City of Berkeley delays pilot plan to exterminate squirrels at Cesar Chavez Park

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The lives of Berkeley squirrels at Cesar Chavez Park have been temporarily spared after Berkeley City Council postponed a pilot plan to trap the ground squirrels near the Berkeley Marina and reduce their population at its Tuesday meeting.

After receiving appeals from Berkeley residents and animal rights activists urging the city to not kill the rodents, the council unanimously decided to put the proposal on hold, pending further research. The city manager will review information and submit a report to the council in two months before determining the direction of the pilot project.

The controversy began last month when the city manager’s office announced plans to protect the landfill underneath Cesar Chavez Park by exterminating a portion of the rodent population that burrows tunnels into the ground. If the protective cap between the landfill and the bay were breached, toxic waste could leak into the bay, polluting surrounding ecosystems.

Wildlife and animal rights groups reacted to the planned pest-control program, including In Defense of Animals, an animal protection organization based in San Rafael that sent more than 80,000 emails to the city in protest.

A separate controversy was sparked when these emails were deleted from the city’s server. The city reassured the public that deleting the emails was not a deliberate action but an “innocent mistake” made because the surge of emails was thought to be a threat intended to crash its network, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Opponents of the squirrel extermination argued that the city’s initial report to launch the plan was not comprehensive enough and disregarded factors such as whether degradation by the squirrels is more concerning than erosion from pedestrians and general public access.

“The city basically accused the ground squirrels for the erosion of the cap, and it’s very easy to blame the animals,” said Anja Heister, director of In Defense of Animals’ Wild & Free — Habitats Campaign. “But then you ask: Why is there such a high population?”

The problem at the park is largely due to human involvement — visitors to the park feed the squirrels, making the population artificially high, Heister said.

At the meeting, activists introduced alternatives to control the population, such as promoting a public education campaign against feeding squirrels at the park and implementing wildlife fertility control through a contraceptive vaccine to be distributed to the animals. They also suggested planting tall grasses in certain areas of the park, because squirrels depend on having an open area to see their predators, according to Heister. The city will address these ideas in its report.

After seeing the massive opposition to the pilot plan at Tuesday’s meeting, Worthington believes the likelihood of city staff returning in two months with another extermination plan is slim.

“I think we’ve basically killed the concept of killing the squirrels,” Worthington said.

Contact Bo Kovitz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.