In a Silicon Valley park, burrowing owls are dying and disappearing. Public records and a bit of snooping uncovered a path that led to Google and its cat-loving employees.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Silicon Valley is booming, and longtime residents are being driven out everywhere. But only in Shoreline Park are the newcomers eating the natives.
A few burrowing owls live in this 750-acre wildlife and recreation area, deep in the grass. As the breeding season begins, they are among perhaps 50 left in Silicon Valley. A California species of “special concern,” burrowing owls nest in the ground. That makes them especially vulnerable.
Death strikes hard at Shoreline. The remains of an owl — a leg, a wing, a few scattered feathers — were found here in 2015, shortly after a feral cat was seen stalking it. Another owl was discovered dead near its burrow, and a third disappeared that year and was presumed killed. That was fully half the owls nesting in the park.
Environmentalists have been alarmed for a long time about the number of cats at Shoreline, but they could not determine where they were coming from. Gradually, public-records requests and old-fashioned snooping uncovered a trail. It led southwest from the sun-burnished slopes of the park, up Permanente Creek and into the ever-expanding empire of Google.
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Google never set out to threaten biodiversity in its front yard. Like so many stories these days about Big Tech, this is a tale about how attempts to do good often produce unexpected consequences, and how even smart people (especially, perhaps, smart people) can be reluctant to rethink their convictions.
At Google, it is not so much that workers do not like birds as it is that they really love cats. There is an employee group called GCat Rescue that traps the cats around the Googleplex. Kittens and friendly adults are put up for adoption. Less-friendly adult cats are neutered and released.
Google is famous for feeding its employees well; the cats are no different. Every night, all night, dinner is served from cat-feeding stations. The cat community calls this approach “colony care.”
“Neutering and colony care,” GCat Rescue maintains, “also stop nuisance behaviors like fighting, screaming, spraying, roaming, hunting, etc.” The cats that are released are implanted with tracking chips, and an ear is notched so they can be identified. GCat’s website says it has placed 148 cats for adoption. It does not say how many have been released around the company’s campus.
The process of trap, neuter and return is popular with cat lovers across the country. Those less enamored of felines say it is merely an excuse for feeding feral cats rather than euthanizing them. Estimates of the number of feral cats in the United States range from 30 million to 80 million.
Travis Longcore, lead author of a 2009 paper in the journal Conservation Biology that was critical of trap, neuter and return, said the information on the GCat Rescue website was wrong.
“Cats that are fed still hunt,” said Longcore, assistant professor of architecture, spatial sciences and biological sciences at the University of Southern California. “Even neutered cats and spayed cats hunt.” He added, “If you have an outdoor cat sanctuary, you can expect there to be consequences to the native wildlife.”
Emails to GCat Rescue at firstname.lastname@example.org were not answered. A Google spokeswoman said the GCat group was made up of fewer than 10 people, but otherwise declined to discuss it.
Environmental groups said Google was generally an excellent partner and had made aggressive efforts to support the burrowing owls at Moffett Field, its leased property a few miles south of the Googleplex, but was consistently unhelpful on the cat issue.
“They told us it was something their employees were doing and they couldn’t interfere,” said Eileen McLaughlin, a board member with a group trying to protect and expand the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. She and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society asked Google to remove the cat-feeding stations in 2012.
Cats have stalked birds forever, but in Shoreline Park, a final victory is at hand.
The number of cat sightings there last year was 318, according to the city of Mountain View’s official count. And 2017 was the first time in 20 years of record-keeping that no owl fledglings were observed in the park. As recently as 2011, there were 10.
“We lose the owls, we lose something else next, and then something else,” McLaughlin said. “We need biodiversity.”
Google is not the only company with a cat colony. If employees are not providing the food, cat lovers from the community take up the task.
“It’s a problem,” said Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “Many of the avian species around the Bay breed on or close to the ground, and the cats prey on them at their most vulnerable moments: sitting on their eggs or caring for their young.”
Some tech companies have changed their approach. Facebook, whose nearby campus abuts a marsh with endangered species, stopped allowing cat feeding several years ago. Intuit, which like Google borders Shoreline, said it has no employee cat programs.
The owls are endangered from many sides. One of the biggest threats uses the Shoreline golf course. A Mountain View report three months ago noted there have been deaths “due to direct contact between golf balls and burrowing owls.”
McLaughlin recently offered a tour of the sprawling Google campus from a cat’s point of view. In a patch of trash-strewn woods next to a parking lot, there was a worn but elaborate feeding station, with straw beds for sleepy cats. A sign identified it as a GCat venture.
A feeding station on the other side of campus was on the edge of Shoreline, next to a designated owl-nesting area. A third station, hidden in the underbrush, was mere feet from a park entrance for walkers and bikers. A fourth station was in a parking lot.
Late last year, McLaughlin submitted a public-records request to Mountain View. Unlike earlier requests, this one was revelatory.
It showed city employees discussing how they were trapping Google-chipped cats in the park. The city’s wildlife-preservation biologist said he was worried about the cats’ “significant impacts” on protected species, “especially burrowing owls.” One of the cats was trapped, turned over to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, released to Google, trapped again in the park and released again to Google. In August, it was found dead in the park.
Janet Alexander, a spokeswoman for the animal-control group, said, “Google understands the cats are not supposed to cross the line into the park.”
The cats seem to have a different understanding.
One recent evening, as dusk yielded to darkness, a cat came up the path from Google. It was heading straight into the owls’ domain.