Needlessly exterminating animals

As much as we dislike the destruction of plants and trees simply because they are not native, the extermination of animals is far more disturbing.  There are presently two such proposed projects in the news to which the public has reacted angrily.  We will start with the project in the San Francisco Bay Area which plans to kill ground squirrels and gophers in a public park in Berkeley.  In this case, the animals are native.  They will be killed because public land managers have decided they MIGHT be a problem in the future. 

The squirrels and gophers of Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley

California Ground Squirrel at the Berkeley Marina.  Creative Commons - Benefactor 123
California Ground Squirrel at the Berkeley Marina. Creative Commons – Benefactor 123

Cesar Chavez Park is the former garbage dump of the city of Berkeley, built on landfill.  When the dump was closed in the 1990s, the garbage was not removed.  It was capped with clay which was intended to contain whatever toxins were in the garbage.  Then two feet of soil was put on top of the clay so that vegetation could be planted in the park.  Small animals moved into the park, as we should expect.

The population of squirrels and gophers is now considered too big by land managers.  Although there is no evidence that the burrows of the animals have penetrated the clay cap, the officials who are responsible for the water quality of the bay are apparently concerned that they MIGHT burrow through the clay cap:   “…they are getting perilously close to the clay cap that covers the landfill. If the rodents penetrate that barrier, dangerous toxins like gasoline, lead, iron, herbicides and pesticides, could leach into the bay. So the city needs to reduce the animal population to lessen the risk, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko. ‘We haven’t had any of the materials inside the landfill escape into the bay and we don’t want that to happen,” said Chakko. “We are trying to solve a problem before it happens.’” (1)

The population explosion is being blamed on park visitors feeding the squirrels.  Squirrel-feeders have been interviewed by the media.  They defend their right to feed the squirrels, which is a source of pleasure for them.  It should not be too difficult to understand that many people prefer feeding squirrels to killing them.  (However, we do not encourage people to feed wildlife in public parks and open space because the animals usually pay the price.)

Some media sources also blame off-leash dogs for exacerbating the problem.  The San Francisco Chronicle claims that off-leash dogs dig into the animals’ burrows, making them larger.  There is a small, legal off-leash area in the center of the park.  We have walked around the perimeter of this park many times.  Although we have seen dogs being walked on-leash on the trail around the park, we have never seen an off-leash dog outside the legal off-leash area.  Another media source reports that most of the burrowing animals live on the outer edge of the park which is consistent with our observation.  Furthermore, making the burrows larger at the surface, doesn’t get them any closer to the clay cap two feet below the surface.  Therefore, the scenario imagined by the Chronicle is not consistent with the facts.  (1)

Action alert (update):  The Berkeley City Council will reconsider the extermination of squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park at their meeting on March 25, 2014.  Please come to speak for these animals.  Here is a link to an article in the Oakland Tribune with more information (scroll down to the second item in the article):

Scapegoating animals for problems we cause

This project is similar to many others to which we object:

  • There is no evidence that there actually IS a problem.  These animals should not be killed without such evidence.
  • IF there is a problem, it is one created by humans:  We should have predicted the presence of burrowing animals when we closed this dump.  An impenetrable cap on the garbage should have been installed.  If an impenetrable cap was not physically possible, the garbage should have been removed.  IF feeding the animals is contributing to the population surge, humans are the problem, not the animals.  We do not assume that feeding the animals is, in fact, contributing to the problem.  It sounds like more finger-pointing to us.  (However, we agree that people should not feed wildlife in public parks because the wildlife usually pays the price for the pleasure of humans.  We suggest that people channel that impulse into a sanctioned form of animal welfare such as volunteering in your local animal shelter or wildlife rescue organization.)
  • There is no evidence that dogs are contributing to the problem either.  They are yet another scapegoat for a problem created by humans….IF, in fact, there IS a problem.  
  • Humans have a very short-term perspective on nature.  We often perceive problems in nature that are short-term and we over-react to them because we have a desire to control nature.  In fact, surges in animal populations usually resolve themselves without our interference when the animals exhaust available resources.  Humans often do more harm than good when we attempt to control nature and these attempts are usually futile because nature is far more powerful than we are.
  • We should set priorities when we address environmental issues.  Untold thousands of chemicals are being drained into the bay every day according to the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board:  “’However, there are a number of chemicals that are showing up not too far from levels of concern, and that’s the bad news,’ said Tom Mumley. assistant executive officer of the San Francisco Regional Water Qaulity Control Board,  ‘There’s a really big, long list of chemicals that we haven’t measured yet, or we don’t have good thresholds to interpret whether the concentrations out there are something to be alarmed about or not,’ said Jay Davis, a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. More than 100,000 chemicals are registered or approved for commercial use in the United States.” (2)  While we merrily pour toxic chemicals down our drains and spray our public lands with pesticides, does it make any sense to worry about the POSSIBILITY that a few squirrels could be burrowing into a former garbage dump?

