Friday, March 7, 2014

Strong Poison

Please don't poison us! These great horned owl chicks were rescued by the California Wildlife Center and had a second chance at life, but all kinds of wildlife in the Santa Monica Mountains—including owls like these, are increasingly the victims of secondary poisoning from the use of anti-coagulent rodenticides—rat poison. © 2014 S. Guldimann

O, I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
I fear your are poisoned, my handsome young man.
O, yes, I am poisoned, mother, make my bed soon,
For I'm sick at the heart, and I fain would lie down.

—Lord Randall, English traditional ballad


If the wild animals of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains could sing ballads, "Lord Randall," a classic tale of death by poison, might be their rallying anthem, but since they can't human activists are rallying to be their voice and work for change.

Anticoagulant rat poison kills more than rodents in the Santa Monica Mountains. Among the documented victims of inadvertent poisoning are mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, owls, weasels, opossums, hawks, snakes, as well as native non-pest rodent species and domestic cats and dogs, but there’s a growing move to stop the carnage and replace unsustainable poison use with wildlife friendly alternatives.

Many species impacted by rodenticide die as a result of direct poisoning, but according to National Park Service research, rat poison is a slow and painful death sentence for some species, including bob cats and coyotes.

"I can't say it strongly enough, never, ever use poison to control wildlife. Secondary rodenticide toxicity, and sarcoptic mange [caused by poisoning] is a huge problem right now,” California Wildlife Center Executive Director Cindy Reyes said, at 2010 presentation that I reported on for the Malibu Surfside News. “We are seeing huge levels of toxins in the system. Owls, hawks, bobcats, all come in with poison symptoms. Rat poison is not a good option." 


Here's a Malibu coyote infected with mange. I photographed her on Cross Creek Road in the Serra Retreat last week. She was still on her feet, but seemed weak and dazed. The California Wildlife Center said they can't help in a case like this unless the animal is brought to them. They recommended that I call animal control. However, animal control will only respond to a downed coyote, and their response is usually euthanasia, although in some cases they will work with animal rescue organizations.  © 2014 S. Guldimann
Here's a healthy male coyote with a beautiful bushy tail for comparison. We're lucky that the poison and mange epidemic doesn't seem to have spread to the west end of Malibu, not yet. © 2014 S. Guldimann

Since then, the tide has begun to change. In Malibu, a campaign started by members of the Agricultural Society called Poison-Free Malibu/Santa Monica Mountains, with support from across the community, led to the city passing an anti-pesticide resolution (only the State of California can pass a ban). Predictably, the only ones protesting were the pest control industry. 

A local organization called the Earth Friendly Management Team has added its voice to the fight and is working with neighboring communities to raise rodenticide awareness and change rodenticide and herbicide use policies.

There are still hold-outs in Malibu. Residential pest control companies are doing a brisk business in residential areas. Most of Malibu’s commercial shopping centers continue to use rodenticide bait. One of the worst offenders is Malibu High School, which has repeatedly carpeted the upper playing fields with rodenticides to kill the local ground squirrel and gopher population. But thanks to the Poison Free volunteers, the most dangerous rodenticides are off the shelves in all Malibu shops.

In rural Malibu, the most often encountered rat is our old friend the dusky footed wood rat that I wrote about in November here on the Malibu Post. Wood rats are native wildlife, they are not remotely frightening, and unlikely to carry any kind of disease that is dangerous to humans, although they are vectors for fleas.  Rattus rattus, the common wild black rat, also shows up in some Malibu neighborhoods. It's not a native and is one of the most successful and common animals on earth. I once watched one leisurely waddle across a rafter at Alice's Restaurant on the pier—it certainly added a nautical feel to the place but wasn't exactly the kind of dinner guest one usually prefers. Excluding rodents like these by closing off openings into attics, crawl spaces and outbuildings can keep human-rat confrontations to a minimum. © 2014 S. Guldimann

This, bright-eyed, sleek and shiny pocket gopher is probably rodent public enemy number one in Malibu. It has a genius for transforming gardens overnight into miniature scenes of WW I trench warfare and has a passion for everything humans like to grow. Raised beds lined with heavy-duty mesh are the best way to keep gophers out of vegetable gardens and flower beds. Encouraging owls and hawks to frequent the garden can also help. Traps are the only safe option when all other remedies fail. Coyotes and bob cats also hunt gophers, so do domestic dogs and cats. Gopher poison is probably one of the most common ways rodenticides end up poisoning other species in the Santa Monica Mountains. Its use on the burgeoning vineyards has spread rodenticide into vast swaths of the mountains that used to be pesticide free. © 2014 S. Guldimann
The recently finalized Land Use Plan for the part of Malibu that is in unincorporated Los Angeles County also takes a stand on rodenticides and herbicides.

