Drowning squirrels is cruel, an animal control officer says, so here's what she's doing

A Whatcom County animal control officer is suing to stop people from drowning squirrels that are nuisances and to bar the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from telling people they can do so on residential property.

Rebecca Crowley's lawsuit said drowning squirrels was an "indisputably cruel method."

Bellingham attorney Adam Karp, who specializes in animal law, filed the lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court.

"Keep in mind that lethal force is not just automatically allowed but requires proof of qualifying nuisance behavior under the WAC (state law)," Karp said in an interview. "Really, drowning should never be considered."

The lawsuit was filed against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The department does not comment on pending lawsuits, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Craig Bartlett said.

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.

She lives in unincorporated Whatcom County and has herself had to ward off squirrels on her property using non-lethal means, according to her lawsuit.

Crowley, who acquired a certificate to euthanize animals in 2011, noted in the lawsuit that she was a vegetarian and could not "abide the infliction of undue harm or suffering to any being, human or nonhuman."

Douglas squirrel
Douglas squirrels are found from the forests of Northern California into British Columbia. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

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 that they can trap and drown squirrels violates American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines that state that drowning is an unacceptable way to euthanize animals, according to the lawsuit.

Crowley alleged that Wisner and Fish and Wildlife's response contradict her understanding that such actions essentially constituted animal cruelty under state, Whatcom County and Bellingham code.

The lawsuit also pointed to Fish and Wildlife's writing on the issue, which was in the agency's document on trapping wildlife.

"While drowning and freezing have long been considered a humane way to deal with problem wildlife, animal experts no longer generally accept these techniques, and they are not considered humane by the AVMA standards," the agency stated.

As someone mandated to enforce animal cruelty laws in Whatcom County, Crowley was concerned that Fish and Wildlife was undermining public policy.

Karp said the lawsuit focuses on squirrels, but it does ask that drowning any wildlife be deemed cruel and that it be banned on residential property.

Crowley also wanted the state as well as Fish and Wildlife, including trappers and wildlife control operators, to be barred from taking such actions or telling people they can drown squirrels.

The state of Washington was named in the lawsuit as well.

As for what is the preferred method of dealing with nuisance squirrels, Karp said non-lethal steps should be taken first, including using deterrents such as dogs, trimming trees and removing brush, or taking away what attracts squirrels.

"One may contact a nuisance wildlife removal service so long as the trapper uses only humane methods," he said in an interview. "Of course, if people find orphaned or injured wildlife, they should contact a reputable wildlife rehabilitation center nearest them."

Learn more: Karp has created a Facebook page about the lawsuit, called Squirrels Over Troubled Water.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea