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Animal Rights Group Calls for End to Squirrel Killings

By Jorge Casuso

July 29 -- The poisoning of ground squirrels in Palisades Park has prompted the world's largest animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), to sit up and take notice of a brewing controversy in Santa Monica.

The 850,000 member organization fired off a letter Wednesday to Mayor Pam O'Connor demanding that the City halt a program that sets out poison pellets in the park to kill the squirrels in an effort to stem the possible spread of disease.

"Our office has been bombarded with complaints from Santa Monica citizens about the poisoning of ground squirrels at Palisades Park," wrote Mylie Thompson, a wildlife caseworker in the group’s Domestic Animal and Wildlife Rescue & Information Department.

"On behalf of our thousands of members in California, we respectfully ask that you order city employees to remove all poison from the park immediately and that the city establish strict policies prohibiting the use of poisons in Santa Monica's parks," Thompson said.

City officials countered that all poison bait was removed from the park a month ago and that the "suppression" of ground squirrels -- whose fleas can carry bubonic plague bacteria -- was ordered by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

"The City of Santa Monica is not performing any ground squirrel suppression measures at this time," Mayor O'Connor responded in a letter to PETA Thursday. "We stopped the last week of June, removing all the bait from the stations.

"As you know, the City was ordered to suppress the ground squirrel population" by the County, the mayor wrote. "The coastal belt of California is one of the high-risk areas for plague. Keeping the ground squirrel population down is a precaution against humans and pets being infected."

Responding to PETA's claim in a press release that the group has received "a barrage of complaints from outraged Santa Monica residents," City officials countered that they have received complaints from only a couple of persistent residents.

"I have gotten numerous calls and emails from two people,” said Judy Rambeau, assistant to the City Manager in charge of community relations. “We heard a lot from the same people over and over and over again."

Mayor Pam O'Connor said she hadn't received any complaints at all.

"I haven't gotten complaints in my mail," O'Connor said. "If there has been some barrage of complaints, they haven't come across my desk."

In its letter, PETA said that poisoning squirrels is illegal.

“Failing to follow the product label on a pesticide is a violation of federal law,” the letter stated. “The product label on Contrac, the rat poison reportedly used in the park, clearly states that the substance is not to be used in reach of children, companion animals, or wildlife.”

The group urged the City to attack the fleas, not the squirrels. The letters points to an online pamphlet produced by the LA County Department of Health that “outlines an effective flea-control strategy that employs bait stations to distribute insecticide dust on squirrels' fur as they enter the stations.”

“The flea powder, harmless to squirrels, kills the fleas living in squirrels' fur, and when the squirrels carry the powder back to their subterranean homes, the powder also kills the fleas living in these burrows,” PETA wrote.

City officials said they have explored alternate methods of suppressing the ground squirrel population, and that poisoned bait “is considered the safest viable method for park users, pets and other animals.”

The bait stations -- secured in off-limits areas of the park -- are safe because only ground squirrels, rats and mice can get inside, City officials said.

“Ground squirrels crawl back into the burrows after ingesting the bait, so dead squirrels are not visible or accessible to birds or pets to which the fleas could transfer,” according to information released by the City.

Rambeau -- who said most residents understand the reasons for the City’s actions -- called for putting the issue in perspective.

"These are rodents," Rambeau said. "These are not tree squirrels, they're ground squirrels. They're classified as rodents.”

Olin Ericksen contributed to this report

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