It was like watching the legend of the Pied Piper, only with cats instead of mice.
On Wednesday afternoon, as a gentle rain fell, a volunteer with a local organization known as The Cat People carried a bag of dry pet food to an official feeding site in Hart Park.
A motley herd of cats followed.
"Those of us who are at the park a lot are familiar with the regular cats," said Carol Lair, a longtime volunteer with The Cat People, a local, all-volunteer cat-advocacy group. "When new cats show up, we notice."
Even as Kern County Animal Services and The Cat People work together to find a humane solution to the hundreds of feral cats that live in Hart Park, there's a wild card: people.
"Our biggest problem right now is new cats entering the environment out there," said Kern County Animal Services Director Nick Cullen. "We have a strong suspicion that folks are bringing cats out to Hart Park and releasing them with the false belief that they will live a better life, or somehow learn how to find resources in unfamiliar territory."
According to Cullen, Animal Services and the cat advocates have trapped, neutered and found forever homes for 38 free-roaming cats at the park — in the last quarter of 2018.
Those "friendly" felines were not feral cats, which are considered wild, not socialized to humans and not appropriate for adoption. Finding tame, socialized felines in the park means people are dropping off tame pets in an environment they're not suited for.
It's a human behavior that works directly against the efforts of the two groups.
“We have known for some time now that we need to help find a more humane solution for the Hart Park cats, especially the friendly ones,” Cullen said, “and with a collaboration with The Cat People already underway, coupled with some park upgrades being planned, we all agreed that it would be a good time to start trying to find permanent, loving homes for them.”
The “upgrades” include plans to make the park more attractive and inviting for visitors.
Six new feeding troughs installed at the park have replaced some 30 locations where park cats have been fed for decades from plastic bowls or even from piles of dry food poured atop the park's picnic tables.
Cullen said by controlling the feeding locations, he hopes the cat population can be more easily managed.
Volunteers who help feed the exploding cat population must now carry a badge issued by the county. Park rangers and an animal services officer assigned to the park have begun asking feeders to show their badges, Cat People volunteers said.
Cullen said it's hard to know exactly how many cats live at the park, which draws myriad visitors with its "forest" of diverse trees and the beauty of the Kern River, which flows through the park on its way to thirsty homes and farms downstream.
Ideally, Cullen said, the friendly cats will all be captured and adopted. And the feral cats will all be trapped, neutered and released back into the park.
If by some miracle, should people decide to stop dumping cats at Hart Park, the feral cats will live out their lives and the park will once again be a rightful home to the indigenous animals that have always been there.
But introducing a few unaltered cats can create a major problem quite quickly.
Factoring in survival rates and multiple generations, the numbers of ferals can go as high as 49,000 kittens produced by just one unspayed female over a 10-year period, according to the website calculate-this.com.
"I just don't feel right about cats living in the wild," Cullen said. "But there's a wild card. People keep bringing more cats."