In the early 2000s, a seemingly large yet indeterminate number of unmanaged community cats resided on or in close proximity to the aforementioned stretch of the Bay Trail. By 2004, the municipality that owns the property through which the trail passes was receiving complaints about the cats and the debris left behind by a small number of people regularly feeding the cats. At the urging of a citizen advocate, a privately funded TNR program was chosen by the city to manage the cats on the trail. The volunteer organization Project Bay Cat (PBC) was formed to carry out the trapping and returning of the cats after sterilization and vaccination as well as to manage their ongoing care. PBC operates under the umbrella of the Homeless Cat Network (HCN), a well-established local, private nonprofit TNR advocacy organization. A community education campaign was initiated to inform the public about the nascent TNR program; the city erected signs along the trail explaining TNR program protocols and publicly distributed brochures for the same purpose. Brochures were disseminated via clear weatherproof dispensers affixed to the signs that were erected on the trail by the city, given (as deemed appropriate) to trail-goers by PBC volunteers, and distributed at events by HCN. The brochures served several functions, including education of the public about TNR, to provide an easily accessible list of local resources related to pet surrender in order to discourage abandonment, and to remind the public that the program was being conducted in partnership with the city.
The PBC program protocol called for cats to be trapped in humane box traps, transported by volunteers to a veterinary facility (most often one of two private practices that provided services to PBC at no cost or to an in-house clinic at the Peninsula Humane Society) to be sterilized, vaccinated against rabies and viral rhinotracheitis/calicivirus/panleukopenia (FVRCP), and tested for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) before being returned to the trail. Cats enrolled in the program were ear-tipped (to indicate that they had been sterilized) and received medical care as warranted. Beginning in 2007, all cats brought to the clinic for sterilization, as well as those recaptured for medical treatment, received a microchip for future identification purposes.
An initial census of the cats residing on the trail was conducted by the founder of PBC over a three-week period in the spring of 2004. She walked the area daily (alternating between morning and evening) in order to identify locations where cats were congregating and to record the presence of individual cats. Cats were identified by their physical characteristics, (e.g., color, coat, and size) as well as by behavioral traits, such as approachability and their amenability to human touch.
After weeks of surveying the area, no new cats were being identified as part of the daily counts; thus, an initial population of 175 cats was documented. Over the next several months, feeding stations were installed as close as practicable to the locations where groups of cats were regularly observed. Because the San Francisco Bay Area is part of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds [26
], the local chapter of the Audubon Society was consulted about the placement of the feeding stations so that, as necessary, the cats could be encouraged to gather away from sensitive bird habitats and nesting areas. Over the course of the program, two of the sites where several cats were known to congregate were thought to be perilously close to sensitive bird habitat, so the feeding stations were moved away from those areas and the cats were habituated to new locations; one cat, who persisted in roaming the sensitive habitat, was relocated to a barn in a neighboring community as part of a “working cat” program. These programs, which were created to work in conjunction with TNR and/or return-to-field efforts, provide an alternative for community cats who are unable to be returned to their location of origin but who are deemed unadoptable due to temperament (i.e., low level of sociability) by allowing the cats to be relocated, most often to a place of business (e.g., brewery or garden center), where, after a period of acclimation, the cats are allowed to roam freely in order to deter the presence of rodents [27
The maximum number of feeding stations installed across the program area was 11. Due to the configuration of the shoreline along the two-mile section of the trail that made up the program area, placement of the feeding stations occurred in three distinct zones (A–C). In Zone A, where much of the trail is flanked by either a two-lane road or marshland and the bay, feeding stations and shelters were hidden in the marsh until the rainy season when they were moved to inconspicuous spots in the rocks along the water. In Zones B and C, where most of the trail is abutted on one side by a strip of grassy meadow covered in native flora and rocky shore on the other, feeding stations and shelters were concealed amidst the foliage in the meadow. Four feeding stations were located in Zone A, one in Zone B, and six in Zone C. The feeding stations were spaced between 50 feet (~15 meters) and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) apart; placement was determined by the terrain, locations known to be frequented by most cats, and the proximity of such spots to sensitive avian habitats.
2.3. Data Collection
After completion of the initial census, cats were recorded and their presence tracked as they appeared at feeding stations or at adjacent locations within the program area. Descriptions of each cat’s physical characteristics and personality traits were recorded (photographs were taken as practicable). Names were assigned to most of the cats, each of whom was tracked by location; this information was recorded in notebooks and later transferred to Microsoft Word documents created for each of the feeding stations. The age category (adult or kitten ≤6 months of age, as determined by clinic staff), sex, and sterilization, vaccination, and FIV/FeLV testing status of most of the cats were recorded. Such information was not recorded for cats found dead or for those immediately adopted from the program. Additional notes describing medical treatment or other details were recorded for most of the cats. However, in some cases, such details were missing from the available records.
The feeding station census documents described above and annual summary reports provided to the municipality (extant only for 2009–2019), which included a synopsis of arrivals and departures during the previous 12 months and a review of historical population trends, were analyzed as part of the present study. Semistructured interviews were conducted with past and present leadership of PBC to provide additional context and fill information gaps (details not included in the annual reports or feeding station census documents, such as program protocols and omissions in the reported data).