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Pam Slater-Price made a bold move one day a few years ago while walking her dogs on the beach in Del Mar.
She noticed metal traps, most of them empty. But from inside one trap, a squirrel peered out. The former longtime county supervisor recently recalled what happened next with a hint of outlaw swagger.
“So, I opened the trap, and the squirrel left,” Slater-Price said.
A man supervising the traps stopped her. “You really shouldn’t be doing that,” she remembers him saying. She quizzed him. “Do you release these?”
California Department of Fish and Game law prohibits releasing pest animals like squirrels in a new habitat, he explained. Slater-Price pressed him further. Any squirrels trapped would be taken to the man’s office, Critter Control in Miramar, and the team would “follow California regulations.”
“We didn’t want to just flat-out say we were going to kill ‘em,” said Dean Lucier, who runs the Critter Control franchises for San Diego and Orange counties. The company takes any trapped squirrels from Del Mar’s parks and euthanizes them in a carbon dioxide chamber.
Del Mar hasn’t trapped any squirrels lately. It’s been more than a year since the city hired Critter Control to set traps for a few hours over two days. But this — trapping and euthanizing — is Del Mar’s solution when it deems its ground squirrel population to be too dense in its two seaside parks and beaches.
That might surprise some Del Mar residents, like it surprised Slater-Price, who remember a dust-up over the squirrels in the city in 2005. Then, it was a battle over poison, which the city was feeding squirrels via bait boxes.
This latest chapter in Del Mar’s history with its brown, furry residents trades one squirrel-exterminating technique for another. And unless you directly ask the trapper, you might never know that’s the policy. Slater-Price was under the impression that the squirrels would be released.
That’s even what Del Mar’s mayor, Terry Sinnott, claimed.
Sinnott wasn’t in office in 2005. But he remembers the public frenzy about the poison. It was the “standard operating procedure” to kill the squirrels at the time, he said. “And I think the community wasn’t particularly happy with that.”
He claimed the city now has a trap-and-release program. If Slater-Price’s telling of the conversation with the trapper was correct? “Well, that would be a big error,” he said.
“Trap and release is not trap and euthani … or, poison — it’s to take the squirrels into a habitat where they can be released,” he said.
But that’s actually not true.
Cities across the county worry about squirrels getting used to kids and adults who try to feed them in parks. Disease and damage can follow. Up on Mount Palomar, three squirrels were found last month to be carrying plague.
And in beachside parks like those in Del Mar, an abundance of squirrel burrows often poses a threat to the structures cities have built atop the bluffs, like buildings and railroad tracks.
Hence the attempts to control their population. But the squirrels are also cute. And their plight attracts sympathy.
This is just the latest chapter in Del Mar’s battle with the squirrels.
In the 1980s, the Los Angeles Times reported on the city’s strategy against the “varmints,” whose “bluff-burrowing habits” at the time were “honey-combing the coastal cliffs, threatening to undermine residents’ blufftop homes and the city’s oceanfront property, Seagrove Park.”
In 2005, someone anonymously sent photographs and a letter about Del Mar poison bait boxes to the Animal Protection and Rescue League. That group had recently focused public attention on the city of San Diego’s treatment of squirrels in Balboa Park. The poison was intended for the squirrels to ingest and crawl back into their burrows. They were never supposed to come out.
But in Morley Field, in Balboa Park, the squirrels were coming out of their burrows, convulsing and dying on the ground.
“These are animals that we like and respect and they inhabit our parks,” said Kath Rogers from the animal rights group. “There are a lot better ways to control their population than poison.”
The ensuing flap lured then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre into the issue, and his support for the animal rights fighters’ position earned him a Union-Tribune cartoon.
In Del Mar, the fight in 2005 led to the City Council vowing to not use the bait boxes any longer. They said they’d look for alternatives. They even talked about researching squirrel birth control, an experimental technology awaiting federal approval.
But, says Del Mar’s public works director Eric Minicilli, the city never banned population control by trapping and euthanasia. So in 2010, the city asked its landscaping contractor to hire a pest-control subcontractor. That’s where Lucier, from Critter Control, came in.
When Lucier came to survey the city’s seaside parks, he said he was amazed by the numbers of ground squirrels crawling over grass, railroad tracks and the playground.
They weren’t afraid of people, he said, and that surprised him.
As Lucier watched, people wheeled strollers to the park and let their toddlers out to play on the playground. As soon as they did, squirrels swarmed to the strollers, looking for snacks. He said he saw more than 40 squirrels in the hour he was at Seagrove Park, many interacting with people.
“People that love their animals and want to feed ‘em or whatever,” he said. “But they don’t know the consequences. It’s cute at first, until it gets out of hand.”
But the residents of Del Mar care deeply about their parkland. City staff expected Lucier to have interactions like the one with Slater-Price. They encouraged Lucier to devise an unusual plan, not just to leave traps out for hours unattended. So a Critter Control technician would be posted nearby as long as the traps were out.
In the first days of trapping in 2010, “we were catching like there was no tomorrow,” Lucier said.
But in all of 2012, the city hired them just for two days, four hours of trapping each day.
Now, the squirrel population is thin, to the point where a furry-tailed ground squirrel sighting is rare during a midday picnic or evening sunset.
After Minicilli from the city of Del Mar confirmed the city’s protocol is to trap and euthanize when the population gets unwieldy, Sinnott didn’t return requests for additional interviews. Sinnott had previously told me that if Slater-Price’s impression that the squirrels were being killed was correct, “That should be investigated and resolved.”
But Minicilli said the city doesn’t have a lot of room to negotiate. The squirrels haven’t posed a problem for more than a year, he reiterated. But when they do, the city reserves the right to control them, he said, to protect the public and city facilities.
“You know, it’s a touchy subject, but we’re just out there trying to do our best with maintaining a safe environment,” he said.
Rogers, the animal rights activist, said she hopes cities that see that need will increase their attempts to educate residents. Even Rogers admits she once fed a cookie to a squirrel — “a long time ago.” Now, she knows better. Plentiful food — symbolized by a Goldfish cracker fed to a squirrel in Del Mar’s Powerhouse Park and captured in a YouTube video — encourages the squirrels to procreate more abundantly, she said.
“If you love the squirrels, it’s actually harmful to be feeding them,” she said.