Don't feed the squirrels? Nuts to you, she says

An East Lake woman takes great pleasure in feeding the critters around her house. She was told to stop because it was illegal. But it's not.


Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published November 17, 2005

EAST LAKE - Her name is Frances, almost like the saint.

And like St. Francis of Assisi, Frances Mirowski loves animals. She has had three dogs in her lifetime but has decided that's enough. It hurts too much when they die.

The mother of five has been widowed twice. She's 82 years old. She's survived four heart attacks and can't travel past her yard without a wheelchair.

Her world now is contained within her villa in the Salem Square subdivision in East Lake, where a statue of St. Francis stands guard at her door and another sits in her atrium, a bird on his shoulder, a bunny at his feet.

She begins every day feeding bread crumbs and peanuts to the birds and squirrels in her yard. She says it's one of life's few remaining joys.

"I wait for the day to begin because I have something to do," she said.

Then last Thursday, she got a letter demanding that she stop.

Frances Mirowski, 82, outside of her home, has fed peanuts and bread to birds and squirrels in her front yard early in the morning for the past 12 years.

For 12 years, no one said a peep about the bathrobe-clad woman's morning routine. Maybe they weren't outside at 7 a.m. to see the seven or eight squirrels waiting for her by the oak tree. Maybe they didn't see anything wrong in it, or didn't care.

But this year, someone in this North Pinellas subdivision of 107 units complained.

On Thursday, Mirowski received a letter from Ronald J. Costa, the property manager for her subdivision.

"We are informing you to cease and desist feeding the wild life," it reads.

She was in violation of a county ordinance against feeding wildlife, the letter says. By feeding the community's wild critters, she could be luring coyotes and disease to the neighborhood.

She cried. She feared the police would come, and was afraid of being fined.

"I couldn't believe this was happening," Mirowski said. "I never broke the law for any reason."

Her son, Bill Ploplis, has written to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"A person her age doing something quite innocent and getting a formal, negative response is not right," he said.

Despite the letter, Mirowski doesn't appear to be violating anything. There is no state law or county ordinance against feeding birds or squirrels. According to state law, Mirowski would only be in violation if she were feeding alligators, foxes, raccoons, sandhill cranes or bears.

In an e-mail, Lisa A. Baltus, senior environmental specialist for Pinellas County and Brooker Creek Preserve land manager, told Bill Ploplis that a county ordinance against feeding wildlife applies only to raccoons, possums and similar wild animals.

The letter came in response to comments at the annual homeowners meeting in October, during which some homeowners complained about other residents feeding wildlife, said Peggy Psaledakis, former president of the Salem Square Homeowners Association.

"As a result, they were getting rodents and blackbirds and those wood storks," Psaledakis said. "There are a lot of owners that are upset with it and concerned with the types of food being fed to the wildlife."

At the meeting, Heritage Property Management, Inc., the subdivision's management company, was told to send all residents letters advising them not to feed the wildlife, Psaledakis said.

It's not clear why only Mirowski got a letter, but Tom DiGangi, president of the homeowners association, said he reminded Costa to send a letter to everybody.

Costa declined to comment.

DiGangi said the association can't stop Mirowski from feeding the animals, but it is asking her to cooperate, perhaps by switching to a bird feeder.

Psaledakis said the community has had problems with bobcats and raccoons. Residents have been advised to use bungee cords to keep their trash lids shut, she said.

Because they live near Brooker Creek Preserve, residents see a lot of small wildlife, said DiGangi, who said he hasn't seen any coyotes in the area.

"We're constantly on guard," DiGangi said.

However innocent Mirowski's intentions, feeding wild animals just isn't a good idea, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Feeding wildlife is not recommended because it causes animals to lose their natural fear of people," Morse said.

The squirrels could set up house in and around her house, causing property damage, he said. Plus, bread is considered junk food for birds.

But Mirowski doesn't intend to stop tossing out bread crumbs and peanuts.

"It's my only joy for the day," she said.