Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday night outlawing the feeding of wild animals in city parks after dropping a controversial plan to reduce the squirrel population by extermination.
The city announced the original proposal in February as a response to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board’s order to reduce the squirrel population near Cesar Chavez Park, a former landfill that contains underground toxic waste. Burrowing squirrels posed a threat of breaching the “clay cap” layer sealing off the waste, causing it to leak into the bay.
But when the plan was met with fierce opposition by residents and animal defenders, the city postponed the plan in March. After the source of the proliferating squirrel population was traced to feeding by park visitors, the Wildlife Management Committee — which has convened specifically to deal with the squirrel population problem — decided to support the no-feeding ordinance as a nonviolent alternative to the original proposal.
“We told our supporters about the plan to kill the squirrels, and it caused a huge outrage,” said Anja Heister, director of In Defense of Animals’ Wild & Free — Habitats Campaign. “They sent over 80,000 protesting emails to all the council members combined.”
The ordinance is not expected to go into effect until fall. According to the Tuesday meeting agenda, the city has allotted about $8,000 for the installation of the signs and creation of new public education brochures.
Violators could be required to pay a fine of up to $1,000, serve six months in jail or both, if deemed guilty of an infraction.
“I don’t expect a single person to go to jail,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “The threat of a fine is enough to deter people.”
The Wildlife Management Committee will meet again Thursday to discuss future steps. Previously proposed additional solutions include the use of thick juncus grass to deter burrowing and the regulation of off-leash dogs, which contribute to the erosion by chasing squirrels.
“The first step in the right direction is to educate the public about the impact they can have on wildlife by feeding them,” Heister said. “We are very happy with how the process has been working and are working closely with the city to determine the next steps.”