A city of Berkeley ordinance prohibiting the feeding of wildlife in city parks and other public spaces went into effect Wednesday.
The ordinance’s enforcement includes a fine — a minimum of $100 after the initial “warning” period and up to $500 for multiple infractions within a year — and distributing brochures to help educate park visitors on the harmful effects of feeding. In August, the city also installed new “no feeding” signs.
According to the ordinance, such a ban will help reduce risks of disease, wildlife overpopulation and the damage to public property they cause.
In February, the city originally considered a pilot plan to kill off a portion of the artificially high population of burrowing ground squirrels at Cesar Chavez Park.
Berkeley residents and Bay Area animal rights groups criticized the plan and argued that the overpopulation is due to visitors feeding the squirrels. In response, City Council considered a less extreme response: imposing penalties on feeding animals.
This decision grew out of additional concerns that reducing the squirrel population would compromise burrowing owls, an at-risk species in California that depends on ground squirrel burrows for shelter in the winter.
In July, the council unanimously approved the ordinance.
“You come to the park, hand feed a squirrel and walk away, and someone else comes up five minutes later and feeds them — and each one thinks they’re the only one doing that,” said Cindy Margulis, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “But the squirrel is thinking, ‘People equals junk food fix,’ so they approach total strangers and start harassing them for food.”
The city and animal rights groups will work together to educate the community by handing out brochures at Cesar Chavez Park. Golden Gate Audubon Society plans on sending volunteer guides to the park in winter to teach visitors about burrowing owls.
To Margulis, discouraging the feeding of the animals will restore a more appropriate relationship between people and ground squirrels, while also restoring the natural forces that keep the squirrel population in check.
“People sometimes have the best intentions and don’t know that what they’re doing is harmful,” Margulis said. “But when you learn things, you behave differently — so you can’t change behavior without effecting educational change.”
Margulis explained that people can form relationships with wildlife not by feeding them but by watching animals and learning about them.
“You look up a bird because you just thought it was pretty, and then you find out the natural history of birds, and then you start caring,” Margulis said.
But Nicholas Yiu, a senior studying chemical engineering who applied for a squirrel behavior research program, was skeptical about the enforcement of the ordinance.
“The ordinance is an improvement from the initial pilot plan, since the $100 minimum would scare off people,” Yiu said. “But the ordinance would need a good enforcement system — and the problem with these is usually that there isn’t enough patrolling officers.”