By Matthew Cunningham.

Section 6.44.010 of the Anaheim Municipal Code relates to ‘NUISANCES” and prohibits a number of activities and forms of negligence that impact the wider community, such as letting your swimming pool turn into a mosquito breeder or allowing the “accumulation of any garbage or refuse, human or animal excrement or fecal material, uneaten food or food wastes, waste matter or material that emits an offensive odor or encourages the breeding of flies or other insects.”

One of these prohibitions concerns the feeding of feral cats – which are domestic cats that have regressed to a wild state:

.1301 It shall be unlawful for any person to intentionally provide food, water, or other forms of sustenance to a feral cat or feral cat colony within the boundaries of the City. It is not a violation of this section for any person to feed or shelter feral cats while working with an animal control agency under contract with the City of Anaheim.

This has apparently provoked an outcry from Anaheim residents who like to feed feral cats and derive satisfaction from helping to sustain colonies of wild cats. Last month, the the Anaheim Fix Project  a petition has been launched on by to “Stop the Starvation of Community Cats of Disneyland and Anaheim!” which has been signed by 33,430 people. I have a hard time believing many of those are actually Anaheim residents, but more likely animal rights-types from all over.

In response to this hysteria, the City of Anaheim felt it necessary to issue a press release assuring anyone who cares that the city is not intent on forcing the “starvation” of these “beloved community” felines.

This chest-beating and garment-rending over the city’s prohibition against intentionally feeding wild cats is an example of what happens when the natural, altruistic human impulse toward animals is cut loose from reason and proportion. This basic, responsible exercise of the police power by the city is met with accusations of cat genocide by those who inordinate fixation with feral cats crowds out what should be the paramount concern for the public health and safety of human beings. Call me old fashioned, but I believe the latter trumps the former.

It its online petition, the Anaheim Fix project states: “The city claims that the feral cat population presents a health risk, but this is completely false.” On the contrary: the false claim is stating feral cats pose no health risk.

Feral Cats DO Pose A Public Health Risk
Flea-borne (endemic) typhus is carried by the common cat flea, which is found primarily on feral cats, raccoon and opossums. Common cat fleas bite people and their infected feces enters the bloodstream, causing severe illness.

typhus transmission cycle

In 2006, there was a single reported case of flea-borne typhus infection in Orange County – the first since 2013. Between 2006 and 2014, there have been more than 100 reported cases of flea-borne typhus in OC:

flea-borne typhus in OC chart

Typhus is serious business. In this 2013 article, Laura Krueger, an assistant vector ecologist with the OC Vector Control District, considers characterizations of flea-borne typhus as a mild disease to be a “pervasive myth”:

In 2010, Meghan Daum, a writer for the Los Angeles Times and founder of the Facebook group “Survivors of Murine Typhus,” spent four days in a medically induced coma and nine days hospitalized before being diagnosed with flea-borne typhus. She wrote that the illness upended her life and that she still, years later, suffers from hearing loss. Her physicians were surprised she recovered so fully. Although deaths from typhus are rare, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department reported that in 2012 a resident of Austin, Texas, succumbed to the illness.

An analysis of cases reported to a public health agency in Orange County, Calif., found that 85 percent of reported cases were hospitalized for an average of six days, with some requiring hospitalization for months. Because the initial symptoms of the disease resemble flu, patients often visit their physician many times before receiving the correct diagnosis and antibiotics. As patients wait for the correct diagnosis and treatment, the illness can progress and lead to hospitalization.

In a September 2013 presentation to the City of Fountain Valley, Krueger points out that for every case of flea-borne typhus reported to health care agencies, foru go unreported. According to the OCVCD, as of 2013 Anaheim had the fourth highest number of reported cases of people infected by flea-borne typhus.

A few years ago, an employee at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Theo Lacy jail facility became very seriously ill and had to hospitalized thanks to being bitten by a flea carried by feral cats. As it turned out, another OCSD non-sworn employee was feeding a colony of feral cats. Naturally, these wild cats increasingly congregated there, bringing their fleas with them. It’s my understanding they began using the sandbox at neighboring Orangewood Children Home as a litterbox, and fleas from the feral cats rendered unusable the patio used by Theo Lacy staff for breaks. The employee refused to stop feeding the cats, despite being warned of the public health nuisance it was creating. Ultimately, another jail employee was bitten by a typhus-carrying common cat flea and wound up seriously ill and requiring lengthy hospitalization.

Am I suggesting that every critic of Anaheim’s ban on intentionally feeding feral cats is a crazy, misanthropic cat person? Of course not. Our instinct to care for animals is a good one, but it also needs to be properly formed and acted upon sensibly. The outrage being directed at Anaheim’s policy is completely out of whack with a proper, common sense concern for the public health. Rather than being defensive about it, the city ought to forthrightly explain that there is a public health risk  associated with feral cats, and that people who intentionally feed and sustain feral cat colonies are potentially endangering the health of their neighbors. Rather than pleading “We don’t hate cats” the city ought to be declaring “We care about protecting people.”

Maybe it’s a symptom of the widespread lack of seriousness in our culture that a policy designed to protect human beings from being infected by a serious pathogen is met with outrage and denunciations by an alarmingly large number of people who demand a free hand to feed and sustain disease-bearing wild animals. When did protecting humans become inhumane?

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Originally posted at Anaheim Blog.