Animal lovers protect Canada geese from death -- by harassing them

Rib Bolton cuts such a rugged figure, he's almost a caricature. When Bolton laughs, he could sell Brawny. When Bolton's phone rings, the sound is the opening bars of an instrumental version of "Bad to the Bone." And then, of course, there's his name, which is strangely apropos for a guy who has spent a considerable amount of time on safari in Africa. It works.

But today, Bolton's weapon of choice is a whistle, and his crew is hardly intimidating — unless you're a goose. The hardy 61-year-old's coworkers are two overtly precocious border collies named Savannah and Serengeti, clad in tiny blue vests that match Bolton's polo and promote their company: Human Goose Management.

The reason they're standing here, on the edge of a man-made lake at the Ballwin Golf Club, is, in fact, geese. For the past three years, Bolton and a meager but motivated crew of local animal-lovers have spent week after week and tank after tank of gas monitoring and coercing geese, armed with the firm belief that the animals shouldn't be killed for their instinctual behavior. Although the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, they still face danger from those who would kill them to get them off their property.

Rib Bolton and his two border collies harass geese for local business owners.
Rib Bolton and his two border collies harass geese for local business owners.

Missouri has an average-size goose population, statistically. But there's a large number of birds concentrated in the St. Louis area, split into both natives and migratory populations. Both usually go unnoticed (or at least uncomplained about) until nesting season hits. At that time, in March, the big birds can become defensive about their territory and occasionally turn into aggressive, outspoken neighbors.

There are a variety of strategies to making them leave, but Bolton, his canine coworkers and a small gaggle of goose-lovers called GeesePeace do everything they can to spare the birds from the one that ends in death.

The Canada goose is a large, elegant and occasionally ornery bird that grows up to three feet tall and poops around one pound a day. Its offspring are adorable; naturally, as a parent, it tends to be protective. These geese are docile nine months of the year, but they make up for that with a feisty three months in the spring. Indeed, Bolton's least favorite adversary is a proud papa goose whose bruising wings earned him a rare nickname: Goosezilla.

Managing St. Louis county's immense urban goose population requires determination, careful planning and a shield you can make from a Hula-Hoop and mesh. The group of around fifteen people who possess all three come together as GeesePeace, an unofficial local chapter of a national nonprofit devoted to protecting the bird and settling human-geese affairs. When St. Louis businesses and homeowners run into trouble with the birds, they either call GeesePeace's director, Nancy Schnell, or they call the Missouri Department of Conservation — which often responds by calling Nancy Schnell anyway.

Schnell, who talks about the geese with the same happy rhythm she talks about her friends at GeesePeace, is a retired science teacher. She recalls that her goose obsession began in 2001, when students confronted her after class with an article about a planned slaughter of the birds. She has spent the years since trying to find a sustainable answer to the question they posed.

"They said, 'What are we going to do about this?'" Schnell recalls. "I said I didn't know but that I would figure something out. What I found was GeesePeace."

In those ten years, the group has acquired hired help and volunteers, the knowledge that only comes with a decade of trial and error, and a deeper understanding of the birds Schnell calls "glorious animals." (Talking to a reporter, she quickly betrays her training as a schoolteacher: She uses a feather, a fake egg and a goose Beanie Baby to better explain her subject.)

Thanks to their migratory status, it's illegal to kill a goose or touch its nest, outside of certain conditions. That doesn't always stop people who consider a shotgun the only solution to their goose issues. Together, the paid and unpaid geese cops create a network of alternatives to that option.

One of the most humane ways is making sure their eggs don't hatch. With a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, volunteers may addle the eggs, a process that involves distracting both father and mother geese (here, that mesh-and-hoop shield is key) while dipping the porous eggs in oil to end any development inside. This is performed only in the first 13 days of an egg's 27-day hatching period, a window in which the eggs still sink in water. (That's a sign that life hasn't significantly progressed.)

Eggs young enough to sink can also be removed and replaced with wooden ones. As with all fakes, the key is they must be good enough to make detection unlikely. The perfect weight of a goose egg fluctuates somewhere between 165 and 190 grams, and in the strange struggle to trick geese into letting people help them, that number is important.

Indeed, Nancy Marron, a 72-year-old GeesePeace volunteer, weighed more than 1,000 goose eggs before she determined that precise range. If fake eggs weigh more or less than that average, mothers will recognize them, reject them, create more and add to the nuisance claims that made the issue in the first place.

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