the park, called the Valley Oak SPCA to help her deal with a number of stray cats living around the museum. Colleen Monfross and Dianne Dunbar volunteered for the Feral Cat Committee with the SPCA and responded to her call. They assessed the situation and estimated a total of 100 abandoned or feral cats throughout the park. King, Monfross and Dunbar came up with a plan to control the colonies using the TNR program.
The Trap, Neuter and Release Program traps feral and abandoned cats, tests them for disease, then sterilizes them. The cat is then vaccinated and treated with flea medication and released back into the park. A group of volunteers monitors and feeds the cats once or twice a day which enables them to determine when the colony has become stable. Once a colony is stabilized, they slowly start decreasing in numbers. The theory is, if you maintain the original colony through neutering and releasing, other cats will stay out of the park and their numbers will decrease.
Trapping and killing costs the county about $185 per cat while TNR is free and humane.
Colleen and Dianne started the TNR Program in Mooney’s Grove in June. They did the trapping and caring for the cats for free and Valley Oak SPCA picked up the medical costs. At the same time, Monfross pursued getting a TNR pilot project officially approved by the county. She didn’t need their approval, but thought this project could be replicated all over the Valley. John Hess, administrative analyst for Tulare County, told her to make a proposal and arranged a meeting in early September between her group and high level staff with the county. If everything went as planned, the pilot project would be presented to the Tulare County Supervisors and put up for a vote. During this time, the Mooney’s Grove staff and Tulare County Parks Manager Neil Pilegard were told to stop trapping and killing the cats.
That’s when everything started to unravel.
Insiders at the park informed Monfross that King and Pilegard had started trapping again. She was told that King trapped and killed two mother cats with her kittens. One mother was trapped with her litter of two-week-old kittens and all were put down. The other mother was trapped with two of her kittens. One kitten escaped and has been adopted by a ranger, but the other kitten was killed along with her mother. Two other kittens died because they weren’t old enough to survive without their mother and could not be caught. Both mothers had been taken care of by the volunteers while they waited for the kittens to mature so to be adopted out. The mothers were going to be fixed.
Monfross went to Tulare County Historical Museum in Mooney’s Grove to confront King about her violating the moratorium on trapping and to express her feelings about trapping new mothers. Monfross informed King that she was calling the police to file an animal cruelty report against her. When Monfross told King to stop trapping she was forceful, direct and the conversation was unpleasant for both of them. But museum patrons were milling about and neither they, nor the staff, heard any raised voices, or even their conversation.
Later that day, Monfross received a call from the Visalia Police Department wanting to discuss allegations that she made threats of bodily harm against King. They said she had threatened to beat her up once she King stepped foot off the park property. Monfross, being a 52-year-old woman, and King being a young fit woman in her early thirties, was quite surprised to hear the allegations.
After King and Monfross’ confrontation, the meeting between the county and volunteers was canceled with no explanation. Valley Oak SPCA stopped offering their services because the Mooney’s Grove’s cats had become “too political.” A week later, Pilegard laid off two museum employees who had worked there for years, telling them to leave immediately. They have since been replaced by a new employee and a volunteer. Monfross was informed by the Visalia Police Department that neither she, nor any of the other volunteers, could return to the park. She challenged that statement and a higher-up in the police department called Pilegard and informed him that they weren’t doing anything illegal and he could not lawfully keep citizens out of a public park.
The county has now resumed trapping and killing the cats in earnest according to an insider in the Valley Oak SPCA. Ironically, the cats are being put down in the same place where, only a month before, they were being vaccinated and fixed.
VOLUNTEERS STABILIZE COLONIES
I met Dr. Weber by the End of the Trail Statue in Mooney’s Grove Park. It was the day after Thanksgiving and he was filling in for another volunteer who was out of town. The weather had turned overcast and colder than I had expected, so he pulled a fleece jacket out of his car fittingly covered with cat hair.
We walked along the leaf-strewn path to the museum cat colony. With only five cats, this colony had been stabilized through the TNR program. There was only one gray male cat that had not been fixed, “But we’ll catch him. The dominant male keeps chasing him away,” said Dr. Weber.
The dominant male of the museum colony was born in the park and affectionately named Scotty Jr. after his dad, Scotty Sr. The dad, who had been abandoned, was named after his breed of cat. “Do you know what a Scottish Fold is?” he asked. I learned that a Scottish Fold is a breed of cat whose ears are permanently folded down flat that makes them look quaintly annoyed all of the time. As the rest of the cats ran to Dr. Weber, Scotty Jr. kept his distance behind the fence and waited for his personal can of food that he did not share.
After the museum we headed to the much larger bridge colony. This colony was about 80 percent stabilized and had around 20 cats. Dr. Kuswa, owner of Animal Companion Medical Center, had stepped forward to volunteer her services after the SPCA pulled out. “Dr. Kuswa is ready to proceed with sterilization and vaccinating, the only thing standing in her way is the county. Dr. Kuswa doesn’t want to operate on the cats just to have the county turn around and kill them,” said Dr. Weber.
It was at the bridge colony a few weeks ago that Dr. Weber saw his favorite cat, Scotty Sr., amble towards him, but it was not a happy reunion. He knew right away there was something wrong because Scotty’s face was swollen and he was so far from his territory.
