By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
D.C. residents might want to think twice before they use a broom to try to swat that bat in their garage or set out rat traps to ensnare the opossum living under their porch.
After being at the complete mercy of man since before Colonial days, wild animals that roam city neighborhoods could soon have their own bill of rights.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced a bill Tuesday that would impose new standards to make sure furry creatures that live in or travel through city neighborhoods are treated humanely.
The legislation, which Cheh crafted with the help of the Humane Society of the United States, states "lethal control" of raccoons, rabbits, bats and other wild animals should be pursued "only when public safety is immediately threatened" or non-lethal methods have proven unsuccessful.
"We have raccoons that live in a tree in the immediate neighbor's yard, and they coexist with us," said Cheh, who lives in Forest Hills. "I think the first reaction should be, 'Is this really a problem?' "
Cheh's bill exempts "commensal rodents," meaning homeowners and exterminators will still be able to use traps and poison to kill rats and mice. But trappers will no longer be allowed to use glue and "body gripping" traps to catch larger animals.
"It's a form of horrible torture with no release or respite for the animals," Cheh said.
The proposal does not apply to Rock Creek Park, which is governed by federal regulations. So the city still won't be able to intervene in the ongoing debate over whether the National Park Service should allow lethal force to curb the deer population.
But those coyotes and foxes that have been spotted in Upper Northwest in recent years will be able rest a bit easier if Cheh's proposal becomes law.
As drafted, the bill applies only to wildlife specialists and professional trappers. But Cheh plans to have it amended so that it also prevents homeowners from using inhumane tactics or traps.
"If you can relocate, relocate," Cheh advised. "Euthanasia should be the last resort."
Brian Glover, owner of DMV Wildlife Services, said trappers and homeowners looking to rid their properties of raccoons or other nuisances in the District currently do not have to abide by any regulations.
"Right now, it's just a free-for-all in D.C., and people do what they want," said Glover, who supports the legislation.
John Adcock, owner of Adcock Trapping Service in College Park, said many of the regulations appear be standard procedure. But Adcock said he worries that the Humane Society might have played too big a role in drafting the regulations.
"We want the critters to have a chance, too, but we don't want homeowners to have squirrels ready to burn their house down or raccoons tearing up the attic. We will give them a few days to go peacefully, but after that, we have to do what we have to do," he said.
If Cheh's bill is approved by the full council, all private wildlife control officials would have to be licensed to operate in the city, similar to requirements in Maryland and Virginia.
Under the legislation, a wildlife agent's first goal should be to get the unwanted animal to leave an area before having to resort to trapping it. If trapping is required, the operator would be required to check the trap at least once every 24 hours to make sure trapped animals do not starve.
If an animal needs to be relocated, the trapper should release it within 12 hours. But there is a catch: Trappers should "make every reasonable effort to preserve family units."
That could require trappers to develop "reunion strategies" for a mother and her young.
"A wildlife operator shall not knowingly abandon dependent young," the bill states.
If an animal needs to be killed, a wildlife control specialist would be required to abide by standards established by the American Veterinary Association Panel on Euthanasia.
The panel has issued a 39-page report that outlines which kinds of euthanasia are acceptable for different animals. Wildlife control specialists who violate the standards would have their licenses suspended and could be prosecuted on animal cruelty charges.
Cheh's legislation goes into even greater detail when it comes to the restrictions on efforts to control some species.
If approved, it will be illegal to disturb hibernating bats for the winter. During the summer, a permit will be needed to remove a colony that contains 10 or more adult bats. It will also be illegal to poison pigeons and sparrows.