I-TEAM: East Bay Regional Park Dist. staff admit to shooting cats, policy sparks controversy

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- The East Bay Regional Park District has a little-known policy that is now the center of controversy -- park staff shoot and kill cats that may pose a danger to wildlife. The I-Team's Dan Noyes has been investigating what else can be done to protect both the cats and endangered birds.

Park staff shooting cats comes as a shock to many people, including the viewer who tipped us to the story, and even to people who work in animal welfare.

It's 7:30 at night in an East Oakland office park, Cecelia Theis is trying to trap what's left of the colony of cats she's cared for over the past year. She tells the I-Team, "I really want to get them out of here."

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After Theis came here to work for the county, training poll workers in the last primary election, she began helping others feed the feral cats. She fell hard for them, including the little one who climbed on her hood waiting for food, and the first cat she befriended.

"Each of them had a personality and helping them was a priority for me," Theis said.

She found homes for their kittens, took the adults to be spayed and neutered; the colony was stable at 30 cats. But over the past month, most of them have disappeared.

Theis finally got East Bay Regional Park officials to admit, their staff shot and killed several of the cats that had wandered into a nearby marsh.

Her heartbreak spilled out on social media, "It's not okay to shoot these beings; some of them were pets that were abandoned."

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Cecelia Theis had a hard time finding out exactly what happened until the I-Team started pushing, and it was even worse than she thought.

We filed a California Public Records Act request for each incident of park staff killing cats, but the district has not supplied the documents. They did confirm shooting 12 cats in the marsh near the office park, and six more in other parts of the district this year.

Matt Graul, EBRPD Chief of Stewardship, told the I-Team, "We feel horrible about this, you know, this is really one thing that's just really sad. And we really don't want to ever have to take this step. You know, we are compassionate, and love all wildlife. And many of our staff have cats as pets."

The park district says staff was able to trap three of the cats in marshland that's part of the Pacific Flyway. Thousands of birds will be feeding here over the winter, including the endangered Clapper Rail. But, Matt Graul confirms the district failed to give Cecelia a chance to trap and move the cats, before they shot and killed them.

Graul admitted, "I know there is some communication breakdown between Cecilia and the staff and there wasn't a good line of communication. So, I'm sorry to hear she wasn't didn't have adequate notice."

Dan Noyes: "Is that a mistake?"

Matt Graul: "There could have been better communication. Certainly."

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The district also did not contact local animal rescue groups.

Oakland Animal Services Director Ann Dunn told the I-Team, "I was heartbroken. Yeah, I was heartbroken, just knowing that that there's no reason that that needed to happen."

Dunn says her staff at Oakland Animal Services would have helped trap the cats, and that the shelter would have had space for the entire colony until they find homes or placements as working cats.

"I trust that they just did not realize that we were a resource," Dunn said. "And we certainly didn't realize they were doing what they were doing, otherwise we would have reached out sooner."

Since the shooting, Cecelia Theis has been able to trap 12 cats with help from Island Cat Resources and Adoption. They'll be up for adoption soon. She's hoping something good can come out of this story -- that the park district will do more to preserve all life, including the wild cats she loves.

Theis said, "I'm sure there's lots of other things I should be doing and the outcome was not good. I just hope that they shot them quickly, that they did know what they were doing, and I hope that they didn't see each other get shot."

Park officials now tell us they will work with these rescue groups and try to avoid having to shoot any more cats, but they would not pledge to stop shooting cats for good. If you'd like to help find homes for the survivors, contact Oakland Animal Services at oasworkingcats@gmail.com.

Take a look at more stories by Dan Noyes and the ABC7 News I-Team.
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