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Santa Monica Wins Kudos from Animal Rights Group

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 21 -- After months of rocky relations, it appears Santa Monica officials are again in the good graces of the world’s largest animal rights’ group.

In addition to ranking Santa Monica as the fifth most vegetarian-friendly small city in the nation, advocates with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) praised City officials for launching this week what may be the first program in the nation to humanely control ground squirrel populations.

Through a partnership with the Los Angeles-based non-profit Animal Advocates, City officials will begin overseeing a new policy to educate the public not to feed the squirrels in Palisades Park, causing the population to grow beyond its natural numbers.

In addition, the group will begin sterilizing the rodents, which burrow hundreds of holes in the seaside park, with immunocontraceptives. The method works by adding a cholesterol-lowering drug to the squirrel feed and does “not pose a danger to the to non-target wildlife or humans," according to a published City staff report on the proposal.

“To my knowledge, a program like this has never been attempted on this scale,” said Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for eight years with PETA and an outspoken critic the City’s former policy of killing the squirrels to control their numbers.

“PETA applauds Santa Monica’s efforts to end the indiscriminate poisoning of the ground squirrel population in Palisades Park,” Boyles said. “What they are doing really is setting a precedent and policy for other communities and cities across the nation.”

The move is a shift in a rodent control policy that up until now called for the killing of the squirrels with poison bait stations. The latest round of poisonings was carried out last month under orders by the County Health Department and at the direction of Santa Monica’s new City manager, Lamont Ewell. (see story)

When PETA representatives caught wind a year ago of the poisonous bait stations, the group wrote a sternly worded letter to then Santa Monica mayor Pam O’Connor and threatened to bring its considerable membership of 250,000 to bear on Santa Monica unless other options to poisoning were explored.

“I think this does signal that Santa Monica is doing the right thing and PETA wants to offer support to the City,” said Boyles. “We hope that the city manager will never again consider the cruel use of poison to control the ground squirrel population again.”

The pilot program -- which municipal officials will be evaluating in the coming year -- calls for the City to partner with Animal Advocates, a non-profit which is licensed by the Fish and Game Department to treat wildlife.

Mary Cummings, president and founder of Animal Advocates, said she looks forward to “helping the City humanely control the wildlife in the park.”

Her organization will use volunteers as part of the educational outreach and monitor the sterilization program, as well as monitoring for fleas and other health issues.

The program may also receive a boost from PETA, which Boyles said will contact local members via email to inform them of the Animal Advocates program and ask them to volunteer to help.

It was a little more than a year ago that Santa Monica was ordered by the County Health Department to suppress the squirrel population in Palisades Park.

Controlling the rodent population, health officials said, is necessary to prevent the spread of disease. Some local animal advocacy groups, however, have said fears of an outbreak of plague are exaggerated.

In other news, PETA officials Monday also recognized Santa Monica as a Mecca of vegetarian-friendly grocery stores and restaurants in the United States.

The City was ranked fifth in a category of cities with populations of fewer than 500,000 people. PETA held out praise for local haunts such as the Real Food Daily, Toi on Wilshire and RAWvolution, which brings pre-made, gourmet vegan foods straight to your door.

“Santa Monica is a Mecca for people seeking healthy and delicious vegetarian food," said Bruce Friedrich, director of Vegan Campaigns for the group.

"More and more people are making the switch to a vegetarian diet, and Santa Monica restaurants and other businesses are responding by offering more delicious vegetarian fare that appeals to everyone," he said.

Vegetarian food sales nationwide have doubled since 1998, hitting $1.6 billion in 2003, and the market is expected to grow another 61 percent by 2008, according to PETA officials.

Twenty-four percent of college students ask for vegan options in school cafeterias, an indication that vegetarian diets are growing in popularity among young people. The American Dietetic Association has endorsed vegetarian diets, noting that vegetarians have lower rates of heart attacks, diabetes, cancer and obesity.

PETA took population into account and determined a per capita ratio of vegetarian restaurants. Cities with vegetarian organizations and food fairs received bonus points. Asheville, N.C., was voted number one; Eugene, Ore., was the first runner-up and Salt Lake City captured third place.

Rounding out the top 10 were Norfolk, Va.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga., and Ann Arbor, Mich.

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