Update March 27, 2014:  Berkeleyside (an excellent on-line news source for Berkeley) reports that the Berkeley City Council put the plan to kill ground squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park on hold indefinitely, pending further study.  Berkeleyside reports that the Water Quality Board notified the City Council in writing that they did NOT order Berkeley to kill the animals, contrary to the claims of the Berkeley officials proposing the plan.  There is absolutely NO doubt that this decision is a direct result of thousands of people contacting Berkeley to protest the plans.  It pays to speak up, folks!

The swans of New York

Mute Swan.  Creative Commons - Share Alike
Mute Swan. Creative Commons – Share Alike

The State of New York has announced its intention to exterminate all mute swans in the state.  The mute swans were introduced in the 1880s because at that time people thought them beautiful.  Now some people have apparently changed their minds.  People calling themselves bird-advocates have decided that because mute swans aren’t native to the United States, they must be killed.

According to an op-ed in the New York Times, this bizarre plan to kill this and other non-native species of birds originates with the Audubon Society and other organizations advocating on behalf of birds (apologies for the contradiction). They succeeded in revising the Migratory Bird Act in 2004, to remove protections from all non-native birds in the United States.  This policy was based on an ASSUMPTION that the mere existence of non-native birds is a threat to native birds.  Like all similar projects to exterminate a non-native species, the State of New York provided no evidence that the mute swans are a threat to native birds.  The proposal merely stated that the swans are “aggressive” and that they eat aquatic vegetation.

Since there are only about 2,200 mute swans in the State of New York, one wonders how much of a problem they could be.  They are called “invasive,” as are most non-native species, but their small population suggests this is an exaggeration.

The op-ed in the New York Times was written by Professor Hugh Raffles (New School).  Readers of Million Trees may remember him as the author of another eloquent op-ed about the fallacies of invasion biology using the American “melting pot” as a metaphor.

The comments on his op-ed about the swans are revealing.  There is almost no support for killing the swans.  Here is one of the few supporting comments from a typical nativist, using the usual arguments about how there MIGHT be a problem in the distant future:  “Not-so-weird” says A century is not nearly enough time for wetlands to adapt to the presence of a new species. Thousands or millions of years would be more appropriate. As we wait to see what happens, we could lose any number of native species whose ecosystem services we have yet to fully understand or appreciate. The science does not need to be complete for the safest, most responsible course of action to be removing mute swans from our wetlands in the most humane way possible.”    It’s difficult to imagine our environment thousands or millions years from now, but we doubt that mute swans will be a concern in the unlikely event that there will be humans around to worry about them.

Don’t we have enough problems?

There is no shortage of real, serious problems in our environment.  One wonders where our public servants find the time to dream up problems that don’t exist.  We suggest that they put their over-active imaginations to rest and focus on solving existing problems rather than fabricating them.  And while they’re at it, we would appreciate it if they would quit pointing fingers at animals when diagnosing problems most of which are caused by the actions of humans.


(1)    Frances Dinkelspiel, “Berkeley to kill squirrels, gophers to protect bay,” Berkeleyside, February 19, 2014

(2)     Stephanie Lee, “Report:  Some levels of chemicals in SF Bay near levels of concern,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2013

11 thoughts on “Needlessly exterminating animals”

  1. In 2008, UC Davis launched a birth control research program to curb an explosive population of non-native tree squirrels.(Note that these were non-native tree squirrels, not native ground squirrels.) Some of the squirrels were humanely trapped, marked and given hormone injections; others were given a placebo injection so the two groups (both were freed) could be compared. See: Berkeley should at least find out how successful this program has been before attempting to exterminate these innocent creatures. No extermination program of animals has been, in the long run, successful in our efforts to control the environment. History should have taught us that only bigger problems will be created.

  2. Thank you SO much for this wonderful article. I am heartsick over the thought of these beautiful little animals who are being systematically killed for no reason. Yes, everytime animals and plants are killed or poisoned, the results end up being far worse.

    After trying to contact those in charge of this extermination (who have not responded) I discovered that the East Bay Regional Parks are also poisoning the native California Ground Squirrel at Martin Luther King Jr. shoreline in Oakland for no apparent reason than “erosion.” When I pointed out that the intensive and unnecessary herbicide spaying next to the paths and bay there is killing the newly planted native plants and that that is causing erosion (not to mention the choice of natives was not a good one) there really was no answer. There was also no answer about the effect on the already struggling Burrowing Owls with their Ground Squirrel protectors and burrows being eliminated.

    Also revealing was the first response when I asked about if the poisoning plan were true and Mr. Trujillo, in charge of the MLK Jr. park, asked if I’d seen the film “Willard.” I suppose the idea was to terrify me with the mention of a nature-hating silly horror film into agree with killing these harmless sweet animals.

