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If You Feed Them, They Will Die

Remember the pigeon lady in Mary Poppins? If she and her bag of breadcrumbs were in San Diego today, she’d likely get a stern lecture about overpopulation and dependency—and maybe a ticket, to boot. Throughout the county, authorities are clamping down on what was once a socially accepted, and even encouraged, pastime—particularly for moms, dads or nannies and their young charges: feeding wild animals in urban parks, at beaches and in other recreational settings.

At La Jolla Cove, stern signs have gone up that warn people not to feed the ground squirrels. “If you enjoy seeing squirrels, don’t feed them,” the signs read. “An unusually large food supply causes squirrel populations to grow beyond natural limits. Overpopulation may be controlled by other methods, including poison. ... Don’t cause the painful death of these squirrels by feeding them.”

At Tamarack State Beach in Carlsbad, white-on-green signs inform visitors to the coastal city’s beachfront walkway that “feeding ground squirrels is prohibited” and constitutes a violation of city law. “We don’t want to make the population any bigger than it is,” says one maintenance worker.

And at a state wildlife sanctuary on the southern shores of Buena Vista Lagoon, once-benign “Please don’t feed the animals” signs now have teeth—toss some stale bread to the birds and if you’re caught, you’ll get a ticket. The lagoon has been closed twice due to damage caused by nonnative birds and their droppings, and state Department of Fish & Game officials vow a crackdown. “We will issue citations for feeding ducks,” says Kimberly McKee, who manages the Buena Vista Lagoon Wildlife Reserve. “[Feeding ducks] gives kids the wrong idea. We need to teach children that activity is unsafe.”

Unsafe? Sandra Slankard, an Oceanside mother and preschool teacher, thinks this is ridiculous. “Oh, man, that’s terrible,” she says. “It’s one of those things children, especially little toddlers, enjoy experiencing. Particularly for kids who grow up in the city, it’s one of the few times they get to experience nature, first-hand.”

Other parents are equally outraged at the signs in La Jolla, with their “painful death” threat. “That’s a great message to send to our children,” says one San Diego mother. “Not only are you no longer allowed to feed the squirrels, but if you do feed them, they will kill them.”

Angel Prado, grounds maintenance manager for the shoreline parks division of the city of San Diego’s Parks & Recreation Department, says ground squirrels have been a problem at La Jolla Cove for years. “They multiply in great numbers, and once people feed them they get dependent,” he says. “They undermine the cliffs, they eat the vegetation, and they carry disease.”

Eight or nine years ago, Prado says, the city “relocated” a large number of squirrels from the cove to an undisclosed location, but the next time around the city will try a different solution alluded to in the signs. “We’ll call in pest control and get rid of them,” he says.

Animal rights activists generally support the no-feeding stance.

“A wild animal will lose its skill in foraging if fed by humans,” says Stephanie L. Boyles, wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Wild animals that are used to being fed by humans commonly lose their fear of people and become easy targets for those who may harm them. And in most cases, the food people feed to wildlife

is nutritionally inadequate and can cause serious health problems.”

Bill Dollinger, Washington director of Friends of Animals, agrees—but he takes issue with the city’s intention to kill ground squirrels once the population gets too big.

“We are all for people being educated,” he says, “but if the only solution the city planners see is a lethal one, then they’re compounding the problem, not alleviating it.”

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