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

Jul 14, 2011 at 4:00 am

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.

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.

Since 2005, Marron has bought wooden shells, drilled steel shot into them until they're exactly the right weight, sealed them and placed them in more than 1,100 St. Louis nests. Through this and other measures, GeesePeace officials estimate they have humanely eliminated 5,594 eggs, or potential geese.

GeesePeace does such culling efforts for free. But when it isn't enough, and grown geese get testy with their human neighbors (or simply too numerous for a given area), GeesePeace calls Bolton or a handful of other human/canine teams, harassers-for-hire if you will, to take on paid contracts with local subdivisions and scare the birds away.

Although the Missouri Department of Conservation works closely with GeesePeace, the two disagree on one fundamental point: death. If homeowners or business operators have unsuccessfully tried several means of persuading the geese to evacuate, the conservation officials generally take them at their word and provide a lethal permit, says Tom Meister, a wildlife-damage biologist for the department.

With this permit, all the geese in an area are collected, removed and taken alive to a processor in Ava, Missouri. The meat that results from the roundup is then donated to a local food bank.

Although roundups occur once a year at most, they're both the source of Schnell's nightmares and the reason for the occasionally strained relationship between the two camps. "We work together very often with camps and sessions and goose management, but that's the one issue we still disagree on," Meister says. "Sometimes it's a big one."

The secondary problem is that any birds that have been killed tend to be replaced by another set of families the following year. Geese are attracted to three things: short grass (which makes for easy food), a water source and the safety that comes with a lack of natural predators. This makes urban properties the equivalent of the Hilton for nesting geese — if those three conditions hold true the next year, the geese will return. If you've built their habitat, they will come.

And if there's one thing GeesePeace proclaims most vehemently, it's that you should never, ever feed a goose — under any circumstances. The result is both unhealthy for the animal and the equivalent of an engraved invitation to other water fowl. "Seriously, never feed one," says Bolton. "I mean it. It's the worst idea."

Today, Bolton is harassing the geese, not feeding them. (Never feeding them.) This tactic, one of the most humane despite its name, involves training his border collies to chase the birds until they fly away — and hopefully don't come back.

"When I first started here, they had 70 or 80 geese," Bolton says of the golf course. "Now, they have about two a week. They don't want any geese, anywhere, anytime, anyhow." Once the geese understand their area is patrolled by predators, they leave. Maintaining a dog patrol ensures they don't simply move back.

Bolton jokes that the single best way to end a goose problem is to let the grass grow. And while there's truth to that, for venues like the Ballwin Golf Club, "that ain't going to happen," he says.

Some desperate landowners seek to rid areas of geese through a series of dubiously successful (read: generally unsuccessful) distractions including pyrotechnics, shiny wire and fake plastic predators. But these birds are clever.

Right now, they are giving Serengeti the runaround.

"'Geti, at 'em!" Bolton shouts, gesturing for the little dog to jump in the pond. Geti looks at him, head tilted to the left, before submerging herself and heading quickly for the two geese and their gosling. The birds are unimpressed. But when Geti continues paddling, approaches them and barks enthusiastically, the birds change their minds and make for the other side of the pond.

"There are two extremes," Bolton explains as he whistles for a soaking wet Geti to return. She has done her job; the birds know to take off as soon as Geti does. "There are extreme animal activists, and then there are the people who say, 'Kill them all.' But why should we kill them when we have other options?"

Lethal permits are granted only rarely in St. Louis, about once every year or two, Meister says, but they normally cover a large number of geese.

And in the months of molting season, a time when geese can no longer fly for about ten weeks as they shed their wing feathers and grow new ones, they are easy roundup targets. Schnell worries about this every day. As she speaks to a reporter, Schnell's forehead is mired by a deep frown.

July, after all, marks the midpoint of this season.

"Sometimes I wonder if it all makes a difference," Schnell says. "But then I realize that yes, of course it does in the end. I ran into a student a while ago who said, 'Are you still doing the goose stuff?'

"The answer is yes, I am."