Berkeley adds bite to squirrel feeding ban

City of Berkeley officials today began enforcing a new ordinance that prohibits the feeding of wildlife in city parks and other public spaces.

People caught feeding wildlife will face $100 fines after an initial warning period and fines of up to $500 for multiple infractions within a one-year period.

The ordinance applies to the feeding of all wildlife but was drawn up by city officials in response to widespread objections to a plan earlier this year to kill ground squirrels who were believed to be harming water quality by burrowing into the ground at Cesar Chavez Park, a former landfill near the Berkeley Marina.

Berkeley officials said the burrowing by the large number of ground squirrels and gophers at the park was endangering the clay cap that seals the toxic substances inside the former dump.

Because the toxic substances could potentially leak into San Francisco Bay, the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Board told the city it needed to find a solution.

In response, Berkeley officials came up with a plan in February to kill the squirrels, but withdrew the plan after thousands of animal lovers sent emails objecting to the plan.

On July 1, the City Council approved an alternative solution that creates an ordinance criminalizing the feeding of wildlife in Berkeley’s parks.

Animal rights advocates said in a statement that ground squirrels and gophers can be harmed by food handouts and feeding wildlife endangers animals by causing malnutrition, overpopulation, the spread of disease and the loss of fear of humans.

Another concern is that ground squirrels at Cesar Chavez Park have a symbiotic relationship with burrowing owls, which are classified as an at-risk species of concern, because the owls depend on the squirrels for their burrows to find shelter when they arrive at the park each winter.

The enforcement of the ordinance is being combined with new “no feeding” signs and brochures at the park. Animal rights groups said the fines and the improved signs are the result of a successful collaboration between the city, WildCare, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and In Defense of Animals.

The three organizations said they applaud the city for moving away from its plan to kill the squirrels and switch to what they described as:

“… a compassionate and effective means of returning squirrel populations to naturally lower levels.”

They said the city’s approach can serve as a national model for other parks that are faced with similar challenges where human feeding of wildlife has created an imbalance in wildlife populations.