Mountain View Voice
City trapped in squirrel debate
Decision to kill Cuesta Park rodents erupts into controversy
October 6, 2006
Daniel Debolt, Staff Writer
Recently announced plans to trap and kill aggressive squirrels at Cuesta Park has resulted in visceral reactions, including public outcry, talk of lawsuits and, ultimately, a delay from the city.
The city estimates that there have been seven incidents of squirrels scratching or biting people since May, with three bites in the last 30 days. At least four of those incidents involved children, said Dave Muela, community services director.
As a result, plans to curb the rodents’ population at Cuesta were put into action last week, as squirrel-crushing traps were placed in the trees around the children’s play area.
“I don’t imagine we’re going to be removing every squirrel in Cuesta Park,” said council member Mike Kasperzak. “But we have a duty to do something.”
Whether that includes using the traps remains to be seen. City manager Kevin Duggan said Tuesday that the city is still considering other options and that the traps installed in the trees have not been set yet.
The latest victim was Andrew Packard, 4, who was bitten and scratched two weeks ago while reportedly carrying a muffin. He received precautionary rabies shots. The city could not provide records of all the squirrel attacks by press time.
The city has been quietly trying to deal with the problem since an attack on a child in May. Animal rights advocates were frustrated that they did not know about the city’s troubles before a solution was “sold” to the city, as Henry Coletto, a former county game warden, put it.
Duggan said the city tried to use a “live and let live” approach, but that didn’t work.
“In this particular circumstance, the squirrels have become so habituated to human food [that] their level of aggressiveness has become very problematic,” Duggan said.
City staff made the decision to install the traps with recommendations from the state Department of Fish and Game. The action did not require a public hearing or city council approval.
Reports that the 4-year-old’s mother, San Jose resident Jennifer Packard, plans to sue the city could not be confirmed. Packard is rumored to be seeking compensation for her son’s medical expenses. There were also threats — though no known filings — of lawsuits from animal rights activists should the city go ahead with the plan.
On Monday, city attorney Michael Martello said he didn’t know of any lawsuits on the squirrel issue, from any party, yet.
Following the initial attacks, and before the decision to trap the squirrels was made, park rangers increased patrols in the park, Muela said. He said they talked to more than 100 people, many of whom were observed feeding squirrels, and warned them against doing so.
The attacks continued, however, and so the traps were brought in. Right now they are not armed — but once they are, the cylindrical wire cages will act like mousetraps, crushing the squirrels once they’re tripped.
Clark Pest Control was hired for the extermination job. Officials said the company was paid $2,500 for the first month of implementing the traps.
A spokesperson for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals compared the traps to clamp-type traps outlawed by the state in 1998, which can maim an animal or cause it to die slowly. Martello said they were recommended by the Department of Fish and Game.
As for Fish and Game, Coletto, the former Santa Clara County game warden, blasted its recommendation to kill the squirrels without a proper site evaluation. He said the person who wrote to the city recommending the traps, Lt. D.J. Kelly, had stepped out of his law enforcement role, and that the department’s wildlife biologists should have been allowed to make the call.
In a letter to the city after phone conversations with city staff, Kelly recommends “removing them from the park by the use of traps and euthanizing them in a humane manner.”
Steve Martarano, a Fish and Game spokesperson, said the controversy was a good thing, because a discussion definitely needed to happen about the squirrels. He added that wildlife biologists were likely involved in the recommendation to kill the squirrels.
“What are you supposed to do?” Martarano said. “We don’t like exterminating animals. It’s not the animals’ fault, but they end up suffering.”
Story has legs
Nearby resident Lorien French is a stay-at-home mother whose children were Andrew Packard’s age a few years ago. The squirrels at Cuesta Park weren’t as aggressive then, she said.
French said she sees people feed the squirrels at the park regularly, and thought that euthanizing the squirrels “in a pain-free way” wasn’t a bad idea, but that crushing them was inhumane.
Animal rights advocates have been much more pointed. City council members say they have been receiving angry e-mails about the traps from all over — including one from Poland.
PETA representatives said they were preparing a letter for the city as the Voice went to press. They said they normally don’t file lawsuits over situations like this, but that the action leaves the city open to lawsuits if an endangered species is killed unintentionally.
“Taxpayers deserve better,” said Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for PETA. “We don’t want [the squirrels] to die in a cruel and needlessly painful way. We need to find the underlying source, and that is people feeding them.”
News watchers around the country are talking about Cuesta Park squirrels. Besides local print and TV news, papers and other outlets across the country have picked up the story. In Reno, a TV station’s Web site declared, “Aggressive Squirrels Prowl Mountain View Park.”
The story has reached into local classrooms as well — from De Anza College to local elementary schools.
“Its amazing the legs something like this gets,” Kasperzak said.
Back at Cuesta Park, three park rangers were seen on patrol Sept. 29, and signs were prominently placed near the children’s areas with a picture of a squirrel and the words, “Recently a squirrel attacked a park patron. Please do not feed squirrels as they have become aggressive, particularly where there is food.”
Little Blue alarm bells
Former game warden Henry Coletto now works with the Little Blue Society, one of many groups stepping into the fray over Mountain View’s squirrel-trapping plans. The Peninsula-based group has asked the city to hire it on a consultation basis to come up with a long-term solution to its problem.
As for the idea of thinning the squirrels’ numbers, it won’t work, according to the group’s president, Mary Paglieri. Paglieri cited studies that say killing off an animal population often results in the species bouncing back with even greater numbers.
Earlier this week, Paglieri sent an e-mail to the city concerned over second-hand information that dead squirrels were hanging from the traps Tuesday. The traps were seen in the trees Monday morning, but the city said they wouldn’t be set for three to four days after installation.
She later withdrew her concern after she talked to the city, telling the Voice that the people who called her must have been very emotional.
Paglieri says people should simply shoo the squirrels away by making loud noises, and that next year their population will decrease if they are given less food. She added that the animals will travel “as far as it takes” for a meal.
“During this time of year food can be scarce,” she said.