Poisoning the Solution: Lisa Owens-Viani and the Campaign to Save Raptors From the Ravages of Rodenticides

Lisa Owens-Viani.

It was a mystery. Why were so many birds dying in Berkeley? And not just any birds, but some of the rarest birds in the urban landscape, the birds at the top of the food chain: raptors.  In 2007, Lisa Owens-Viani was approached by a neighbor carrying a black garbage bag. Inside were the bodies of two young Cooper’s Hawks. The neighbor told Lisa that they’d found the birds that morning in a plastic wading pool. The neighbor asked Owens-Viani if she could identify the birds. Not only could Lisa identify them, she thought she might even know them. They were likely to be a pair of Cooper’s hawks that had been recently fledged from a nest she’d been monitoring as part of her volunteer survey work for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.

Why had raptors been in a children’s swimming pool? And why had they died? Lisa had an idea, but she needed confirmation. She had the bodies sent to an animal testing lab at UC Davis, where necropsies confirmed her suspicions. The birds had been poisoned. Not by some raptor-hating neighbor, but by rodenticides that had built up inside the hawks’ food source: rats. The poison had likely dehydrated the young hawks, attracting them to the small pool. Lisa began investigating. She put up flyers  across her neighborhood and soon found more reports of dead raptors in Berkeley, including one Cooper’s hawk that had bled out on a sidewalk in front of a child. A necropsy later confirmed that its body had a high level of the poison brodifacoum.

Raptors were becoming collateral damage in the pesticide industry’s never-ending war against rodents. Never-ending may be the key phrase here. Because the rodent population has remained stable for decades despite the saturation of American streets and buildings with “second generation rodenticides.” Any loss of an apex predator like a ­Great Horned Owl, fox or Mountain Lion, is a blow to their small numbers and a benefit to their prey species, including rats. Rodenticides are indiscriminate killers, and can kill pets like your dog or cat, wild predators and scavengers, as well as the rodents you fear. As Lisa told me: “toxic rodent control methods are eliminating the very species that provide natural pest control.”

Red-tailed hawk in Portland neighborhood. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Lisa’s challenge was extreme: how to get people to overcome their innate loathing for one animal population to save another in a habitat that defies every ingrained concept of what is “natural.”  It was not only anti-rat prejudice and fear she had to overcome, but also a multi-national industry with deep pockets and long-standing political connections.

So in 2011, she set up her own environmental organization. The name of her group is elegant for its simplicity and straight-forwardness: Raptors Are the Solution (RATS). According to Lisa, there’s been some resistance, largely because of people’s deep-rooted phobia toward rats, the same phobia that is exploited as part of the sales pitch from the poison marketers. One of the first tasks for RATS was to educate the public about a hidden environmental crisis that most of them didn’t even realize had become a problem.  “We needed to inform the public on the dangers of rat and rodent poisons in the food web and the dangers these toxins pose not only to wildlife but to their own pets and children,” Lisa said.

Owens-Viani came up with creative advertising campaigns using slogans like “Don’t Poison My Dinner” and “Rat Poisons Kill More than Rats,” with photos of owls and hawks on billboards and busses.

Educating the public was one thing, confronting the pesticide industry was another. As far back as 2008, the EPA had determined that second-generation pesticides were a threat to wildlife species. And not just raptors. Mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and even deep-forest species like fishers were vulnerable. Indeed, one study showed that necropsies on a spectrum of wildlife species revealed 75% of them testing positive for rodenticides. EPA proposed a rule strictly limiting the use of these poisons, but the livestock and poultry industries objected and used their lobbying might to impede the rule’s implementation.

But Lisa used the EPA findings to pressure cities to begin taking action on their own. San Francisco was the first municipality to urge local businesses to remove second generation pesticides from their shelves. Then RATS led similar campaigns in the East Bay, convincing the cities of Richmond, Albany and Berkeley to pass similar resolutions. Eventually dozens of cities across California followed suit. As a kind of reward, RATS came up with its Owl Wise Leader award to highlight businesses, schools and government institutions that had voluntarily stopped using rat poisons.

Still, Owens-Viani knew that voluntary compliance would only get her so far, and that more decisive and comprehensive action was needed. In this respect, RATS played a crucial role in the campaign that compelled the state of California to remove all second-generation rodenticides from most consumer shelves in 2014 and the EPA to follow suit in 2015. But huge loopholes remained and the pesticide industry was deft at exploiting them. In an effort to close these lethal exceptions, RATS sued the state of California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation demanding that the agency evaluate the consequences of using both first and second-generation rat poisons on non-target species. Before the court could rule, the DPR agreed to conduct a new review of the second-generation poisons.

As the review dragged on, Owens-Viani and her colleagues pressed the state legislature to take action, knowing they had an ally in the governor’s mansion with Gavin Newsom. The governor had become distressed by the reports of dead mountains lions in southern California, whose bodies had tested positive for rat poison. The campaign culminated in 2020 when the state legislature passed AB 1788, a bill puts a moratorium on the sale and use of SGARs until DPR finishes its reevaluation. The enactment of this landmark bill is one of the most consequential victories for wildlife in California, and one of the most consequential blows to the poison industry in decades.

Lisa is a realist. She knows the power of the industry she is fighting and that more pressure needs to be applied to secure and expand this hard-won victory. “This isn’t the end,” Lisa told me, “but hopefully the beginning of the end of the rat poison industry.”

Lisa Owens-Viani embodies the creativity and boldness in defense of the earth that the Fund for Wild Nature seeks. The Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to help fund the boldest grassroots efforts working to protect wildlife and wild places, knowing how difficult it can be for these groups to get assistance from large foundations, and also recognizing how even a small amount of money can lead to big results. Unlike most other foundations, the Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots biodiversity protection groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. We are honored to have Lisa Owens-Viani as the recipient of its award for 2021.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3