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It's cats vs. terns, with Navy in middle
June 29, 1997

By Eve Mitchell, SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER
http://articles.sfgate.com/1997-06-29/news/28566253_1

ALAMEDA - The last tenants of Alameda Naval Air Station are being evicted, and animal rights activists are howling about it.

The Navy has been trapping wild cats, primarily to protect the least terns that nest in a wildlife refuge in the middle of the 1,730-acre base. Unfortunately for the cats, the seabirds are an endangered species.

Once trapped, the predatory felines are shipped to the local animal shelter, where they're usually destroyed because they're too wild to be adopted.

"We know that feral cats have preyed on the tern colony in the past year," said Doug Pomeroy, a wildlife biologist with the Navy's Engineer Field Activity in San Bruno, which is overseeing base closures in the Bay Area. "We were losing birds, and cats were apparently the likely source."

Nearby resident Kathleen Pelayo said she'd been devastated recently when the dozen or so cats she had fed for years suddenly disappeared.

"These animals were part of my life," said Pelayo, who has dished out morsels for the felines even though it's illegal to feed them on the base. "I nurtured and cared for them. They spent all the time basking in the sun, fat and happy and disease-free."

The East Bay animal rights organization Voices for Pets is demanding an end to the trapping of the cats, many of them abandoned pets, and Island Cat Rescue wants the feeding of the remaining feral cats to be legalized on the base.

"This has nothing to do with protecting wildlife," said Leroy Moyer, director of Voices for Pets. "This has to do with killing abandoned pets."

"Cats are a very emotional issue," conceded Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the base. "Eliminating the cat is absolutely our last resource, but obviously we need to protect the terns."

The exact number of the feral cats is not known, but Pelayo said she had seen dozens over the years and found homes for 34.

The Navy stepped up its trapping effort in the first half of the year before starting the process of turning over the near empty base to Alameda, which will eventually lease property for commercial uses.

The Navy was required under the Endangered Species Act to develop a 1988 predator-management plan to increase the population of least terns, which had been preyed on by feral cats that were living in airfield hangers, according to Pomeroy. In 1983, there were only three nesting tern pairs left.

Until this year, feral cats and other predators, such as raccoons and gulls, that managed to squeeze past the electric fences surrounding the terns' nesting area could be shot on the spot by animal control officers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or trapped and euthanized inside the refuge area. The strategy of trapping and euthanizing the cats was dropped in the wake of community objections. Now, trapped cats are sent to an animal shelter.

Last year, when most of the base's military families departed, 12 feral cats were shot by trappers in the nesting or refuge area, a number that was much higher than previous years, according to Pomeroy. Six cats were also trapped and euthanized on site.

The population of the black-capped gray water bird has increased significantly since the cats were removed beginning in 1988. Currently, there are 234 nesting pairs, a 10 percent increase over last year, Fasano said.

Any change in the current approach to the cats would need approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and the state Department of Fish and Game. Pomeroy said the two agencies had concerns that it would lead to more least terns' getting killed.

"Cats belong in the home," said Arthur Feinstein, executive director for the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

"Wildlife needs to be helped out nowadays because we have upset the balance."

In San Mateo County, the management of feral cat colonies in various locations by volunteers is supported by the Peninsula Humane Society. It has reduced by more than half the approximately 1,200 feral cats in 129 registered colonies in the last two years, according to Executive Director Kathy Savesky.

Under the program, cats are trapped, then vaccinated and altered. Cats that get along with people are put up for adoption, while the others are returned to the colony. Diseased or badly injured cats are euthanized.

Having volunteers monitor the colonies makes it easier to spot a household pet that was recently abandoned and is adoptable, said Savesky.

Moyer would like to see similar management at the Alameda base.

"The homeless cats should be fed, should be trapped, spayed and neutered," he said. "The ones that are recently abandoned and not totally terrified of humans could be put up for adoption."

While the feds will remain in charge of the base's wildlife refuge, Alameda officials plan to continue the Navy's policy of trapping feral cats and other stray animals in the base's housing and office areas.

Police Lt. Chuck Rodekohr, whose job includes overseeing the city's animal shelter, said the Navy had agreed to pay for an animal control officer to restart recent trapping efforts in the coming weeks.

Trapped feral cats will be taken to the animal shelter, where Rodekohr said they were usually euthanized after 72 hours.

"We try to do the humane thing with animals that can't be adopted," he said.