Berkeley bans feeding of wildlife in parks, public spaces

Squirrel. Photo: Doug Mosher
After saying it would exterminate hundreds of squirrels in César Chávez Park, the City of Berkeley backtracked to focus on the main cause of the squirrel over-population: people feeding them. Photo: Doug Mosher

On Oct. 1, a new law went into effect in Berkeley that prohibits the feeding of wild animals in city parks and other public spaces. Enforcement brings with it minimum fines of $100 after an initial warning period, and up to $500 for multiple infractions within a year.

The ordinance applies to the feeding of all wildlife, but was conceived in response to an outcry earlier this year when the city said it would exterminate ground squirrels at César Chávez Park. This was to address Regional Water Quality Control Board concerns that squirrel burrows might be causing toxics underneath the park to leach into the bay, and thus present a threat to the landfill cap.

New ‘No Feeding Wildlife’ signs and educational brochures have been placed at César Chávez Park.

Burrowing Owls depend on ground squirrels for their burrows. Photo: Rick Lewis

The move is the result of a successful collaboration between the city, WildCare, Golden Gate Audubon, and In Defense of Animals, as well as concerned individuals who have spent the past four months developing a non-lethal approach to the city’s Rodent Abatement Pilot Plan.

In a statement, the three wildlife organizations pointed out that the stakes at the Berkeley park on the Marina went beyond ground squirrels. “The squirrels have a symbiotic relationship with Burrowing Owls — an at-risk ‘species of special concern’ — as the owls depend on ground squirrels for their burrows to find shelter when they arrive each winter at César Chávez Park.”

New Cesar Chavez Park Signs
New “No Feeding Wildlife” signs (like the one seen here lower left) have been erected at César Chávez Park in Berkeley

Back in February, the city said it was hiring a pest control company to trap and kill hundreds of squirrels and gophers that made their home at César Chávez Park because their burrows were getting perilously close to the clay cap that covers the landfill. They argued that if the rodents penetrated that barrier, dangerous toxins like gasoline, lead, iron, herbicides and pesticides could leach into the bay.

“We haven’t had any of the materials inside the landfill escape into the bay and we don’t want that to happen,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said at the time. “We are trying to solve a problem before it happens.”

Well-meaning Berkeley residents were creating the problem, however. Even though there have been signs at the park for some time telling people not to feed the animals, the message is frequently ignored and people routinely feed the gophers birdseed and peanuts.

The three wildlife organizations said this week that they applauded the city for moving away from its original plan and instead adopting “a compassionate and effective means of returning squirrel populations to naturally lower levels.” “This approach can serve as a nation-wide model for other parks faced with similar challenges where human feeding of wildlife has created an imbalance in wildlife populations,” they wrote.

Berkeley squirrels safe from extermination, for now (03.27.14)
Berkeley to kill squirrels, gophers to protect bay (02.19.14)
Western Burrowing Owls are back on the Berkeley Marina (01.06.14)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: