The definition of “wildlife” in urban parks is far from precise! Here’s an excerpt from a story by Matt Smith from SF Weekly that illustrates evolving urban ecology and some of the dilemmas that attend this evolution.
“It’s 7 o’clock on a dewy Friday morning as Paula Kotakis pushes through the brush just west of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. She’s wearing a green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes — her cat-hunting outfit. As she rattles a scoop of kibble, out ambles Gigi, a fat gray feline who inhabits the thickets nearby.
“Gigi’s pretty butch,” Kotakis offers by way of introduction.
Not butch enough, apparently, to frighten off a 5-inch-long rat. In the tall grass west of the museum, Kotakis pulls out a cardboard box she keeps stashed there. It contains two empty bowls, into which she now pours some water and dry cat food. The latter come from the plastic bin, jugs, and crates of cat supplies she always keeps in her car’s trunk. Kotakis steps back, waits, then exclaims: “Look, there’s a rat who came to get the food.”
Sure enough, a brown-and-white-banded rodent creeps along the side of the box. Gigi crouches, then feigns a lunge toward the rat, which retreats strategically into the box and behind the food bowl. Gigi stalks away 10 steps, then stops, turns, and glares back at her food.
This underbrush encounter unfolds with surprising naturalism, as if these feral animals barely notice Kotakis. She might as well have melted into the landscape: She has come to this spot so frequently, for so many years, that these urban creatures seem unafraid around her. . . .
Kotakis is not alone in her dedication. She is one of more than 100 self-described cat caregivers in San Francisco who prowl the city’s underbrush each morning and night to refill hidden cat dishes. They see themselves as a vital force against an alternative they consider unconscionable: having feral cats, either abandoned or born into the wild (and thus, unsociable and unsuitable for adoption) killed at animal shelters.
The feral cat advocates (Kotakis calls herself and her friends “feral people”) say their real objective is to reduce the city’s population of feral cats by trapping and spaying as many as they can, then letting the neutered animals live out their lives in well-fed, outdoor comfort. This, they argue, is the most humane and effective way to reduce feral populations. This approach — trap, neuter, release, or TNR — is San Francisco’s primary method of dealing with stray cats. . . .
During the past decade, cat ladies like Kotakis, all but invisible as they do their feeding rounds in urban but wildlands, have evolved into a powerful national force. Led by Alley Cat Allies, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit with a $5 million annual budget, some 200 charities oriented to help feral cats strive to convince local, regional, and national government agencies to adopt TNR as an alternative to killing cats in shelters. “Dozens of cities and municipalities across the country have embraced TNR as official feral cat policy — and the momentum is building,” Alley Cat Allies communications manager Elizabeth Parowski says. The San Francisco SPCA adopted TNR as its official feral cat policy in 1993. . . .
But people outside the world of cat lovers aren’t pleased with this version of success. Environmentalists and natural preservationists condemn the feral feeding movement as deeply misguided. They charge that returning feral cats to the wild and feeding them merely sustains the cats, which are efficient bird killers and disease spreaders. Other critics say that it’s impossible to care for all outdoor cats, explaining that feral cats are sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for. As a result, the animals are left to suffer and die in pain. . . .
Environmentalists point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize. In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.
The American Bird Conservancy estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year. Feral cat feeders ‘are passionate, and they’re determined that what they do is a good thing,’ says Arthur Feinstein, the former executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. ‘But when you get to those things where they claim … that cats don’t kill birds, well, I can claim the moon is made of blue cheese, but that doesn’t make it true.'”