San Jose Mercury News

Herhold: Pesky wildlife may call for new approach

August 6, 2006
Scott Herhold, Staff Writer

“The first sign that you’ve got a legitimate coyote problem is a missing cat poster,” said Santa Clara County wildlife officer Laurie Frazer as she gunned her white truck up Kennedy Road in Los Gatos.

Sure enough, posted on a utility pole at the next turn, was a picture of a cat sought by its owner. Frazer, a blond, tanned woman with a bent toward outspokenness, paused briefly to check out a favorite coyote meal. “Gray tabby,” she said with a nod.

We were on the way to examine the site of a Chihuahua abduction. A woman had reported that a coyote came within two feet and grabbed her Chihuahua before she gave chase and made the coyote drop the pet.

When we pulled up at the spot, a home built into a south-facing hillside, Frazer was unimpressed with the homeowner’s defenses. She certainly wasn’t ready to pull out a trap. Pointing to heavy brush that gives coyotes shelter, she said, “They’ve got to do a lot more work clearing this before they get me interested.”
Emotional issue

Frazer is on the front lines of a fight that evokes deep passions: the trapping of wild animals that come in the way of humans — raccoons, skunks, coyotes, possums.
The county employs two vector control agents to handle the 1,500 to 1,700 annual complaints about wild critters. Those officers trap about 50 to 60 of those animals, which are then put to death as nuisances.

Partly because of protests from a San Mateo County organization called the Little Blue Society, that may soon change.

The society, which has a sympathetic ear in Supervisor Pete McHugh, is pushing for the duties of handling wildlife to be given to the county’s animal control officers, dog-and-cat specialists who would be aided by wildlife rescue centers. This approach, they say, would be kinder and gentler. Animals would be released within a two-mile radius instead of being put to death.

“Every single animal that vector control traps, they kill,” says Mary Paglieri, the head of the Little Blue Society. “We’re talking about real healthy animals.”

The debate turns on issues like raccoon poop. Frazer says poop left on roofs or lawns can be a danger to children. The Little Blue Society argues that the real issue is not that the animal is a nuisance — but that humans offer food, water or shelter that attract it.

Death by injection

After persistent lobbying, Paglieri persuaded county officials to change the way they kill trapped animals: Instead of being gassed with carbon dioxide, they are now given lethal injections.

In what some observers see as a sign of exhaustion with the controversy, vector control managers have now suggested bringing in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services to handle trapping, moving Frazer and her colleague to what they say is the urgent ongoing battle against West Nile virus.

But this proposal has critics, too: Paglieri says the feds employ a heavy-handed approach that panders to ranchers. Others point out that voters last year approved raising the tax for vector control by $8.36 a parcel. Should the department be passing off one of its advertised duties now that it’s gotten more money?

You can’t spend a morning with Frazer without recognizing that the bulk of her job is education. She tells residents to put away their cat food, screen off the undersides of a deck, tightly close garbage cans — all lures for wild animals. If she doesn’t do her job, dissatisfied folks will turn to private pest services or kill the animals themselves.

But former game warden Henry Coletto, one of the county’s most knowledgeable people about the wild and consultant with Little Blue Society, told me that only 20 to 40 animals a year, maybe fewer, need to be trapped. And it makes you wonder: Is it time to try a different approach with the public dime?