The episodes read like a police blotter on Animal Planet: Female ducks attacked by gangs of drakes in the Baylands. A violent squirrel biting a visitor at Mitchell Park. Fearless foxes stealing food from golf carts. Coyotes intimidating visitors at the Arastradero Preserve.
The cases differ in nature, but Palo Alto officials believe they stem from the same source: visitors who feed animals in city parks and open space preserves. On Tuesday night, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission made a move toward clamping down on this well-meaning but occasionally counterproductive practice when it unanimously backed an ordinance banning 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 a myriad of reasons for the new 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 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), aggressive foxes that take food out of golf carts and aggressive coyotes that prompted the city to close several sections of trails at the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve.
Anderson called the ordinance a "valid and very necessary thing."
"There's nothing in (the city code) to legally stop you from feeding a coyote at Arastradero Preserve," he said. "That's a terrible thing, for everyone's sake, but there's no law that says you can't do that."
The new ordinance would change that. The citation for violating the ban would be up to $250, according to Anderson.
For the commission, the Tuesday vote was in some ways a reiteration of a position members took last September, when they voted 6-1 to adopt the ban on feeding wildlife. At the time, Commissioner Stacey Ashlund dissented and asked staff to conduct outreach to local animal-welfare groups to get their feedback on the proposed ban.
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. A broader ban, they said, would imperil animal-welfare groups' efforts to trap feral cats for spaying and neutering. Anderson acknowledged in his report that without the volunteer feral-cat groups, which feed, trap, neuter and release feral cats and remove litters of kittens for adoption, there would be no controls on the growth of the city's homeless cat populations. But with the scope limited to open space preserves and parks, Hyde and Zimmerman had no qualms about the new ordinance.
"We were very concerned that it would be a citywide ban," Hyde said. "It's a limited ban."
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 to the ordinance, the commission quickly and unanimously voted to approve 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, who voted against the ordinance last fall, this time joined her colleagues in supporting it and said she "really appreciate(s) the extra effort" in reaching out to the animal-welfare groups. The ordinance will now go to the City Council for approval.
"The primary goal is to protect the wildlife, protect the visitors using the areas and to keep our open space and parks clean and safe," Anderson said.