By Kie Relyea / The Bellingham Herald
A settlement has been reached in a Whatcom County animal control officer’s lawsuit that sought to stop people from drowning nuisance squirrels and to bar the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from telling people they can drown the animals on residential property.
Filed in June in Whatcom County Superior Court, Rebecca Crowley’s lawsuit said drowning squirrels is an “indisputably cruel method.”
Crowley sued the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state of Washington.
Bellingham attorney Adam Karp, who specializes in animal law, represented Crowley. He also filed a separate lawsuit in Benton County after a trapper drowned a coyote pup found in a Kennewick house.
In the settlement, Fish and Wildlife agreed to make it clear on its website — specifically a section about dealing with nuisance animals — that killing such trapped wildlife must be done humanely and under American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines.
“Under the AVMA guidelines, drowning, live burial, and freezing live animals are considered inhumane and unacceptable,” the statement reads, in part. “Therefore, WDFW does not recommend, encourage, or condone drowning as a method of euthanasia of live-captured nuisance wildlife.”
The statement also will advise people to call an agency-certified wildlife control operator if they need help. The agency also will relay the statement to staff and enforcement officers.
“Is it exactly what was desired? No, for it did not result in a finding from a court declaring the practice per se cruel and illegal,” Karp said in an interview.
“However, WDFW has taken the public position that they do not endorse, encourage or in any way support drowning of terrestrial wildlife and should not be telling the public otherwise or taking enforcement positions contrary to this settlement, which I consider a very positive step,” he added.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman acknowledged the settlement but declined to comment.
The state agency already notes in its document on trapping wildlife that drowning and freezing problem wildlife isn’t considered to be humane, but Karp said the settlement makes that message clearer to the public and the agency’s employees, who are being notified.
Crowley is employed as an animal control officer for the Whatcom Humane Society but filed the lawsuit as an individual and not on behalf of the Humane Society.
The lawsuit referred to an alleged June email exchange between Crowley and John Wisner, a Fish and Wildlife employee responsible for hunter and trapper education, who reportedly told her she could trap and drown nuisance squirrels on her property as long as she did so “out of sight of anyone this may offend.”
The lawsuit also alleged another instance in which a woman in Fairhaven said the agency told her she could drown non-native squirrels in her yard.
Telling people they can trap and drown squirrels violates American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines that state that drowning is an unacceptable way to euthanize animals, the suit stated.
Crowley alleged that Wisner and Fish and Wildlife’s response contradicted her understanding that such actions essentially constitute animal cruelty under state, Whatcom County and Bellingham code.