    Please join in signing and spreading the word about this petition to try to stop the killing of the California Ground Squirrels at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. We are nearing our goal of 1000. It’s heartening to see the signatures of people all over the world who care.

    1. Thank you for asking these questions of the managers of our public lands. We can only hope that they are influenced by the interest and concern of the public. Thank you for your activism.

      The East Bay Regional Park District used nearly 1,700 pounds of rodenticide in 2009 and over 1,000 pounds in 2010. They haven’t published a pesticide use report since 2010. So we don’t know how much they are using now.

  3. There is support for getting rid of mute swans, even by violent means, by people like me in Michigan, where we have a much larger population of mutes. What most pro-mute pieces, like yours and the piece you cite, fail to ever mention is that we have native swans. I wonder why that is.
    Some of us want to have lots of swans, but not Mutes. Tremendous efforts have been expended bringing back Trumpeter Swans from near extinction, and they are starting to show up again near me. Once that happens more often, more people will change their minds. Seeing Mutes competing with them will make you angry then. Elsewhere there are Tundra Swans. It is our responsibility to the world to protect these species. I don’t want Mute Swans getting in the way. You can have them as captive pets if you want, but if they are increasing in population, or escaping, that’s not good. We don’t want people releasing wildebeest or zebras in our forests either, even if they are wonderful and beautiful animals.

  4. I do wonder about other motives behind these cruel plans to kill. Is this a test to see reaction, or lack or, before clearcutting the 1000 acres and ten years of planned poisoning of the trees stumps in our local East Bay Regional Parks? We know Monsanto and other poison-producers will benefit from that plan. So who might benefit from killing these beloved native animals?

    It’s interesting too that the water board official calls the California Ground Squirrel an “invasive species,” which is what they say about non-natives.

    It does not make sense that the gophers, squirrels, or dogs would suddenly break the cap. Why was no concern shown about the constant bulldozing and foundation laying and construction of the businesses at Cesar Chavez Park? What is the park for if not to see the animals and spend time with them. I don’t know of any other place where Burrowing Owls can be seen so closely. And the concern about toxins is contradicted when they approve massive poison spraying directly in the bay (which you answered brilliantly in your article about the spartina) and around the bay, and along so much of the watershed that washes into the bay.

    We really need an agency that should first approve any of this destruction to our environment and which cares about the animals and plants instead of thinking of most of the living things in our parks as something to kill, and which does not have a financial conflict of interest. Not likely to happen.

    And with all the complaining about lack of money, suddenly they have so much to waste with killing sweet harmless animals.

    1. Yes, it does seem very counter-productive to call native species “invasive” when they expand or change their native ranges. One of the inescapable facts of climate change is that plant and animal species must move in response to changes in climate in order to survive. At a time when the climate is changing rapidly, we can’t freeze native plants and animals into place without dooming them to extinction. This is just one of the many reasons why nativism doesn’t make sense.

      1. Another example of fanatical species nativism is that over the broom moth (Uresiphita reversalis) which is native to much of the continental US with the exception of the several northern states. I found the larva of this moth several years ago and photographed it. Recently, I identified it using a Google search for “baptisia australis moth larvae”. The caterpillars I found indicate the insect is about 200 miles north of any previously known locations. Broom moth caterpillars feed on baptisia and other legumes such as lupine.

        That wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis), the plant being eaten by the caterpillars, is also about that many miles beyond its natural range. How did get in my yard? I planted it in 1999. The caterpillars showed up in 2007. I don’t think a moth flew all the way from Iowa to find my plant. Wild blue indigo is a favorite native prairie plant used in many “native prairie” plantings like mine (I live in the northern forested biome, not prairie). It is very likely the moth has been traveling northward for some time as more baptisia and lupine are planted in gardens or escaping along roadsides and as the climate becomes warmer up here.

        On several websites there was great concern over this broom moth’s range extension as it was eating the (supposedly) native wild indigo people had planted in their gardens far from the nearest prairie. Hand picking and insecticide spraying (usually Bt) were recommended. No one seemed to see the contradiction about protecting plantings of wild blue indigo in areas where it never grew before. They just wanted the caterpillars gone as it was messing up their pretty “native” plant gardens.

        1. Another excellent example of a change in nature that is caused by humans with no thought given to the consequences of the choices they make. Again, the animals pay the price for the choices made by humans. And the methods we use to control nature–in this case using insecticides–have their own unintended consequences. How many other insects were killed in the attempt to kill an insect that humans have decided doesn’t “belong” there? We don’t know and we don’t seem to care.

          You have a lot of very interesting information about the movement of specific species. Please let us know if you would like to write a guest post. Or, if you know of an article we can republish that would also be helpful. We rarely cover events outside our area that we can’t observe directly. However, when we can do so, we think it is important for our readers to understand the widespread consequences of nativism in the natural world.

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