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