Some advocates for homeless cats got their claws out for mayoral candidate Brigette Peterson, who as a councilwoman voted for an ordinance they say “legalized animal cruelty.”
A loosely formed group calling itself Friend of the Cat planted 30 political signs in town taking aim at Peterson. Within hours, they were mysteriously removed.
The signs stated, “Brigette Peterson voted to legalize animal cruelty,” and “She voted to prosecute good Samaritans that feed homeless and lost cats and kittens that are hiding out in Gilbert parks and town properties.”
Peterson called the accusations untrue.
The cats issue dates back to May 2018, when Council passed a ban on feeding strays on town-owned property like sidewalks and parks. So far, three citations have been issued and police have made one arrest.
The Gilbert man who was arrested was accused of lying to police that he received permission from a property owner to feed stray cats.
The case ended earlier this year in a settlement agreement and cost the defendant $12,000 in attorney fees.
Peterson was part of the unanimous council vote to adopt the ordinance without discussion.
Peterson resigned in March to run for mayor and is vying for the mayor’s position with Matt Nielsen in the Nov. 3 election.
“I’ve asked her about the ordinance,” said resident Victoria Stallings, who met Peterson at a meet-and-greet event. “She’s not talking about appealing or changing it. I’ve asked about the possibility but she said the only thing she is committed to was looking at the benefits of TNR.”
Although Stallings said Friend of the Cat is an informal gathering of like-minded individuals whose purpose is to advocate for homeless felines, its membership is somewhat murky.
It also is not listed as an official political action committee.
Trap-neuter-return, which incorporates feeding, is considered by many people to be an effective management program to reduce the stray-cat population.
Friend of the Cat’s effort to punish Peterson at the ballot box so far is being stymied.
Within hours of posting the political signs at the major intersections along Val Vista Drive on Sept. 24, they were all stolen, according to a Gilbert Police report.
“There are no known suspects or witnesses,” the report stated. “This case is inactive.”
According to state statute, it’s a Class 2 misdemeanor to remove, alter, deface or cover any political sign.
Peterson vehemently denounced the message on the signs.
“Let me be perfectly clear. This was a dig and I am offended with these types of politically charged attempts to discredit me,” Peterson said in an email.
“I love our community. I am committed to leading with an open door, as I will with this topic and anything that betters our town.”
Peterson said she personally has seen how TNR can work. She adopted a brown tabby kitten in July that came from a cat that was trapped and found to be pregnant.
After giving birth, the cat was sterilized and released by the foster, who continues to feed the animal, according to Peterson, who named her kitten Stanley.
“I have corresponded with the Gilbert Feral Cat Coalition and members of a couple other rescue groups about the ordinance,” said Peterson, who has other rescues at home.
“I would like to look at the TNR data from other communities, have a discussion with a couple different groups and see the current data we have for the town since the ordinance has been in place.
“I think speaking with different groups will allow me a different perspective of how each group is handling TNR and feeding of feral colonies. I also need to learn more about the tracking of the feral colonies.
“It’s difficult to say what I would do next when I don’t know where the information will lead me. I’m open to bringing the ordinance back to the Town Council for discussion.”
In the meantime, on Peterson’s campaign Facebook page, her supporters were pointing their fingers at her opponent in the mayor’s race as the culprit of dirty politics.
“The fact that your opponent has to stoop so low is just a testament to how desperate he is. Disgusting,” wrote one man.
One woman wrote it was “very obvious” who is behind the signs given there are two candidates.
“I heard a rumor that people believed the signs originated with my campaign, but, of course, I had nothing to do with it,” Nielsen said in an email.
“I made a decision at the outset of my campaign that my team and I would keep all references to my opponents focused only on the issues and not make personal attacks. We’ve stayed true to that.”
That said, he added that he was more than happy to discuss the possibility of forming a TNR program in Gilbert.
“It has obvious benefits, though I understand there are people who do not support it,” Nielsen said, adding:
“It’s important to have the discussion to ensure we’re doing what’s in the best interest of the community as a whole.”
Stallings said the group is not deterred by the theft and planned to put out more signs in the coming days.
She said she had no doubt Peterson has animals she loves but questioned her voting for the feeding ban, the only municipality in the Valley with such a law.
Stallings added that in separate talks, then-Mayor Jenn Daniels and then-Councilman Eddie Cook, told her they could not get Council support to revisit the issue.
Cook’s proposal for a pilot TNR program was shot down.
“There was no support from the Council,” Stallings said. “I would have thought (Peterson) could have stood up at that point and said, ‘maybe we need to take a look at it.’”
“I think the Friend of the Cat people need to have their voice heard because of her history with feral cats,” she added. “Their signs should not be taken down to muffle their voice.”
Stallings pointed to surrounding municipalities such as Mesa, Chandler and Tempe, which support and post information about TNR on their city websites. Chandler also has a neighborhood grant program that helps with TNR.
Gilbert’s newly minted law two years ago flew under the radar and came as a surprise to those who feed homeless cats and practice TNR in the community.
Part of the TNR program involves feeding the sterilized cats once they are returned to where they were trapped.
Feeding the cats dissuades them from roaming into other neighborhoods and creating a void for unfixed strays to fill.
Although town officials have said they don’t know who pushed for the ban, they said there have been complaints of cat food littering public rights-of-way.
In February 2019, a few feral-cat supporters approached town officials in an unsuccessful effort to work out a compromise.
People who practice TNR pay for the sterilizations and cat food out of their own pockets.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit TNR on town property, having food as bait in a trap is considered a violation.
The advocates want the town to use the discretionary powers that are in the ordinance. Those powers allow the parks director to allow the feeding of feral cats “for the purpose of animal rescue rehabilitation or management,” the ordinance states.
But the town has not budged and remains steadfast in applying the law at all times.
Stallings said the ban has done nothing but drive volunteer feral-cat feeders underground and waste taxpayers’ money for enforcement.
“It’s a sad thing about the whole ordinance, the damage it has done,” she said. “It has caused mistrust between people who have been doing it for years and the police.”