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Eagle’s death in Massachusetts renews interest in rodenticide bill

Arlington-area lawmakers and residents gather as part of a vigil for MK the bald eagle in a photo posted by the Charles River Watershed Association last Thursday night.
Twitter @charlesriver
State House News Service
Arlington-area lawmakers and residents gather as part of a vigil for MK the bald eagle in a photo posted by the Charles River Watershed Association last Thursday night.

The death last week of a bald eagle from Arlington, Massachusetts, believed to have been sickened by rat poison, has reinvigorated the conversation around a bill looking to crack down on rodenticide use in Massachusetts.

The death brought a Girl Scout from Billerica's Troop 82394 up to the State House on Monday to meet with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Hawkins, D- Attleboro.

Ava Toomey started advocating for Hawkins' bill last year, initially inspired by the story of Hawkins the fox — named after Hawkins the lawmaker — who was treated at Newhouse Wildlife Rescue in Chelmsford.

"He had gotten poisoned by rodenticides, and when I found that out, I was like, 'This is not good.' And I really wanted to help stop it," Toomey said after touring the House Chamber with Hawkins and Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington.

The 11-year-old scout has been on the road lately. She was in Arlington, and first met Garballey, last week at a vigil to remember MK the eagle, who died Wednesday at Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable after being transported there a couple days earlier.

"There were a lot of people there," Toomey recalled, " ... to tell about MK a little bit and kind of say why it's bad to have rodenticides there, because it's killing the eagles and a lot of other animals, and that it's really bad to use it."

Garballey said the vigil was "powerful" with nearly 300 people present, and featured a "call to action" to focus on a legislative crackdown on the use of rodent-killing poisons.

The Hawkins bill made it nearly to the finish line last session. The Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee all took turns redrafting the language before both branches agreed on a text on Jan. 3, the final day of the last General Court.

Engrossed in both chambers, all that was missing was a pair of enactment votes, which never came, and that left Toomey feeling "a little bit disappointed." But, a legislative realist at age 11, she "knew we could, like, do it again" in the new session.

The refiled bill (HD 577), Hawkins said, would make data available that "would be the basis for a ban" like one that Arlington is pursuing through a home rule petition.

Currently, the pest control professionals who administer rodenticides submit paper reports to the state about how and where the poison is used, Hawkins said, but "it's in cartons in a back room somewhere."

The bill would require electronic reports through an already-existing portal that could be made publicly available and searchable -- "so we could come up with real data."

That would add to information from professionals like Dr. Maureen Murray at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, he said, that prove a link between second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) and the deaths of birds of prey in the Bay State.

Just outside the city, Arlington borders populous communities like Somerville, Medford, and Cambridge. Not the type of place one might expect to see a bald eagle, Garballey said, which made MK's death all the more upsetting to residents.

"When MK was living here, she was living in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the region around the Mystic River and Mystic Lakes. So people would photograph her, they would watch her, they really loved having her as part of this community. So when she passed away -- when she was poisoned -- it didn't have to happen. Which is the infuriating part among the residents of Arlington, is that this could have been avoided, and should have been avoided," the Arlington Democrat said.

Toomey reported that while the vigil for MK was "kind of sad," it "was also to celebrate MK and remember her for how she was a beautiful bird."

Ava Toomey (second from left) and fellow scouts from Troop 82394 call for a crackdown on rodenticide use in an advocacy video posted online last December. [Screenshot]

Nearby, Rep. Steve Owens, D- Watertown, sees a lot of urban wildlife habitats in his area, like Fresh Pond, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the Charles River -- and with those habitats come a lot of nesting birds of prey. But recent development and roadwork has led to a flood of poison bait boxes.

As the Hawkins bill was emerging at the tail-end of last session, Owens took a walk down the street just to count the number of poison traps.

"And in a half-mile of walking down Mount Auburn Street in Watertown, I counted 85 of them," he said. "Most of them were put there by the utilities or by the municipality, some private. But it just seemed like an awful lot of poison to put down."

Hawkins said he counts around 30 organizations among the supporters of his bill, which has 58 legislative cosponsors. The New England Wildlife Center, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Animal Legal Defense Fund are among those who have signed on.

Toomey is among eight Girl Scouts now advocating for the bill as part of their Bronze Award project. Following up on a video they released last December, she planned to film another video on Monday night.

"And we all understand rat problems are real," Garballey said. "None of us want rats in our communities, whether it be homes or whether it be places of employment, but I would argue that we don't have to make that choice, right? We can curb the rat population without killing owls and eagles, as well."

Owens sees the birds of prey as part of the solution.

"Those birds probably kill more rats than the poison does, ... over their lifetime, for sure. So getting rid of them only increases your rat problem," the Watertown Democrat said. " ... It's a circle, right?"

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