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The senseless killing of two valuable birds at Tracy Aviary this past weekend is symbolic of a troubled society, where violence and vandalism have become all too commonplace.

But it is also symbolic of the struggle facing financially pressed city governments that must set spending priorities in the face of rising inflation and dwindling tax receipts and a rather unsympathetic public.Sadly, the aviary loss is one that might well have been prevented. Aviary officials believe the presence of a night security guard would likely have prevented the intrusion and spared the life of an irreplaceable breeding female golden eagle and a valuable sandhill crane.

For three years, the aviary has sought city funds for a guard to protect against vandals who have left more than 30 birds dead over the past five years. Thus far, the request has gone unfulfilled.

It would be unfair to say categorically that city officials have been uncaring. Council members put in long hours trying to determine how best to meet the needs (and public demands) of the state's largest city. Balancing needs with tax dollars is indeed a difficult task. A good illustration is the city's dilemma in trying to resolve contract disputes with both the police and fire department employee unions.

But this past weekend's events at the aviary make one thing clear: City officials can no longer ignore this particular problem.

The bird collection, which includes many rare species, represents an investment valued at more than $250,000 - and that doesn't include the value of the cages, sanctuaries and buildings.

Tracy Aviary is both an aesthetic and educational resource that would be difficult to replace. Is it worth the $28,000 annual expense officials estimate is needed to hire a security guard?

Surely it is.