Send in the owls and cats. How rats in California state building panicked environmentalists

For one activist group, cats and owls were the weapons of choice. Something needed to be done to kill the rats infesting the courtyard outside the California EPA building earlier this summer.

But not mongooses. Oh no. Not those.

“Should you be considering the vicious mongoose however we would suggest you reconsider; they are unreliable,” the group known as Owls for Peace emailed CalEPA undersecretary Serena McIlwain on June 28.

By that point, McIlwain’s agency had already approved setting out a controversial form of rat poison, whose use may soon be banned at state government buildings by the California Legislature. The poisons eventually proved effective at eliminating the rats.

“No owls are needed at this time,” McIlwain later replied.

It wasn’t an easy decision for the CalEPA. The state’s top environmental watchdogs quickly discovered that regulating their own courtyard could be just as political and fraught with emotion as regulating the rest of California.

Dozens of emails, totaling 243 pages, obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a California Public Records Act request show the agency faced pressure from environmentally conscious staffers and environmental groups and animal rights activists from nearly the moment it decided to use the poisons.

In an email to staff late in the afternoon on June 13, CalEPA officials announced that in the coming days they would be setting out a type of second-generation anti-coagulant poison to kill the rats that had overrun the I Street building’s exterior courtyard, which shares a playground with a daycare center used by the children of state government workers.

Fifty-five minutes after the email went out announcing the poisoning plan, Jennifer Fearing, one of the state’s most influential animal welfare lobbyists, fired off an email to Jared Blumenfeld, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointee who oversees the California Environmental Protection Agency.

“The CalEPA Building, which is frequented by peregrine falcons, is being treated with anticoagulant rodenticides because rodents have been ‘observed’ in the EXTERIOR courtyard?! Tell me this can be stopped.” she wrote.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation, based in the CalEPA building, has already restricted the use of second-generation anticoagulants to anyone but licensed professionals, such as the ones hired by CalEPA to manage pests in and around its building.

Second-generation anticoagulants are some of the most effective poison baits pest control professionals use to manage rodent infestations, but the toxins have been found in sometimes lethal levels in the bodies of predators such as mountain lions and birds of prey that feed on poisoned rodents.

Nearly every prominent environmental group is lobbying for a pending bill that would ban their use statewide.

Some state workers in the building also were uncomfortable with the idea of setting out poisons at the workplace of the state’s environmental regulators.

“Poison is not the EPA way,” Jon Miltztrey, an information systems technician at CalRecycle, wrote in an email.

Less than a week later, CalEPA had placed a moratorium on the use of rat poisons at the building.

But highlighting how a statewide ban on rat poison might be challenging to carry out in practice, other CalEPA emails show there was another faction lobbying to poison the rats: the daycare’s operators and the families of the children who were unable to play in a playground crawling with vermin.

“My staff was preparing the toddler play yard for power washing tonight and as they started to move items that usually aren’t easily movable, we discovered rat poop, pee, and nesting materials,” Ashley Teeney of the Mindful Miracle daycare center wrote in an email that was forwarded up the CalEPA chain of command two days after the moratorium.

“My teachers spent two hours of their day sorting through items that have been saturated in rat droppings, moving every item in the play yard to scrub pee stains, and dispose of toys/mats that have been damaged by the rats. Not only did this take a great deal of time, it’s also very concerning to have my staff and children exposed to these types of conditions at work.”

Laura Drabandt, an attorney with the State Water Resources Control Board, an agency housed in the building, was one of the parents outraged the agency had banned rat poisons.

“I am furious that the building management company is not allowed to employ any manner deemed necessary to rid the grounds of the vermin that have settled into their new homes,” Drabandt wrote. “Rats beget rats, and ... this infestation is only going to worsen at our children’s expense.”

Such concerns are not idle. Los Angeles County has seen a troubling resurgence of rats and typhus, an infection spread via fleas carried by rats and other animals.

In the end, CalEPA leadership rescinded the moratorium after other efforts to control rats, such as trash removal, were insufficient, and suggestions including using owls and cats to kill the rats proved impracticable, though Owls for Peace didn’t think so.

“Although we recognize you may have found an affordable owl rental contractor and not thought to inform us,” the organization wrote in a follow-up inquiry wondering why it got no response from CalEPA to its first email. “We would rest easier in our minds if we knew with certainty that our keen eyed avian allies were swooping down soon against the rodent menace.”

The state deployed a less-potent, first-generation rat poison instead. The poisons worked, and the play area has been reopened, according to Alex Barnum, a CalEPA spokesman. “While the rodenticide was removed, we will continue implementing the other measures, including keeping the outside areas clean and free of debris and covering openings with wire mesh, to prevent a recurrence.”

Meanwhile, under Democrat Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s pending legislation, Assembly Bill 1788, the first-generation poison CalEPA used would be banned from use on state property.

The bill makes no exceptions for rats overrunning playgrounds.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.