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More than three years after it was implemented, hard-won revisions to the city's feral cat ordinance seem to have put the city on the right track to both control and humanely treat the semi-wild animals.

The 2009 changes sparked concern from cat advocates at the time and have taken a while to implement, but finally seem to be working well, according to those involved.

"Since 2010, the numbers have consistently gone down," said Jeff Charter, executive director of the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, which took over operations of the city's animal control department last August. "We handle about 85 percent (fewer feral cats) at the shelter than we handled five years ago."

He thinks the reason for that is giving people the option to stop cats from reproducing through low-cost spay and neuter programs coupled with advice and veterinary help.

"What we're seeing is more and more citizens taking advantage of spay and neuter," Charter said. "It helps them financially and gets more cats spayed and neutered."

Similar county-wide programs like Love Me Fix Me and Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County provide spay, neuter and adoption programs.

The revised Petaluma ordinance first came about due to an outcry from many community members who saw feral cats as a nuisance and a hazard to wildlife, especially nesting birds. Many cat advocates objected strenuously to killing the independent animals, but just as many pushed to protect the bird populations in city parks, such as the birders' mecca, Shollenberger Park.

At the time, many cat advocates were wary of the new ordinance, objecting to a requirement that those caring for large feral cat colonies must have insurance, and a ban on feeding the cats near the Petaluma River wetlands. Since then, however, some have come around.

"Fortunately for Petaluma, Jeff Charter is now in charge at the shelter and has taken the appropriate steps to reduce and manage the feral cat population," said Jennifer Kirchner of Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County. "The programs and policies he has put together are positive and effective."

Her organization now partners with the Animal Services Foundation to offer low-cost spay/neuter options every week, collaborate on trapping efforts and provide feral cat education.

The ordinance basically ended the trapping and killing of feral cats by instead allowing the cats, once spayed or neutered, to live out their lives in managed colonies. But it also requires anyone maintaining a colony be licensed – and to carry a lot of insurance indemnifying the city. No one stepped forward until the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation was established.

"We treat cats as cats, regardless of situation," Charter said. "They are entitled to life, regardless of how humans place them. It's just that feral cats, or community cats as we call them, sometimes call for a different place."

Those different places are cat colonies. When people put out food, the feral cats will gather. The idea is that people who feed these animals are required to trap and sterilize the colony, as well as provide them adequate food, shelter, and care. Keeping a colony requires paperwork as well, including filing an annual report to animal services. The foundation in turn, reports to the city.

Bob Dyer, a docent at Shollenberger Park and an active bird advocate, helped to draft the new ordinance and is happy with how it has turned out.

"I would say the situation is much better than it was before the ordinance," Dyer said. "Occasionally, we'll see a feral cat or one that belongs to the people in the apartments next door," but, overall, "sightings have decreased."

Dyer said it's been a long time since he or any other docents has found a litter of kittens. No one has noticed any feeding stations near the wetlands. He noted that state law requires the removal of non-native predators from wetlands.

Charter estimates there are about eight to 10 feral cat colonies in Petaluma at the moment. His two animal control officers are in the process of getting them licensed now, under the umbrella of the foundation.

"We've just now started to move forward into a more robust program," he said.

Most cat complaints are not about feral cats, as they tend to stay away from humans, Charter noted. Rather, they are about pet cats going into neighbors' yards.

Visit www.petalumaani malshelter.org or contact the shelter at 778-4396 for more information.

(Contact Jay Gamel at argus@arguscourier.com.)