BRENTWOOD -- Public health concerns have prompted Liberty Union High School District to hire professional trappers in its latest effort to remove the dozens of feral cats that roam campuses.
The district has paid a Morgan Hill-based company $2,200 to spend four nights removing cats that congregate at Liberty and Freedom high schools, where colonies have long been a problem.
"The cats are creating an unhealthy environment," said Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Gene Clare, noting that the district took action after the county public health department raised a red flag.
An inspector who was at Freedom High School to do a routine check of the cafeteria contacted the district after noticing cats hanging around a trash compactor and food on the ground, according to Environmental Health Director Marilyn Underwood.
The district has tried using screens to block access to the crawl spaces underneath buildings where cats hide, but people who think they should be allowed to shelter there will rip them off, said Superintendent Eric Volta.
At Freedom High School it's not uncommon to find feces on top of floor drains, he said, and custodians must be careful about leaving classroom doors open while they clean because cats have been known to sneak into the rooms.
The district recently hired a company to remove the loose dirt under one building at Liberty High School because of the smell, Volta added, and maintenance crews periodically hose down trouble spots like the portable classrooms.
"Imagine spending (time) in a classroom that smells of ammonia," he said. "That's not a conducive environment for learning."
The nuisance is nothing new: Ownerless cats have been a presence on the Freedom and Liberty sites in particular throughout the 24 years he's been with the district, Clare said.
Individuals on both ends of the spectrum of compassion are perpetuating the problem: "Sometimes people drop off cats," Clare said. "Unfortunately, I think well-intentioned people are feeding them, and it attracts others."
Unaware that local animal rescue groups are keeping an eye on the cats, "rogue feeders" are putting out large piles of kibbles, which, because they're too much for cats to finish in one feeding, invariably draw more to the area, said Michelle Ballesteros, a board member of the nonprofit Cat Support Network.
Food scraps in unsecured trash cans also attract the animals, which often are abandoned.
District officials have asked employees not to feed the felines, and for the past several months Clare has been working with local animal rescue groups that have been trying to stop them from reproducing.
Volunteers regularly have been baiting traps on the two campuses as well as the district's community education center opposite Liberty High School and taking the cats they capture to a Richmond clinic where they're spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and treated for fleas and ticks before the adults are returned to the campuses and their kittens put up for adoption or into foster homes.
The grown cats, unadoptable because they're not used to human contact, are returned to familiar haunts because it would be inhumane to release them in places where they don't know where to find food and water, Ballesteros said.
Between the time they began trapping in September to early December, volunteers have caught 158 cats between the two high schools, according to Ballesteros. Of those, four were euthanized and 64 kittens are either in foster care or permanent homes. The remaining 90 were reintroduced to the campuses.
Ballesteros thinks the only way to persuade the public not to feed the schools' feral cats is to assure them that volunteers like her are already doing so.
She said Clare has agreed to the idea of setting up feeding stations away from campus buildings, where volunteers would provide just enough food for the cats that are already there.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.