Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Arlington bald eagle MK gets medical care before dying Feb. 27. (Photo: New England Wildlife Center)

Ruby the red-tailed hawk of Fresh Pond Mall fame was found dead in April 2014 on the ground underneath her nest. For four years leading up to her premature demise, Ruby and her pair-bonded mate Buzz enchanted wildlife lovers, who got a bird’s eye view of their relationship thanks to a live cam set up to record them 24/7.

A necropsy revealed Ruby had succumbed to an extremely lethal class of rat poisons known as second generation anticoagulant rodenticides. SGARs include brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum and difethialone. These chemicals work by preventing the blood from clotting in any animal – or human – that ingests it. Likewise, any animal that eats a rodent that has eaten these poisoned baits, such as owls, hawks, eagles, foxes, and even cats and dogs, can also become sick and die of hemorrhaging.

A year after Ruby died. SGARs were banned federally from over-the-counter sales due to their role in poisoning thousands of low-income children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to still allow licensed pest control companies to distribute these poisons in tamper-resistant bait stations.

While the policy changes reduced (but far from eliminated) child poisonings related to SGARs, it has done nothing to rein in its contribution to wildlife and pet deaths. As these black boxes have spread to the point of ubiquity, they have seemingly set off an epidemic of wildlife deaths. These poisons threaten to eradicate sensitive species from the area.

Residents of the bordering town of Arlington rejoiced in 2021 as it became home to the first pair of breeding bald eagles to nest in its borders since the pesticide DDT wiped the species out of the state and most of the country some 60 years ago. Shortly after they established their nest, the eagles – known as KZ and MK – hatched the first tiny eaglets to be born here in more than half a century. Bald eagles were still endangered in the state until 2012 and are still listed as a species of special concern, only very recently demoted from threatened status in 2020.

Celebration of our new neighbors was short-lived. Only a few months after her hatching, one of the eaglets was found collapsed on the ground and died shortly after being admitted to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. As with another bald eagle in Waltham a few months earlier found dead atop her unhatched eggs, this eaglet tested positive for lethal levels of SGARs. Not long after that, residents observed in helpless horror as several of the great horned owls nesting a town park – a mother and her two owlets – died of SGARs poisoning as well.

According to the New England Wildlife Center, the wildlife veterinary hospital and rehabilitation clinic that treated MK when she was dying, it gets between 100 and 200 wild animals annually exhibiting signs of rodenticide poisoning. A bulk of these cases tend to come from the Cambridge-Somerville-Arlington area.

Arlington finally took action in 2022, passing a ban of SGARs on its public lands and submitting a home rule petition to the state to ask for permission to ban SGARs on private property as well. (Current state law prevents municipalities from regulating pesticide use on private property without special permission.) The home rule petition is pending in the state Legislature.

But wildlife don’t adhere to municipal borders. Our eagle matriarch MK spent the rest of the year she didn’t have chicks traveling to other towns and cities, visiting their watersheds and feasting on their rodents. One of her frequent haunts included Fresh Pond in Cambridge, where she was spotted several times in the weeks leading up to her death.

When MK died in late February 2023 of SGARs poisoning, hundreds of mourners from the Boston area gathered on the common in Arlington, holding candles and weeping with bowed heads. We marched from the green to the Town Hall steps where we demanded our elected leaders do anything they could to restrict the use of these poisons in their respective municipalities and on the state level.

Cambridge uses SGARs on many of its public properties, including its public schools. As of 2021, the Cambridge Housing Authority had 358 bait stations containing SGARs spread throughout its 22 properties, according to the findings of a public records request. (Again, low-income children – particularly Black and brown children – are most at risk of SGARs poisoning).

Every time I visit the Fresh Pond Mall, I am struck by the many bait stations containing SGARs surround the properties, including the building where Ruby and Buzz once nested. This is especially concerning considering there is no data that exists to support that these poisons reduce rodent populations in the long term. In fact, what data does exist shows rodent sightings have only increased with the exponential rise in use of these poisons. Rodenticides also kill off our best hope of keeping rodents in check – their natural predators. A single hawk or owl can kill 1,500 rats and up to 4,000 mice a year. Kill that hawk or owl off with poison and we allow the rodents they would have eaten a chance to live and breed.

I implore Cambridge to follow in the footsteps of Arlington (and now Newton) and officially ban the use of SGARs on all of its public properties. Additionally, I hope Cambridge officials will consider joining Arlington and Newton in requesting that the Legislature grant it the right to restrict the use of SGARs on private property by submitting its own home rule petition.

We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes we did with DDT. If we wait too long to act, it will be too late and we will lose the species we once fought so hard to save. Only when more municipalities join us will the state be compelled to act and bring their policies in line with what science and ethics would deem necessary for the protection of our wildlife, our companion animals and our children.


Laura Kiesel is an environmental writer and the founder of Save Arlington Wildlife, which advocates for humane alternatives to rat poison. Her bylines have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Politico, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Street, Salon and more.