Ventura officials have launched a program to poison rats and ground squirrels that populate the city's beachfront, sparking outrage from animal activists and local residents who are calling the action cruel and inhumane.
City Council members approved the monthlong eradication effort in January -- at the same time they adopted an ordinance to ban people from feeding squirrels and seabirds along the Ventura Promenade, said city parks manager Mike Montoya. To kill the critters, he said, an exterminator has been placing poison-laced food pellets in small cages in the piles of rocks that line the beach.
City officials say the program is necessary because excessive feeding over the last two years by a handful of zealous residents has caused an unnatural spike in the number of squirrels and rats on the beach. Nearby residents and business owners, in turn, have complained of infestations.
The rodents also have hurt tourism, said Councilman Jim Monahan.
"People wrote letters to the city saying they would never come to Ventura again," he said. "That's the kind of impression that people were getting of our city, and passing it around to others."
But a handful of residents and at least one animal-rights activist say the city's claims about the rodent problem are exaggerated. They also questioned both the legality and the safety of the city's chosen eradication method, which they said is causing the animals to slowly bleed to death.
"This is too sad," said Ojai resident Harry Naughton, 72, who said he regularly fed the friendly brown squirrels for 12 years before the practice was outlawed. "It's just terrifying that people could be so filled with hate for nature."
Mary Cummins, director of Animal Advocates -- a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that rescues squirrels and other animals -- spent much of Tuesday afternoon combing the beach for squirrel carcasses, which she planned to take back to her rescue center to evaluate.
Cummins said she has been working with the city for months to bring down the rodent population and believes the poisoning program is unnecessary. She also said the action violates Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration laws because the bait is too close to the ocean and available to other animals.
"It is not legal at this site," Cummins said, carrying seven rotting squirrel carcasses in a plastic bag and bucket.
She said she would report the poisoning to various regulatory agencies and might file a lawsuit against the city.
Montoya said Cummins sent a letter to the city detailing her allegations about the illegality of the eradication effort, none of which, he added, were accurate.
He insisted that the poisoned food pellets would not harm other animals, because the dose is too small. Montoya also said no regulatory agencies had to permit the eradication project because rats and squirrels are considered "nuisance animals."
The $5,000 baiting effort will continue through March, Montoya said, and could occur again next year if people continue to illegally feed the animals.
Councilman Carl Morehouse said it's unfortunate that city officials had to resort to an eradication project, but said they had no choice given the situation.
"I think [the animal activists] are well-intentioned," he said. "But I think they are a bit confused in their approach."