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It’s not Strippergate or the pension scandal, but there’s a new brouhaha at City Hall. This time it’s over squirrels.

Earlier this month, the city of San Diego commissioned the extermination of a population of ground squirrels over public health concerns.

From a memo released today by the Mayor Jerry Sanders’ assistant chief operating officer, Rick Reynolds:

There is currently an infestation of ground squirrels in the Lawn Bowling area on the west side of Balboa Park. Over the past month, the park’s staff has noticed a marked increase in the population of these rodents in this area. Left unchecked, rodents can carry and spread disease. Earlier this month, a number of ground squirrels in Denver’s parks were discovered to be carrying the plague, the same disease that killed millions in 14th century Europe. From 1991-1998, plague positive ground squirrels were found in San Diego County. The animals are known to carry fleas that spread the disease.

Ground squirrels in Balboa Park have demonstrated aggressive behavior, including a reported child bite last month. When the population grows out of control, they also disproportionately damage the vegetation and tunnel excessively, a factor that leads to trip hazards in grassy areas and thereby a liability for the City.

But the plan hit a snag after animal rights activists apparently videotaped a city contractor cleaning up the carcasses of the dead squirrels.

From Reynolds’ memo:

Only 10% of the ground squirrels baited will return to the surface; the rest will not surface from the burrow. Because the infestation was so intense in Balboa Park, approximately two dozen squirrels — a much larger number than usual — found their way to the surface during some recent activity.

Following the discovery of the carcasses, City Attorney Mike Aguirre instructed the Park and Recreation Department to cease all rodent control on city parkland, questioning if the city’s killing of the squirrels was legal.

“They killed 300 ground squirrels. There’s been no documentation that I’ve seen of any attack. I don’t know if it’s legal or not,” Aguirre said.

Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman, said the city uses a practice common in the region and nation for squirrel control: placing the pesticide zinc phosphide in the squirrels’ borrows.

The Mayor’s Office has for now halted the extermination of squirrels in Balboa Park, but has decided to continue its rodent control elsewhere. If it ceased rodent control altogether, “Within a matter of weeks, Mission Bay would be overrun with rats,” Reynolds wrote.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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