Mountain View Voice

For city, squirrel problem never went away.  Officials report 18 attacks since May, say plan to thin population is still in effect

January 19, 2007
Daniel DeBolt, Staff Writer

Though the furor subsided, the problem with aggressive squirrels at Cuesta Park never did, with two more incidents in the past few weeks involving children — one bitten, one scratched — bringing the total to 18 bites and scratches to humans since May 2006.

City officials say they are still planning to trap and kill the aggressive squirrels, although they will now be euthanized off-site.

“It’s not a resolved issue,” said Kevin Duggan, city manager. “When there is potential for a child to be scratched or bitten, unfortunately we can’t say we don’t have concerns.”

Dave Muela, community services director, said a biting incident involving a child was reported Jan. 7, and another several weeks ago when a young girl was scratched while holding food. Duggan says the squirrels continue to rummage through strollers and bags looking for food, even though park rangers are patrolling the children’s play area every day.

“That’s pretty surprising that it’s still that bad,” said the Mountain View mother of one young boy who was attacked at Cuesta Park in May of last year. The mother, who asked that her name be withheld, said her then-18-month-old was holding a box of juice when a squirrel jumped on his face and scratched him repeatedly, missing his eye by inches.

The city has updated its Web site to detail all of the measures it has taken — such as installing squirrel-proof trash cans, posting large warning signs and stepping up ranger patrols — since the attacks began. But the measures, some of which have been in effect since spring 2006, have yet to eliminate the problem. And Duggan said the city cannot afford to have rangers patrol the area indefinitely.

According to the city, attacks have occurred fairly regularly since May, with a spike in September and October, when the story received attention in the national news. Of the 18 attacks, six were confirmed to be bites.

“It is very apparent that trapping, live capture and removal of at least the habituated squirrels is going to become, and will need to become, a part of our long-term management plan,” Muela said. “I think the city has maintained that all along.”

Muela said the city will likely install live traps sometime in the future. Last fall, the city had installed body-crushing traps in trees around the children’s play area, but those traps, recommended by the state Department of Fish and Game, have since been removed. The new traps would catch the squirrels without harming them. They would then be taken away and euthanized. Duggan said laws do not allow the city to relocate the squirrels.

The city believes that park patrons have unwittingly trained the squirrels to jump at children and into strollers and bags to find food. A wildlife biologist hired by the city reported that the squirrels have become habituated, and will remain that way for an unknown period of time. But animal rights advocates say the squirrels could be trained to look elsewhere for food.

“All wildlife that live in our neighborhoods have become ‘habituated’ to human presence,” said Mary Paglieri, president of the Little Blue Society. “Any animal that is shown that food is not available will change its behavior to seek food elsewhere.”

Squirrels do not hibernate, but may become more aggressive to protect the little food they have buried for the winter, Paglieri said.

Muela said no other parks have had such a problem with the squirrels, and that it has been isolated to the children’s play area at Cuesta Park. Since the original reports last summer, park rangers there have been actively shooing squirrels away from the area. On a recent Thursday afternoon, no squirrels were seen near the play area, despite the presence of several families.

The Mountain View mother whose son was attacked said the longstanding problem seems to cycle up and down with the seasons. In an e-mail last year to city staffers, she said that when she had her child’s scratches treated at the pediatrician’s office, “they told me that they hear about squirrel attacks at Cuesta Park all the time. They advised us to avoid Cuesta Park entirely.”

She said she’s done just that, and that she knows “several other families” who
also avoid the park because of the squirrels.