On a foggy summer morning in 2007, my Berkeley, CA neighborhood was preparing for our annual Fourth of July street fair when a neighbor came running over with a black plastic garbage bag. He wanted to know if I could identify the two dead birds inside. When I pulled the bodies out, I was dismayed to see that they were fledgling Cooper’s hawks, probably from the nest I had been watching as part of a study for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.
My neighbor had found the hawks in his backyard, in his young son’s foot-deep plastic swimming pool. I suspected that they had gone to the pool to drink because they were dehydrated from eating poisoned rats. I abandoned the street fair and drove the bodies to WildCare, a wildlife rehabilitation facility, to have them tested. WildCare sent them to the animal testing laboratory at UC Davis. They later came back positive for brodifacoum, the poison compound found in many “second generation” anticoagulant rat poisons, which are designed to kill in one dose. Although Cooper’s hawks usually prey on small birds, they also eat rodents. The young hawks must have found the sickened, slow-moving rodents to be easy prey.
I went door to door in my neighborhood, asking people to stop using rat poison. I tacked leaflets to telephone poles and put the word out to neighborhood groups online. But in 2011 it happened again. A young boy and his father had been watching a local Cooper’s hawk pair raise their young when another fledgling was found – this time in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It had hemorrhaged internally and bled out through its mouth and vent. One of the neighbors called Berkeley Animal Control, and I happened to be walking by just as an officer showed up. I asked her if I could take the body to have it tested. That fledgling, too, came back positive for brodifacoum, plus some other rat poisons.
Rat poison is so easy for people to use. The rats usually die out of sight, and once they stop troubling us, they are out of our minds. But they don’t really go away. They just become toxic food for another animal, and end up poisoning the food web.
After the third fledgling death, I leafleted my neighborhood again. But this time I knew that wasn’t going to be enough to stop the senseless use of poison. So along with Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, I convened a meeting in August 2011 to address the situation. That first meeting – hosted by Earth Island Institute – was attended by Michael Fry, a toxicologist who had been working on the issue for several years for the American Bird Conservancy, concerned citizens, bird lovers, watershed activists, and members of animal welfare and rescue groups. Clearly this issue had been troubling many people for a while.
Out of that meeting came Earth Island Institute’s newest fiscally sponsored project: Raptors Are The Solution, or RATS. Our goal is to prevent more hawks and other birds of prey and wildlife from needlessly dying from these incredibly toxic compounds.
As we began our public education campaign to highlight the problem, we learned that the US Environmental Protection Agency had been trying to put stronger limits on these second-generation rodenticides since 2007. Among other things, the EPA has sought to restrict the type, packaging, and quantities of poison consumers can buy at local stores. This is a good first step. But it won’t solve the wildlife-poisoning problem, especially since almost all the major pest control companies use poison in their bait boxes. These innocuous looking silver-and-black boxes can be found all around cities and suburbs. Rodents check into them, eat the poisoned bait, and then “check out,” like little toxic time bombs.
Rat poison is not just an urban problem. In remote forested areas of Northern California, for instance, many marijuana growers use rat poison to prevent wildlife from eating their plants. This despite the fact that there are far less toxic ways to deter rodents from chewing on pot plants to slake their thirst, including simply putting out bowls of water, a solution suggested by one grower who has tried it. The fisher, a native carnivore in the weasel family that is a candidate for endangered species listing, may well be wiped out if use of the poison can’t be staunched. Several fishers recently have been found dead and tested positive for rodenticides, as have federally endangered San Joaquin kit foxes.
The California Department of Fish and Game has 800 pages of records of wildlife harmed by rat poison throughout the state. Victims include almost every species of hawk and owl, the California fishers and kit foxes, as well as skunks, coyotes, and many other mammals. In 2012, after several years of intensive testing, WildCare concluded that 75 percent of the animals it tested had ingested rat poisons.
Rat poison is harming children and pets, too. The American Association of Poison Control Centers estimates that between 12,000 and 15,000 children become sick every year after ingesting rat poison. Dr. Safdar Khan of the National Animal Poison Control Center has told me that his agency receives close to 5,000 reports of suspected cases of rodenticide poisonings every year. Those poisonings involve dogs, cats, horses, pigs, rabbits, ferrets, and birds.
RATS decided to follow the lead of the City of San Francisco and its “Don’t Take the Bait” campaign, through which it persuaded more than 100 stores to voluntarily remove dangerous rodenticides from their shelves. RATS worked with eight other cities to pass resolutions urging stores in their jurisdictions to do the same. We connected with reporters and began to get the issue mainstream media attention. Articles about the impact of rat poison on raptors appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Audubon magazine, and the Huffington Post, as well as several smaller news outlets.
By March 2013, all of the rat poison manufacturers agreed to comply with the EPA’s new restrictions except Reckitt-Benckiser, which is refusing even to make its rat poison products “tamper proof” for children.
But even with the new US EPA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation restrictions in place, rat poison will continue to harm wildlife and pets.
Many of us are committed to making our cities livable for creatures other than humans. We know how uplifting the sight or sound of a hawk or owl in an urban area can be. Those sights and sounds offer the hope that maybe our cities can become ecologically sustainable. With DDT no longer in use, and as our city tree canopies have matured, birds of prey have started to make a comeback. In Berkeley, for instance, we not only have Cooper’s hawks, but also barn owls, white-tailed kites, and other raptors. Most Bay Area cities are home to red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and great horned and barn owls. As much as I thrill at their presence, I also watch them with unease, because I know the dangers that lurk in many people’s yards. These amazing birds are natural predators of rats. If we could let them do their jobs – without poisoning them – they could make a huge dent in our rodent populations. First we need to ensure that we are not creating the next “silent spring” – this time for raptors.
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