City trapped in squirrel debate
Decision to kill Cuesta Park rodents erupts into controversy
Recently announced plans to trap and kill
aggressive squirrels at Cuesta Park has resulted in visceral reactions,
including public outcry, talk of lawsuits and, ultimately, a delay from
The city estimates that there have been seven
incidents of squirrels scratching or biting people since May, with
three bites in the last 30 days. At least four of those incidents
involved children, said Dave Muela, community services director.
As a result, plans to curb the rodents'
population at Cuesta were put into action last week, as
squirrel-crushing traps were placed in the trees around the children's
"I don't imagine we're going to be removing
every squirrel in Cuesta Park," said council member Mike Kasperzak.
"But we have a duty to do something."
Whether that includes using the traps remains to
be seen. City manager Kevin Duggan said Tuesday that the city is still
considering other options and that the traps installed in the trees
have not been set yet.
The latest victim was Andrew Packard, 4, who was
bitten and scratched two weeks ago while reportedly carrying a muffin.
He received precautionary rabies shots. The city could not provide
records of all the squirrel attacks by press time.
The city has been quietly trying to deal with
the problem since an attack on a child in May. Animal rights advocates
were frustrated that they did not know about the city's troubles before
a solution was "sold" to the city, as Henry Coletto, a former county
game warden, put it.
Duggan said the city tried to use a "live and let live" approach, but that didn't work.
"In this particular circumstance, the squirrels
have become so habituated to human food [that] their level of
aggressiveness has become very problematic," Duggan said.
City staff made the decision to install the
traps with recommendations from the state Department of Fish and Game.
The action did not require a public hearing or city council approval.
Reports that the 4-year-old's mother, San Jose
resident Jennifer Packard, plans to sue the city could not be
confirmed. Packard is rumored to be seeking compensation for her son's
medical expenses. There were also threats — though no known filings —
of lawsuits from animal rights activists should the city go ahead with
On Monday, city attorney Michael Martello said he didn't know of any lawsuits on the squirrel issue, from any party, yet.
Following the initial attacks, and before
the decision to trap the squirrels was made, park rangers increased
patrols in the park, Muela said. He said they talked to more than 100
people, many of whom were observed feeding squirrels, and warned them
against doing so.
The attacks continued, however, and so the traps
were brought in. Right now they are not armed — but once they are, the
cylindrical wire cages will act like mousetraps, crushing the squirrels
once they're tripped.
Clark Pest Control was hired for the
extermination job. Officials said the company was paid $2,500 for the
first month of implementing the traps.
A spokesperson for People for Ethical Treatment
of Animals compared the traps to clamp-type traps outlawed by the state
in 1998, which can maim an animal or cause it to die slowly. Martello
said they were recommended by the Department of Fish and Game.
As for Fish and Game, Coletto, the former Santa
Clara County game warden, blasted its recommendation to kill the
squirrels without a proper site evaluation. He said the person who
wrote to the city recommending the traps, Lt. D.J. Kelly, had stepped
out of his law enforcement role, and that the department's wildlife
biologists should have been allowed to make the call.
In a letter to the city after phone
conversations with city staff, Kelly recommends "removing them from the
park by the use of traps and euthanizing them in a humane manner."
Steve Martarano, a Fish and Game spokesperson,
said the controversy was a good thing, because a discussion definitely
needed to happen about the squirrels. He added that wildlife biologists
were likely involved in the recommendation to kill the squirrels.
"What are you supposed to do?" Martarano said.
"We don't like exterminating animals. It's not the animals' fault, but
they end up suffering."
Story has legs
Nearby resident Lorien French is a
stay-at-home mother whose children were Andrew Packard's age a few
years ago. The squirrels at Cuesta Park weren't as aggressive then, she
French said she sees people feed the squirrels
at the park regularly, and thought that euthanizing the squirrels "in a
pain-free way" wasn't a bad idea, but that crushing them was inhumane.
Animal rights advocates have been much more
pointed. City council members say they have been receiving angry
e-mails about the traps from all over — including one from Poland.
PETA representatives said they were preparing a letter for the city as the Voice went
to press. They said they normally don't file lawsuits over situations
like this, but that the action leaves the city open to lawsuits if an
endangered species is killed unintentionally.
"Taxpayers deserve better," said Stephanie
Boyles, a wildlife biologist for PETA. "We don't want [the squirrels]
to die in a cruel and needlessly painful way. We need to find the
underlying source, and that is people feeding them."
News watchers around the country are talking
about Cuesta Park squirrels. Besides local print and TV news, papers
and other outlets across the country have picked up the story. In Reno,
a TV station's Web site declared, "Aggressive Squirrels Prowl Mountain
The story has reached into local classrooms as well — from De Anza College to local elementary schools.
"Its amazing the legs something like this gets," Kasperzak said.
Back at Cuesta Park, three park rangers were
seen on patrol Sept. 29, and signs were prominently placed near the
children's areas with a picture of a squirrel and the words, "Recently
a squirrel attacked a park patron. Please do not feed squirrels as they
have become aggressive, particularly where there is food."
Little Blue alarm bells
Former game warden Henry Coletto now
works with the Little Blue Society, one of many groups stepping into
the fray over Mountain View's squirrel-trapping plans. The
Peninsula-based group has asked the city to hire it on a consultation
basis to come up with a long-term solution to its problem.
As for the idea of thinning the squirrels'
numbers, it won't work, according to the group's president, Mary
Paglieri. Paglieri cited studies that say killing off an animal
population often results in the species bouncing back with even greater
Earlier this week, Paglieri sent an e-mail to
the city concerned over second-hand information that dead squirrels
were hanging from the traps Tuesday. The traps were seen in the trees
Monday morning, but the city said they wouldn't be set for three to
four days after installation.
She later withdrew her concern after she talked to the city, telling the Voice that the people who called her must have been very emotional.
Paglieri says people should simply shoo the
squirrels away by making loud noises, and that next year their
population will decrease if they are given less food. She added that
the animals will travel "as far as it takes" for a meal.
"During this time of year food can be scarce," she said.