Feral cat debate in Weed: Council agrees to allow feeding with property owners' consent

Mike Meyer
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
Weed City Council members before the meeting on Sept. 9, 2021. From left: Ken Palfini, Kim Greene, Susan Tavalero, Stacey Green and Bob Hall.

Following a three hour public hearing on its Feeding of Feral Cats draft ordinance Thursday night, the Weed City Council added new language that would allow some feeding of the abandoned pets and their litters.

If voted on and passed next month, the ordinance would permit feeding feral cats on private property if the owner consents. This includes feeding by the owner of the property. Feeding without consent would be prohibited, as would feeding on all public property – including on streets, sidewalks, alleyways and in parks.

Because the feral cat ordinance was in its second reading, having passed the first reading a month ago, the change cycled the process back a step. Now, the new draft will receive a new second reading and is expected to be voted on at the next meeting, barring further change, according to Weed City Attorney Ryan Reed.

The penalty for violating the ordinance would be a fine of $100 to $500, with jail time also a possibility.

The council and city attorney hammered out the new wording near the end of the council meeting. But before that point, councilors and the public discussed, bantered, and debated their views of the issue. The public hearing was attended by about 35 people, half of whom addressed the council.

It began with comments by Mayor Susan Tavalero about her personal efforts to rescue and take several individual, abandoned cats into her home through the years. But in the past week, she said, she had read on social media that “Mayor Tavalero wants to kill all the feral cats.”

"Whoever wrote that, you obviously don't know me," Tavalero ended her comments.

Police chief Justin Mayberry explained the ordinance, with the help of a slide presentation citing PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) rejection of the TNR strategy (Trap/Neuter/Release) for dealing with feral cats, which is also the city's strategy. Mayberry was filling in for City Manager Tim Rundel, who was unable to be at the meeting.

Mayberry described the practice of releasing feral cats after spaying or neutering as "re abandonment," which refers to the abandonment by cat owners of their pets. Abandonment is regarded as a main cause of the feral cat problem.

With the no-feeding ordinance, the city expects to lower the cat population. As councilor Ken Palfini put it, prohibiting feeding would "let nature take its course."

"The ultimate goal is the reduction of these animals" Mayberry said. " ... with a commitment to no elimination."

Many public commenters disagreed with the no-feeding rule, and did agree with the TNR approach. More than half called on the council to table and revise the ordinance, which at that point still prohibited all feeding of the cats.

Many for feeding and others against the practice

Speakers represented local veterinarians and the Siskiyou Humane Society, were volunteers who regularly put food out for the abandoned animals and their litters, and residents who have lived for years with the cats and the day-in, day-out problems they cause in their back alleys, under their houses, and in their yards. They talked about feces and urine, stink, dead grass, and agonizing screams in the night as raccoons "tear the kitties apart," as one resident put it last May when the problem was first addressed before the council.

"The problem won't go away by stopping the feeding," speaker Chris Roberts told the council during his allotted three minutes.

"The cats are going to die of starvation if you abandon them," said Kim Latos of Siskiyou Humane Society. "There are ways to do this."

The ordinance "did not offer solutions," said Nicole Dwork, a spokesperson for Saving Shasta Cats, the nonprofit whose volunteers feed feral cats in Weed and throughout the county. The group has been leaving food and performing TNR, releasing them back to the private or public property where they were trapped.

When asked, Dwork said the group has been active in Weed for three to four years, prompting the mayor to ask, "So if we've been doing this for years, why have we gotten worse? Are people from all over south county going, 'Weed's gullible, we're gonna take our cats there?'"

"No,” Dwork said, “but ... one reason of late is the pandemic. We couldn't take ... them (for spaying/neutering) this year, so we're seeing an explosion of kittens."

"Well let's say we're talking three years ago," the mayor replied.

"Basically, people in this community abandon their pets at an alarming rate," Dwork said.

During the sometimes emotional discussion on both sides of the wooden fence that splits the council chambers, those stepping to the podium spoke with respect, both in agreement with and disagreement of the ordinance. One or two speakers became confrontational; following the end of public comments, two or three audience members broke into the flow of the council's discussion by shouting.

"Why do you get to talk longer than us?" one person demanded.

"Because this is the only time we can discuss this," Tavalero answered, raising her gavel and threatening removal.

By contrast, one woman identified herself only as a resident then told her story, calmly and without hurry despite the big black and white three-minute clock high on the wall behind the council ticking off the seconds.

"My name is Suzie Boynton. I live across the tracks on Olive Street. Last year about this time I didn't have any cats, and I didn't want any cats. The next thing I know, I had three or four feral cats in my front yard. And then, they give birth to litters under my motor home and in my shed. Now I had 20-plus cats living in my yard. Three of them were killed by my dogs, which are permanently penned, but the cats got in because they were starving. It was horrific having to pick up three dead cats. Then all of the babies started dying out in my yard, and I had little tiny baby cats I had to pick up and dispose of."

Boynton described working with the Siskiyou Humane Society. "Two cats a week I could bring in (for spaying/neutering) but I had to take them back (home), that was the program. So I ended up with a whole yard full of cats after they were fixed. I had 10 cats in my yard, but after awhile they went away. Maybe they were neighborhood cats who came to my house, God only knows why, to have their litters. And I'm stuck with the problem.

"So I want to say to you, I think the problem is not me feeding the cats. I think people need to take responsibility for their animals ... But I don't want to go to jail, or pay $500 every time I feed one of these cats. That's wrong, for me. And some of those cats out there I'm a little bit afraid of. So lets do something to amend this," Boynton said, directly addressing the council.

Awhile later, the council voted 4-1 to adopt the new language allowing property owners to feed the cats, with Ken Palfini voting no.

No agenda item for schools reunification

In other news, because the council had not previously voted to have reunification of Weed High School with Weed Elementary School put on the agenda, there was no discussion. During public comments, though, area resident Kevin Charter again asked the council to place it on the agenda, and to pass a resolution asking the Siskiyou Office of Education to study it.

"I'm not asking the council to make a decision whether to reunify the schools. That's up to the voters," Charter said. A study would provide answers, but until one takes place, he added, "we don't know what we don't know.”