In Defense of Wild, Precious Lives

Lisa Owens Viani speaks up for birds and animals in spaces where they have no voice

I first fell in love with birds after finding an injured sparrow on a street in San Francisco in the late 1980s and taking it to a wildlife rehab center in Marin County, and then again later, after studying ornithology at San Francisco State University. I began volunteering at the center, WildCare, on weekends, helping rehabilitate all kinds of injured birds — from swifts to flickers to mockingbirds — as well as raptors, including a red-tailed hawk and a turkey vulture. I also transported injured birds from San Francisco Animal Care and Control to WildCare. One day I picked up a box labeled “pigeon,” and, while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, decided to peek through one of the air holes. I found a peregrine falcon staring back at me, and I made the rest of the trip in the fast lane!

a raptor on a fencepost with a rodent in its talons

In 2011, Owens Viani formed Raptors Are the Solution to educate people about the dangers rat poisons pose to birds of prey like this American kestrel, and to push for stronger regulations to prevent more poisonings of wildlife, children, and pets. Photo by Dave Harper for RATS.

Later, I raised and released several orphaned barn owls from an owl box on the roof of my house. Knowing this, a neighbor came over one morning with a black plastic bag holding two dead hawks. He hoped I would know which species these were and why they had died. They were Cooper’s hawks, and I immediately suspected rodenticides that cause internal bleeding in rats and had likely transferred to the hawks when they ate rodents. Necropsies performed at the University of California, Davis confirmed that the birds had anticoagulant rodenticides in their livers. I realized that if this was happening in my own community, it was probably happening elsewhere. After taking local action, I consulted with a friend, Allen Fish, who is a raptor biologist with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, and in 2011 decided to form a nonprofit.

I named it Raptors Are the Solution (RATS), because every time we lose a bird of prey, we lose their free, nontoxic pest control “services.” One family of barn owls, for example, can consume up to 3,000 rodents in one year. RATS’ mission is to educate people about the dangers of rat poison in the food web and to achieve stronger regulation to prevent more poisonings of wildlife, children, and pets. Children, especially those in disadvantaged communities, are frequent victims of these poisons. Anticoagulant rodenticides were responsible for more than 3,000 human poisonings in 2021. At least 2,300 of those involved children under the age of 6, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. While the poisons do not usually kill children, they can cause nosebleeds, vomiting, and low blood pressure.

At RATS, we take on large-scale public education efforts, which include billboards, bus and train station ads, presentations, and outreach events. We also provide free, downloadable outreach materials on our website, sharing the latest scientific research about how these poisons impact “non-target” species. RATS and our many partners were successful in getting stronger legislation passed in California in 2020. These laws include putting a moratorium on the use of the deadly second-generation anticoagulants, which followed a lawsuit we led against California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for failing to adequately evaluate the impacts of anticoagulant rodenticides on non-target species. We are now pushing to tighten loopholes in the law, including for diphacinone, a deadly first-generation anticoagulant that has been linked to immune system impacts in wildlife predators like mountain lions and bobcats. We also partner with other organizations to demonstrate feasible, nontoxic alternatives to controlling rodents.

portrait of a womanLisa Owens Viani

When I get discouraged by how slow progress in environmental protection sometimes seems, I think of heroines like Rachel Carson, who raised the alarm about DDT in 1962, or Jill Robinson, who formed Animals Asia after seeing a wild moon bear trapped behind bars for the bile industry. I’m inspired by the people I work with every day: attorneys who take huge risks for little compensation, scientists whose work underpins our advocacy, volunteers who interact with the public and also help behind the scenes, and the photographers who donate eye-catching images for our outreach materials.

In “The Summer Day,” the poet Mary Oliver asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.” I have an answer for myself: I want to help other wild and precious lives. I want to be the voice that speaks up for animals at legislative hearings and inside courtrooms, because they can’t speak for themselves in such spaces. But we can and should speak for them.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.