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The Region

With the Cats Away, Beachfront Rodents Have a Field Day

Ventura: A rise in the rat and squirrel populations raises health concerns. The city considers a ban on feeding the animals.

September 09, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County officials may have rid the downtown beachfront of feral cats a few years back, but the rodent population has boomed since the predators were removed.

The Ventura Promenade has become so overpopulated with rats and ground squirrels in the last year that city officials fear the spread of disease. The rats tested negative for plague earlier this summer, but there is still concern that they could pose a health hazard to the hundreds of people who visit the popular section of beach near California Street.

Litter along the promenade contributes to the problem, but officials say a bigger factor in the infestation is people who consider the rodents "pets" that need to be fed--people like 62-year-old Helene Tagoni of Ventura, who continues to provide food despite official requests that she cease.

City officials say the only option might be to legally prohibit people from feeding wild animals within city limits. Councilman Neal Andrews has proposed such an ordinance, and the City Council is scheduled to discuss the matter at its meeting tonight.

Such a ban would be devastating to Tagoni, a self-styled beach crusader who leads about 15 volunteers in washing handrails, cleaning restrooms and caring for the animals along the promenade.

She has become a fixture along the beach, spending up to two hours each afternoon feeding sea gulls, pigeons, ground squirrels, and, inadvertently, rats. Tagoni estimates she spends at least $100 weekly on dog chow and carrots.

Tagoni said her goal is to make the promenade a safe, revitalized area to be enjoyed by residents and tourists.

"All I wanted was to make it a better place for the animals and a better place for the public," she said. "We're not looking to cause trouble. If we thought we were hurting something, we wouldn't have gotten involved."

Tagoni knows some city officials and residents resent what she's doing, but she fears the ground squirrels and sea birds would waste away if someone didn't help feed them.

"When we started, the squirrels were just horrible-looking," she said. "Even if I didn't feed them, they'd be here every day; then they'll just have sick, diseased animals."

But Ventura Parks Manager Mike Montoya says feeding the squirrels creates an unnatural environment that artificially increases the rodent population. An occasional tourist feeding the birds isn't likely to have a detrimental effect, but those who regularly feed wild animals are doing more harm than good, he said.

Such people wrongly believe that "they're doing a good thing," he said. "They're really well-meaning people, but they're only contributing to the problem."

Tagoni believes the city is using the rats as an excuse to thin the squirrel population. "They've always had rats on the beach," she said. "You can kill all the squirrels you want, but you're not going to get rid of the rats."

City parks officials have discussed ways to reduce the vermin, but many common removal methods are not feasible because of the financial or environmental costs. Trapping rodents is expensive and difficult, and using poison could also kill secondary predators, such as certain types of birds, Montoya said.

Kathy Jenks, director of Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation, said rats and ground squirrels along the beach are destructive and carry fleas, and their droppings may pose a health hazard. She said the best way to control the population would be to let the food supply taper off.

In early August, the city sponsored a session bringing together people for and against feeding the animals. Both sides acknowledge the meeting didn't accomplish much, except to make the debate more heated. Now, city officials say it will take an ordinance to deter people from feeding the wildlife.

Tagoni has suggested her own solution: using a bulldozer to move a pile of large boulders from the Ventura Pier farther up the beach to create a wildlife sanctuary. The rodents would likely migrate there, leaving a wider section of beach next to the pier for swimmers and beach-goers, she said.

Until there's a law preventing her, Tagoni intends to continue her daily routine of feeding the myriad pigeons, sea gulls and ground squirrels that flock to her. She said she'll consider moving away if the city bans the feeding of wildlife.

"I had planned on buying a building and spending my life here," she says. "I don't know what else to do. There must be a solution."

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