Barron Park residents walking their dogs at Gunn High School on July 11 spotted the traps in the baseball field. Dozens of residents contacted the school, Palo Alto Unified and the city's Animal Control Division to complain.
One of those residents was Jenny Kiratli, who was walking her dog that Sunday evening at about 6:30 p.m. when she noticed several dogs were standing along the fence surrounding the ballfield. When her dog pulled her to the fence, Kiratli said she saw the partially covered trap in the field. With the gate to the field locked, she spoke with another dog walker who saw movement inside the trap and said the animal had been there for at least a couple of days.
"This is not OK," Kiratli said. "There are ground squirrels everywhere. Trapping a handful seems futile."
Macartney said that animal control officers are investigating the situation. The division filed a report with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which issues trapping permits. A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said the department doesn't comment on ongoing investigations.
Animal-trapping contractors under California law are supposed to check the traps, which are wire cages that don't snare the animal's leg, at least every 24 hours, Macartney said.
For-profit businesses must be permitted by the state and are regulated as to how they can trap and euthanize the animals. State law also requires trapped animals to be killed by shooting or lethal injection. In many jurisdictions, discharging a firearm is illegal, so shooting is not an option, he added.
"The law requires the trapper to immediately release the animal or euthanize it on site," he said.
Macartney said he hasn't ruled out citing the contractor. The recent incident is the third time animal control officers have been called out to Gunn to investigate in the last two years, he said. Animal Control has been in talks with the school district to get it to comply with the law, he added.
Carolyn Chow, Palo Alto Unified's chief business officer, said the district has terminated its arrangement with Advanced IPM, which has an office in San Jose.
"Clearly, there was a misstep there," she said.
The district had contacted Advanced IPM to understand what checks and balances the company has in place and how they monitor the traps.
Chow said the ground squirrels dig in the playing fields, and several students and coaches have broken or sprained ankles after falling into the holes. The district hired the contractor to trap the animals at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools for five days each month. The traps are supposed to be checked daily, she said.
The district has been inundated with calls from residents since July 12, the day after the animals were discovered, she added.
In a July 16 email to the Weekly, Advanced IPM provided a statement that didn't explain what happened at Gunn.
"We strive to serve our community with excellence by following local, county and state guidelines and regulations, and we care deeply about our environment and ecosystem. In fact, we met with a local Palo Alto animal control officer to get their advice and counsel on the best approach to this issue. We take great pride in helping to protect students, staff and the community that enjoys the Gunn campus," the company said in the statement.
"The natural habit of this pest species is to dig extensive burrow systems that damage fields and landscape areas. Left unchecked, these burrows can be so extensive that they undermine the structural integrity of foundations and buildings," the company stated.
In large numbers, the rodents can also be vectors for some flea-borne diseases.
Advanced IPM is accepting comments by email at [email protected]
Macartney said the ground squirrels were nowhere near any buildings and that it would take many animals at least a year to damage any buildings in the way the company has stated. While it is possible to transfer diseases to humans from their fleas, that's also the case with any kind of animal that has fleas and there would likely need to be many animals in a given area. That isn't the case at Gunn.
Palo Alto Animal Control prefers using deterrents, such as adding plants that have a smell that the animals don't like, instead of trapping and euthanization, he said. The squirrels live near a creek and the surrounding rural area is their home. The high school will never get rid of all of them.
"Trapping animals is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Trapping just creates a void. There are better alternatives," he said, noting that the district and the public can contact the Santa Clara County Vector Control District for assistance.
Chow said she doesn't know what other methods might be used as deterrents. There's a balance between safety on the fields and the ground squirrels, but whatever methods are being used, she said they should not involve leaving the animals to suffer needlessly without food, water and in the heat.
"We're trying to manage being humane and keeping the students and coaches safe," she said.