“The use of insecticides, herbicides, anti-coagulant rodenticides or any toxic chemical substance which has the potential to significantly degrade biological resources in the Santa Monica Mountains, shall be prohibited, except where necessary to protect or enhance the habitat itself, such as for eradication of invasive plant species or habitat restoration, and where there are no feasible alternatives that would result in fewer adverse effects to the habitat value of the site," the final draft of the document states.

“Work toward a poison free Santa Monica Mountains by exploring the feasibility of eliminating the use of all rodenticides at the soonest practicable date, and identify and promote rodent control methods that do not involve the use of poisons.”

An astonishing range of wildlife is being impacted by rodenticide. Owls and hawks are the most frequent bird victims but turkey vultures—part of the local garbage crew—depend on carrion and can easily ingest rodenticide. © 2014 S. Guldimann

On September 11, 2013, the Calabasas City Council also adopted a  resolution urging businesses in Calabasas to no longer use or sell anticoagulant rodenticides, and urging all property owners to cease purchasing or using anticoagulant rodenticides on their properties in Calabasas.

Malibu pesticide and water quality activist and Earth Friendly Management Team member Wendi Werner brought this event to my attention. I'm planning to be there and hope to see some of you there, too.

Calabasas is sponsoring a pet safe, wildlife safe, rodenticide awareness community meeting on On September 11, 2013, 6-8 p.m., at the Calabasas Public Library Founders Hall located at 200 Civic Center Way, Calabasas, CA 91302. It’s free and open to the public. 

NPS biologist Seth Riley will be there to talk about the impact of rodenticides on urban carnivores. He’ll be joined my members of Poison-Free Malibu/Santa Monica Mountains and Julie Elginer, Adjunct Professor at the UCLA School of Public Health.

This is one of the white-tailed kites that winter at Malibu Bluffs Park and are regularly seen perched at the top of the dead eucalyptus trees by the side of PCH. This raptor, which came close to extinction in the 20th century, has extensive federal protections but is reportedly a frequent victim of rodenticide poisoning because, like the barn owl, it depends primarily on mice, and frequently hunts near human activity, where rodenticide use is elevated. © 2014 S. Guldimann
Malibuites who are seeking safe options to rodenticide might consider building or buying an owl box and installing raptor poles in their gardens. Owl nest boxes can help provide incentive for owls to take up residence—this is owl nesting season, so it’s a perfect time to install a box. Just be aware that owls won’t hunt too close to their home base. Prefabricated nest boxes and directions for homemade versions are available from a variety of sources online.

Raptor poles—a simple t-shaped perch on a sturdy pole are good choice for open fields and hills where there aren’t trees or vantage points for hawks to perch. 

Mechanical snap traps are the most humane choice for eliminating rodents when all other options fail. 



Malibu's increasing rare native badger preys primarily on rodents and is another potential accidental victim of rat poison. The intrusion of vineyards into the Santa Monica Mountains backcountry is put badgers at risk of secondary rodenticide poisoning. © 2014 S. Guldimann


Rodentide was an issue that concerned Anne Soble, the former owner and publisher of the Malibu Surfside News, greatly. She devoted numerous "Publisher's Notebook" entries to the subject and we covered the issue extensively. Here's a 2010 article that I wrote about secondary poisoning in bob cats,  a 2011 article on the use of rodenticides at Malibu High School, and a 2012 article on the campaign to eliminate anticoagulant rodenticide from Malibu. I hope the new Surfside News will continue to highlight this issue. It's one that is important to many in the community.



One thing I learned while covering the issue is that change has to take place throughout the community.  Animals don't recognize human boundaries. Animals in our "poison free" backyards can easily be poisoned by neighbors who are not aware of the risk. We need to all work together on this campaign and get the word out to every one.

Suzanne Guldimann
The Malibu Post
This is Pippin, the Malibu Post's official LOL Cat. He's here to remind everyone that domestic cats and dogs and human children are also the victims of rodenticide poisoning. It's a slow painful death for rats, mice,  gophers, squirrels, coyotes, bob cats, owls, hawks, snakes, badgers, raccoons, opossums, cats and dogs. The list goes on and on, but it doesn't have to. It's something we can stop, if we all work together. © 2014 S. Guldimann

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