Flaco’s Death is One of Too Many

Thanks to rodenticides, every animal that preys upon a rodent is at risk.

For more than a year, Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo, swerved through the concrete canyons of New York City, dodging traffic, landing on ledges, and surviving on pigeons and rats. Flaco beat the many odds against him — odds that he and all wild animals face in our urbanized world — by surviving for a year before striking a building and dying. His preliminary necropsy results reported the presence of four anticoagulant (blood thinning) rodenticides in his body and a herpes virus spread by pigeons. He sustained no broken bones and was in “good body condition,” yet suffered an internal hemorrhage — often a signature of anticoagulant rodenticide poisoning.

A memorial for Flaco in Central Park, New York City. Preliminary necropsy results of the beloved city owl revealed the presence of four anticoagulant (blood-thinning) rodenticides in his body and a herpes virus spread by pigeons. Photo by Rhododendrites / Wikimedia Commons.

As tragic as Flaco’s case may be, he is far from the only such victim in New York City. Barry, a barred owl, was hit by a truck in Central Park in 2021 and died with potentially lethal levels of anticoagulant rat poisons in her system. The mate of Pale Male, another famous red-tailed hawk in New York City, died with rat poison in her liver.

This poison problem is not limited to New York City — or New York, or the northeast, where countless victims of rat poison are being treated on a daily basis at wildlife rehab centers. A national study conducted by the University of Georgia and others in 2018 found that over 80 percent of bald and golden eagles across the country, tested positive for rat poison. In California, over 90 percent of mountain lions — including the famous “P-22,” and many others without names or numbers — have been exposed to rat poison, some of them suffering from severe mange, an ectoparasite that has been linked with exposure to rat poisons. A population of bobcats in Southern California was almost wiped out by an outbreak of mange, linked to anticoagulant poison exposure.

If wildlife do not bleed to death from anticoagulants after eating a poisoned rodent, they often suffer from sublethal effects from rodenticide poisoning — immune system harm, inability to regulate their own body temperatures, increased parasite loads, anemia, and other illnesses. In California, almost every species of raptor — red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, barn owl, great horned owl, Northern spotted owl, to name just a few — has been harmed and killed by rat poison. Mountain lions, bobcats, grey foxes, badgers, skunks, river otters, and even earthworms — we have managed to poison the entire ecosystem with anticoagulants.

Study after study has put forth the scientific evidence on the harm done to wildlife from anticoagulants, necropsy after necropsy. Every animal that preys upon a rodent is at risk. This means that we are poisoning one of our very best solutions to rodent overpopulation: the wildlife predators that eat rodents.

In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1788, which put a moratorium on the indiscriminate and deadly “second generation” (newer) anticoagulant rodenticides, with exemptions for public health emergencies and agricultural use. In 2022, Newsom signed AB 1322, adding diphacinone, a first generation (older but still deadly) anticoagulant into the moratorium. This year, Assemblymember Laura Friedman has introduced AB 2552, co-sponsored by my project, Raptors Are The Solution, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which will add the remaining deadly first generation anticoagulants into the moratorium. As use of the second generation compounds has decreased, use of the first generation anticoagulants has been on the rise. Friedman’s bill also creates buffer zones around open space and wildlife habitat areas, where anticoagulants cannot be used, and it gives citizens a right to sue when they observe violations of the law. Violators have 60 days to remedy misuse.

We need a more thoughtful approach to rodent control that doesn’t cause secondary poisoning of wildlife or inordinate suffering of any animal, rats included. New research using non-toxic, non-bioaccumulating rodent fertility control products are showing great results in suppressing rodent numbers. Some pest control companies are now offering exclusion services instead of applying poisons. Excluding rats from your home is more effective — and cost-effective — over time than putting down poison and putting all of the local wildlife at risk. There are simple DIY exclusion steps you can take yourself, after finding out where rodents are getting in and then blocking holes or other entryways.

Total eradication of rodents is not a realistic goal, and if these toxic poisons worked as advertised for the past half-century, we wouldn’t have a rodent left on the planet today. If we don’t stop with the unsustainable practice of blasting our environment with rat poison, we won’t have the beautiful owls, hawks, mountain lions, bobcats, and others wildlife we value much longer.

Calls for a monument to Flaco in Central Park are lovely and well intentioned. But if we built a monument to every animal who has died or been otherwise harmed by rat poison, we’d have monuments covering this country from coast to coast. Flaco, Barry, Pale Male, P-22 — and just as importantly, hundreds of thousands of unnamed, less famous animals — need our help now.

As Rachel Carson wrote about the poison DDT in Silent Spring in 1962, “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.” We have the facts. We have the science. We have the necropsy reports. Now we need more action, including a national moratorium on these deadly products.

RATS will be attending a key hearing in Sacramento on April 9. The state has discontinued allowing citizens to call in during committee hearings to express their support for a bill, so we are asking people to call or email members of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials committee, especially if you are in one of the member’s districts, to support AB 2552. You can also quickly and easily create an online account and then submit a quick letter simply stating your support for the bill. Thank you for taking action!

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