With a deadline looming, two factions are debating how to solve a years-old problem of feral cats roaming the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
Scott Anderson, preserve director, said that about 50 cats populate the 110-acre facility at 2757 E. Guadalupe Road, endangering themselves and the birds there while creating a potential health hazard to visitors. He has set a Jan. 18 deadline for a volunteer rescue group to remove them.
For years, Save the Cats Arizona has utilized a process called "trap-neuter-return" to control the population, but Mike Evans, a former Gilbert Town Council member and conservation director of the Desert Rivers Audubon Society, said that method is not effective.
"On the Council, I saw that project from conceptualization to completion," Evans said of the preserve, which opened in 1986. "At no time, in any meeting or discussion, was there intent for it to house a feral cat colony. That is what has developed out there.
"What they have been doing to address the problem hasn't worked."
The feline presence began about eight years ago, when, it is believed, the preserve became a popular place for owners to abandon their cats. Anderson said the peak population in 2010 was about 75 before a trapping endeavor conducted in November and December by the Desert Rivers Society and Maricopa Audubon Society collected 26 cats.
Of those, only two had been sterilized.
"The population out there was multiplying, and that was unacceptable," Anderson said.
Donald Bloom, founder of Save The Cats Arizona, said that he believes the increase in population last year was due to more people dropping off cats.
Of the 26 cats trapped, Evans said, four were placed for adoption and the others taken to the Arizona Humane Society, which typically euthanizes cats that it determines cannot be domesticated.
"They are not instant pets," Bloom said. "You put them in foster care, and it might take them weeks or months to be (domesticated), some even longer. When they go to the Humane Society, that is pretty much a death sentence, because they are not adoptable."
Anderson wants to introduce reptiles to the preserve, but he said that the Arizona Game and Fish Department has indicated that it will not provide new species until the cat situation is solved. The preserve could also lose its designation as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Also, students have encountered cat feces in a sand play/dig area during field trips.
"The cats were using that as a big litter box," Anderson said.
Bloom, a preserve volunteer for 10 years, said that he thinks audubon organizations are applying pressure.
"An audubon should not be determining stray-animals policy for a facility owned by Gilbert," Bloom said.
After Dec. 18, Anderson said, the preserve will re-evaluate the cat situation and determine how to proceed.
"We may resume trapping, or we may let (Save The Cats Arizona) continue its work if it's effective," Anderson said. "Regardless, we'll make every attempt to place cats in adoptive care. A true feral cat will be taken to the Humane Society, and they will make the assessment. ...
"We'll monitor it closely, because we know the sooner a cat is accounted for, the more likely it can be adopted."