Sunny the cat Photo courtesy of ARF
Sunny the cat
Photo courtesy of ARF

Sunny, the resident Nature Center cat, who held that post longer than most, has been removed by Riverside County and currently is looking for a home through the Animal Rescue Friends.

Keith Herron, resources bureau chief for Riverside County Parks, told the Town Crier that, although all the good things said about Sunny’s presence at the Nature Center are true — she was an excellent mouser, greeter and ambassador — there were health issues that were insurmountable.

Specifically, the problem was the presence of animals in food-preparation areas. Sunny was used to the run of the Nature Center, inside and out, and she was exposed to her litter box, rodents and other animals. Her presence in the kitchen exposed food preparation areas and employees (and sometimes caterers) to unhealthful contamination.

Herron noted that the county’s Department of Environmental Health food facility, self-inspection checklist, which can be found online, contains the entry that “Live animals, birds, or fowl are not located in the food preparation area.” A disease called toxoplasmosis, which can be contracted by cats from eating infected rodents, can be transmitted to humans by cats, he added.

Herron stated that he himself saw Sunny on food-preparation surfaces at the Nature Center. He said the staff tried intermediate measures, such as restricting Sunny from both the outdoors and the kitchen, but those measures just weren’t practicable because of the constant human activity, coming and going. He saw Sunny outdoors several times after the indoors-only decision had been made, he said, and keeping her out of the kitchen was not practicable.

Herron said this situation was brought to his attention by a concerned citizen when he declined to identify. Herron said he issued the directive that there would no longer be resident cats at the Nature Center. He also said that “more conventional” means of rodent control would now be employed at the Nature Center.

Chris Martin, who is involved in leading a “Save Sunny!” movement, takes issue with many of Herron’s statements. He acknowledges that the health issues raised by Herron have theoretical substance, but states they are without practical merit. Martin said the opposition to Sunny is “based on a bunch of lunatic what-ifs” that are not real problems. He says that everything Herron can find on the Internet that opposes Sunny, he can find a counter for on the Internet.

Martin says Sunny has been at the Nature Center for five years and that other cats were there before Sunny, yet there has never been a reported human illness associated with them. Martin suspects the real motive behind the citizen complaint against Sunny is something else — perhaps a cat allergy, or a concern for birds or some other reason. “What’s the real agenda, here?” he asks. He is not willing to identify the citizen complainant.

Martin points out that squirrels are known to occasionally carry the plague, and asks, “Are they going to ban squirrels from the Nature Center next? It’s sad that one person is dictating the policy at the Nature Center.”

The Town Crier contacted Sue Nash, who confirmed that she had written a letter about a year ago about the Sunny-access-to-the-Nature-Center situation, and that more recently she had called the county and filed a formal complaint.

Nash has heard many rumors regarding her involvement in this matter and says she has been harassed in town about it. She says that many of the rumors are not true. “I don’t have an agenda,” she said. Nash, a licensed attorney, said, “I didn’t threaten to sue anyone. I’m a concerned citizen, that’s all.”

Nash said she knew of no case of human illness due to contact with any of the cats who have lived at the Nature Center, but says that is not the point. You don’t want to wait until someone gets sick. “It’s a ‘no brainer,’” she said. “You don’t want animals walking around in food-preparation areas. It’s a simple public-health matter.

“I’m not the one making the decision,” Nash said. “I brought it to the attention of county officials, and that’s it. I have no power to do anything. I’ll just sit back and see what they do.”

Meanwhile, Sunny is in the care of ARF, whose sole involvement is in attempting to find her a loving home. Anyone interested may contact ARF at 951-659-1122.