An animal-welfare activist this week set the first traps in his campaign to remove the cats that for decades have lived in the beachfront rocks along the promenade outside Ventura's Holiday Inn.
Leo Grillo, who runs a private cat shelter in the high desert near Acton, received an endorsement of the move from the state Parks and Recreation Department, which controls San Buenaventura State Beach. Grillo said the two dozen cats there--remnants of a colony that at one time numbered about 100--are sick or dying.
But both he and state officials believe the trapping will face severe opposition from several quarters. Animal lovers have long enjoyed watching the cats scamper along the rocks, and a small but devoted corps of volunteers has fed them daily. Previous attempts to interfere with what has become something of a Ventura institution have met with resistance.
"We've had reports of assaults on people trying to work out this problem," said Steve Treanor, Ventura district superintendent for the state Parks and Recreation Department, adding that an elderly woman once pelted him with cat food when she mistakenly thought he was trying to run down a cat on his bicycle.
Joyce George, president of the Humane Society of Ventura County, cited "a very militant group" that has blocked trapping efforts. "We've had officers whose lives were threatened," she said. "There have been so many agencies involved. Nobody really wants to get into it with these people."
Grillo said onlookers hurled rocks at him and sabotaged his traps when he tried to organize a similar rescue a few years ago. But what he described as the cats' deteriorating health makes the move necessary, he said.
Kathy Jenks, director of the Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation, agrees that the cats should go. She said her department, which is under contract with the city of Ventura, has not dealt extensively with the cats since city officials issued orders in 1981 to steer clear of them. However, she said, they constitute a public health menace in the making.
Each year, rabid bats are found at the nearby Ventura County fairgrounds and along the Ventura River, and "it's just a matter of time," she said, before the cat colony is infected. Many of the cats have upper-respiratory infections, she added, and a couple have died painfully after warming themselves on cold nights under the hoods of cars in a nearby parking garage.
For such reasons, state parks officials provided Grillo with a letter that he had requested, approving the move.
"It's not good to have the cats out there," Treanor said. "Those cats have a very low quality of life. They spread diseases among themselves. And when they die, they die in the rocks, creating a health hazard. It's an artificially created situation, and we try to manage for the most natural conditions."
By most accounts, cats have been abandoned on the beachfront rocks for as long as 25 years. Food and water would be set out for them by well-intentioned cat lovers, who inadvertently encouraged others to abandon cats in a place where they would receive some care, animal control officials said.
By 1980, the colony had grown so large that the city planned to trap the cats and turn them over to the Humane Society.
The plan was scrapped in the wake of a public outcry. The Humane Society was allowed to trap some cats and spay or neuter them and return them to the rocks. Society officials say a few had to be killed. The city's policy since has been to let the cats alone, except when a health threat is apparent, said Carol Green, assistant to the city manager.
Just how apparent it is now might be a subject for debate.
"They ain't sick," said 90-year-old Florence Cardone, a stooped but feisty figure in a red hat who has hauled canned food to the cats on a metal cart almost every morning since 1976. "They live out their lives here pretty well."
Also skeptical is Ralph Weigel, one of the 1980 plan's most vocal opponents.
"I'm highly suspicious," said Weigel, who quit the Humane Society's board of directors to protest the 1980 trapping. "There must be so many cats closer to them that need attention. Why are they coming up here?"
'Their Own Free Will'
"The cats are there of their own free will," he added. "They're not tied, they're not fenced. They can live very safely in those rocks, as long as they have food and water."
Weigel said he believes the cats are healthy. But he said he could support Grillo's plan if it is proven to him that the cats are ill. "The time is coming when, in spite of anything you do, they're going to get those cats out of there," he said.
Angelo Borghi, another leader in the fight to keep the cats, said the animals are no more sickly than any population of house cats would be. He said a veterinarian, whom he would not identify, has checked them out and found only minor problems.
"I don't know why this crap comes up every few years," he said. "This guy has no business up here. Is he a vivisectionist or what?"