Oh, rats: Who’s right about D.C.’s rodent law?

Mark Segraves, wtop.com

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli responded to this story. Click here to see his comments.

WASHINGTON – Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is in a war of words with District lawmakers over rats.

He is accusing D.C. officials of being soft on rodents, but District lawmakers are shooting back saying rats are not protected under a 2010 wildlife law.

The feud has filtered over into the private sector. D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who introduced the legislation, has received threatening emails from constituents furious over the city’s perceived sympathy for rats.

Click here to read all the emails. Editors note: The emails use vulgar language when referring to Cheh and one is a borderline threat.

In recent press interviews, the attorney general — who hopes to be the commonwealth’s next governor — has used a rat outbreak at the Occupy D.C. encampments to pounce on a D.C. law he says protects rats and encourages wildlife control operators to relocate them and other wild animals to Virginia.

D.C. officials have disputed Cuccinelli’s assertions. So WTOP has taken each of Cuccinelli’s comments and fact-checked them with various sources.

The below quotes in bold and italics come from a recent interview Cuccinelli gave to CNS News. The attorney general declined to be interviewed by WTOP for this story.

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “D.C. has a new law as of last year.”

TRUE: The Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 took effect in March of last year. It is one of the most stringent wildlife laws in the nation.

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “…that doesn’t allow them to kill the dang rats.”

FALSE: The law specifically exempts from protection “commensal rodents” such as rats and mice, and the law does allow for the killing of any wild animal if trapping is not an option.

The law specifically allows for euthanasia of any wild animal “if relocation or rehabilitation are not feasible.”

A spokesperson for Cuccinelli told reporters that the rice rat and the deer mouse are not protected, because they don’t fall under the definition of “commensal rodent.”

The legislation does not define “commensal rodents,” but they are commonly defined as types of mice and rats. For example: “Living with or in close association to humans. Although many species of rodents occasionally may be found around humans, the term ‘commensal rodents’ refers specifically to mice and rats.”

That’s clear enough for the agency in charge of enforcing the law. Christophe Tulou, director of the District’s Department of the Environment, says as far as he’s concerned, a rat is a rat.

“We don’t check IDs,” he says.

But Dixon Herman, vice president of the National Wildlife Control Operators Association, says this is one of the problems with the new law.

“It’s too subjective,” Herman tells WTOP. He says some states do define “commensal rodents,” and they exclude the rice rat.

John Hadidian — a senior scientist of wildlife at the U.S. Humane Society and former biologist for the National Park Service — says rice rats aren’t an issue here.

“I’ve never heard of them in this area in my 30 years working here,” he says. “I’ve never ever heard of any complaints of rice rats.”

But again, since the regulatory agency isn’t distinguishing between types of rats, and because the law allows for the killing of all wildlife, the attorney general was wrong.

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “They have to capture them.”

FALSE: The law does call for humane capture as the preferred method of removal, but not as the only mandated option: “Provider shall recommend and employ nonlethal means in preference to lethal means for the control of wildlife problems.”

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “…and capture them in families. You go figure out how you can do that with rats.”

FALSE: Again rats are exempt, but as for other wildlife, the law encourages efforts to maintain families when possible. The law states:“A wildlife control services provider shall make every reasonable effort to preserve family units using humane eviction or displacement and reunion strategies and shall not knowingly abandon dependent young wildlife in a structure.”

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “And then you gotta relocate them … If you don’t relocate them about 25 miles away, according to experts, rodents will find their way back. Well, an easy way to solve that problem is to cross a river, and what’s on the other side of the river? Virginia.”

TRUE and FALSE: While the law does call for relocating wildlife, rats again are exempt. And for most of his comments, the attorney general was referring to rats.

As for relocating other wild animals to Virginia, that’s already against the law, unless the state issues a permit.

So does that means wild animals aren’t being relocated into Virginia?

“I wouldn’t say that,” says Anne Lewis, president of City Wildlife in the District. “Some individuals may transport wild birds or other animals to wildlife centers out-of-state.”

Lewis is currently working with the District, Maryland and Virginia to allow for the relocation of some wild animals across those state lines.

“We are trying to get a memorandum of understanding with Maryland and Virginia to allow licensed wildlife rehabilitators to transport certain species for the purpose of rehabilitation and release,” she says. “Currently you need a permit.”

As for the attorney general’s statement that animals must be “relocated 25 miles away,” Hadidian cries foul.

“He’s pulling that number out of thin air,” Hadidian says. “With all due respect to the attorney general, it’s clear he hasn’t read the law.”

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “You are now only allowed to trap them live. No more glue traps, no more crushing traps, no more, you know, snap traps — nothing like that. Remember these are mice, rats, raccoons, vermin.”

TRUE: The law banned those types of devices: “(l) A wildlife control services provider shall not use sticky or glue traps to control any wildlife. (m) a wildlife control services provider shall not use leghold and other body-gripping traps, body-crushing traps, snares, or harpoon-type traps to control any wildlife.”

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “Your options are to release them on sight … or to relocate them … to transfer them to a wildlife rehabilitator — I kid you not, a wildlife rehabilitator.”

MOSTLY TRUE: The attorney general left out the last option of euthanasia until …

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “Last and least, you can kill them but only with things like a relatively high-tech gas chamber or other non-portable methods that are just outrageously expensive.”

FALSE: The law specifies the means by which wild animals can be euthanized: “A wildlife control services provider shall kill wildlife only by methods that conform to the most recently published report of the American Veterinary Medical Association panel on euthanasia.”

The most recent AVMA report allows for multiple means of killing wild animals if using chemicals is not feasible: “In these cases, the only practical means of animal collection may be gunshot and kill trapping.”

Herman, who lobbied against the District’s law and advised Cuccinelli on this issue, says that’s one of the problems with the law — it contradicts itself and other D.C. statutes.

While the AVMA may allow for using a gun, D.C. law prohibits firing a gun in the city. As for the kill traps, those are banned by this legislation.

As for the cost, Tulou says it’s not an issue.

“There are a number of opportunities and techniques that are not that high-tech if euthanasia is involved,” he says.

Attorney General Cuccinelli: “Your pest control in D.C. that used to cost maybe $250…well it’s now gonna cost you about $2,500.”

DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ASK: Herman says the new law has kept him from doing business in the District.

“I could not imagine trying to do business in the District under these regulations,” he says.

But Hadidian, who supports the new law, says it shouldn’t impact costs.

“The Humane Society runs a wildlife control business, the Humane Wildlife Service, and our prices are very competitive,” he says.

However, Hadidian’s comment brings up another problem for Herman.

“The Humane Society runs a for-profit business and they’ve had the city council make a law based on their business model,” Herman says.

During the interview, Cuccinelli seemed to mock the idea of “wildlife rehabilitators.” When asked by the interviewer what one was, Cuccinelli laughed and quipped, “That’s a darn good question.”

In fact, Virginia licenses wildlife rehabilitators and those licenses are recognized by the District’s new law. Virginia is also home to one of the nation’s premier wildlife rehabilitation centers in Waynesboro — The Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Follow Mark Segraves and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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