Ban on feeding wildlife advances in Palo Alto

Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously backs new law for local parks and nature preserves

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.


1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2014 at 8:04 am

This is never going to be enforced. No one is going to arrest a kid feeding bread to the ducks or the students leaving their lunch remains for the squirrels in Mitchell Park.

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Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2014 at 8:42 am

This is long overdue.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 23, 2014 at 9:52 am

Arresting scofflaws is a last resort. This new policy is about teaching people good manners, since the previous policy was obviously ineffective. Aggressive wild animals are becoming a big problem in some city parks and better city policies can help with that. Don't blame the animals, blame the scofflaws that are encouraging aggressive animal behaviour.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:28 am

It would be good to start with signs at the duckpond. There were none last time I went there.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

The enforcement priority for this item will be one slot below enforcing the leash law at PA parks and schools.

1 person likes this
Posted by community center dad
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:50 am

are you kidding? Our city council has nothing more important to deal with than passing ordinances that will never be enforced regarding feeding wild animals.
how about resurfacing our streets, getting the new library open, dealing with potential flood/bridge issues because we've spent 15 years debating what to do about it....i'm just getting started, the list goes on.

1 person likes this
Posted by Outraged
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 23, 2014 at 11:43 am

Well given that the Feral Cat support community came out in force when Mountain View was considering such an ordinance, I can only conclude that the "no members of the public speaking against the ordinance" means a lot of people didn't know about this meeting.

Feeding ferals is NOT the same as feeding wildlife! Why? Because humans create the feral cat problem by dumping domestic cats to fend for themselves. The people who feed, trap, neuter and return (TNR) these cats are making up (just a little) for the crimes of others. Also it's been shown by solid research that feeding & TNR of cats controls the number of feral cats, prevents them from intruding on humans (they remain shy and do NOT become aggressive like the squirrels mentioned in the article), it also reduces predation on local songbirds. Finally, stable feral cat colonies tend to repel the introduction of new members so they stay stable in size over time. Rather than -- as someone naive about this might think -- creating a magnet for a group to balloon up to huge proportions. These colonies do NOT balloon.

What's wrong with Palo Alto? All fake liberalism and self-righteousness, it seems. Vote for social programs so 156 million Americans and elect not to work for a living, but deny sustenance to some little animals who never hurt you? Sad.

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Posted by allen edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 23, 2014 at 11:43 am

It is not a good idea to feed wild animals for reasons stated above. Without a law against it, nobody can say anything. I came across someone feeding the squirrels at Sierra Point. I asked them not to do it and they got very rude. There is a huge squirrel problem there and traps are set occasionally. How much better to not feed them than to trap them and destroy them. And how much better if I had been able to say, "don't feed the squirrels, it is illegal". Same for any government worker. Telling someone that it is illegal and that they could face a $250 fine if they keep doing it is much more effective than trying to tell them it isn't nice. Good for Palo Alto. Doing the right thing once again.

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Posted by Residents
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 23, 2014 at 11:49 am

The last time I was at the duck pond they ahd a "Do not feed the ducks" sign that explained the diseases they were seeing due to the high concentration of animals. I also saw some(not all but some) choosing to ignore the sign, also written in Spanish.
The problem is that for decades, we've gone out to the duck pond to feed the ducks. We need a ranger much more present at the pond to remind people that the feeding days are over. A public friendly warning at first, then a citation if needed.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Add me to the camp of "lets enforce the codes already on the books before making new ones that won't be enforced."

As an example, just go to any school/park after about 5pm and count the number of dogs playing off leash. Or, just visit those schools/parks the following morning and you'll see the piles of feces their "responsible" owners neglected to clean up.

1 person likes this
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 23, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

I'm in favor of helping wildlife stay wild and healthy, but this sane approach begs the question: why do we expect taking the opposite approach with our city's homeless, aggressive panhandlers will lead to a good outcome?

1 person likes this
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 23, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Great question, Chris Zaharias.

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm

I know of a resident that puts out baskets of peanuts in his yard every day for the squirrels. It is a big problem because of a huge increase in rats in the neighborhood. I think the ban should include squirrel feeders in private yards. I'm not talking about leaving a few crusts or peanuts out. But neighbors are affected by his actions!

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 23, 2014 at 5:21 pm

I know of a resident that puts out baskets of peanuts in his yard every day for the squirrels. It is a big problem because of a huge increase in rats in the neighborhood. I think the ban should include squirrel feeders in private yards. I'm not talking about leaving a few crusts or peanuts out. But neighbors are affected by his actions!

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 23, 2014 at 5:26 pm

And what about those hummingbird feeders? Illegal?

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Posted by Scottie Zimmerman
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2014 at 6:49 pm

To Outraged, In fact, when Carole Hyde and I met with Daren Anderson after the Parks & Rec. Commission meeting last September, we were there to defend the value of TNR and managing the homeless cat population. Carole's group, PAHS, raises money to help pay for spay/neuter surgery when local volunteers have succeeded in trapping feral or homeless cats. Daren listened and responded by ADDING text to the measure--even though it had passed last September. The NEW text makes it clear that the ordinance applies to feeding anybody (wild animals or homeless cats) in areas such as the Baylands and open spaces, where we have some endangered species trying to survive. In addition, the ordinance states that under special circumstances, a cat rescue person or group can get a permit from Greg Betts (Community Services Director) to allow for feeding in order to trap an animal that has taken up residence in one of our parks. For example, we could apply for permission to feed and then trap a mother cat with small kittens, even if the location is normally off limits for such actions. I was pleased at the discussion last night when the revised ordinance came up for review and a vote. I was glad it was passed without objection. I'm sure there are people who don't think it's perfect. However, I felt that we got what we wanted to protect the valuable and humane efforts of cat rescue groups who work with homeless cats.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 23, 2014 at 9:04 pm

@ Chris Zaharias. Great point. This is from the NPS website. See if it can be related to humans...

Animals that are fed lose not only their natural fear of humans, but also their ability to forage on their own. They often become overly aggressive and completely dependent on handouts. They start to look skinny and sickly and develop begging behaviors, which exacerbates the cycle further as visitors feel sorry for them... Fed animals tend to congregate near roadways and are at a high risk for being killed by vehicles. Leaving garbage exposed at picnic areas or beaches can also attract larger predatory mammals and birds.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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