The doctor had a recovery crate with him and set it up, but he knew cats never willingly went inside. So he went back to his car to get his work gloves knowing that if Scotty were injured he would probably bite him. When the doctor got back to the bridge, Scotty had crawled into the crate and Dr. Weber could see blood on the floor. When Dr. Weber got Scotty to the vet the x-ray showed that he had been shot through the eye and the pellet had lodged in his brain.
Scotty Jr.’s father was the dominant male before him. His death is the reason the volunteers asked Pilegard to post signs informing park users of penal code 597. The code states that, “Every person who maliciously and intentionally maims, mutilates, tortures, wounds or kills a living animal is guilty of a crime punishable by imprisonment or a fine.” Several cats and birds have been killed by pellet guns, but having Scotty Sr. put down motivated the volunteers to push even harder for the signs, but their request fell on deaf ears.
Sadly, Dr. Weber feels like everything the volunteers do to improve the park and save the wildlife falls on deaf ears. “The confrontation with Amy completely changed the dynamics. It changed the focus away from the well-being of the cats, and gave the county a reason to put a stop to the program,” he said. Pilegard doesn’t believe that TNR works and doesn’t want cats in the park. “Why else would the county spend money on something they could get for free?” mused Dr. Weber.
Dr. Kuswa added that, “Anytime you have food and water you will have cats. Obviously at Mooney’s Grove there is food and water.” The philosophy behind TNR is that when a cat colony is maintained, that colony does not grow and will probably shrink. If, on the other hand, the colony is destroyed, it creates a vacuum and a new larger group of cats will take their place.
Since June, more than 24 cats have gone through the TNR program and more than 20 kittens have been rehabilitated so they can be adopted out.
Back at the bridge colony, Dr. Weber was feeding a group of 20 cats. “These cats are abandoned, not feral,” he said. The cats jockeyed for space rubbing up against him, eager for his attention. In between emptying cans of cat food he tossed dry cat food out to the protesting ducks and geese. “I buy dry food with extra vitamins and minerals for the birds. “In the spring, it’s so beautiful here with all the chicks. It’s just a celebration of life – just remarkable.”
Dr. Weber finished putting out cans of food and making little piles of dry food so none of the cats were left out. He made sure to collect all the cans in a bag so he could take them out of the park. “I don’t want a kitten to smell the food and get caught in the trash can,” he said.
I sat on the rocky ledge watching Dr. Weber interact with one of his favorite cats. Even though he was done with his work for the day we lingered in the company of a particularly fat and bossy goose and five or six well fed cats.
“All we are trying to do is save them, that’s all. I think that is what is so hard. You never know when it’s the last time…..” – but he could not finish his sentence.
THE COUNTY’S RESPONSE
The official response from the county is that they have used the same practices of managing the feral animal population at Mooney’s Grove for 20 years.
“These practices continue to include trapping feral cats and other animals. As has been practice for 20 years, Parks staff provides any trapped feral cats to Tulare County Animal Control. Due to the issues related to fleas, illegal dumping of animals, and the safe use of the park by the public for recreation purposes, the county is not considering any other method of managing the feral animal population at the park at this time.”
My clients are voters and I have filled out about six petitions. That’s 90 votes which could definitely swing an election. The county supervisors should take note.
Dr. Robert Fishback, Visalia optometrist
Despite everything that has happened, Dr. Kuswa resumed the group’s efforts two weeks ago to save the cats. Dr. Kuswa met with Pilegard to once more explain the cost savings and logic behind the TNR Program. “He wasn’t very receptive,” she said. “He is very unreceptive of the idea of fixing cats and rereleasing them in the park. Once they are removed, he wants to keep them out. He wants the cats placed in homes.”
Dr. Weber stated, “Once the county has trapped a cat, it’s dead.” No one wants to adopt a half-grown, wild cat.
Pilegard also mentioned the problem of fleas and rabies brought in by the cats. Dr. Kuswa explained to him that the cats were vaccinated against rabies and treated for fleas so that the TNR cats would make the park a safer and healthier place for the public.
Citing the hazards of having cats in the park, Pilegard quoted the California Department of Fish and Game and the Audubon Society. The frustration level in her voice was escalating when she said, “Mooney’s Grove is not a delicate ecosystem. The Galapagos Islands – yes. Mooney’s Grove – no.”
Pilegard feels the same way about the ducks and geese as he does the cats, that they are a nuisance and a health risk to the public. His preference would be to get rid of all the birds that use Mooney’s Grove pond. To reduce the population of geese, Pilegard hunts the birds on the weekends with a bow and arrow. On one occasion, he injured one of the geese and told the park rangers to keep a look out for it. A park employee discussed his hunting practices and explained that there were other methods of population control other than shooting them with arrows.
He was not receptive.
Right now, the cat population is not an active problem because the county is just putting them down. But Dr. Kuswa pointed out that the current public sentiment is to use nonlethal methods to deal with feral and abandoned cats humanely. “If you love cats, you don’t want them to be put away. If you hate cats then you don’t want your tax money spent on them.”
Dr. Weber said, “I just wish they would work with us and appreciate our efforts.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Robert Fishback, a Visalia optometrist. He has petitions on his front counter for his clients to sign to save Mooney’s Grove cats. “My clients are voters and I have filled out about six petitions. That’s 90 votes which could definitely swing an election. The county supervisors should take note.”
Advocates of TNR have made a petition available to be signed and distributed. It can be downloaded by clicking here.