Fowl Thoughts

Photo: Alamy

Two Saturdays ago, a hundred or so protesters gathered on the loamy banks of Prospect Park Lake. The afternoon was exceptionally cold, and the group, bundled in heavy coats and hats, formed a knot around a 51-year-old woman named Mary Beth Artz. Artz, who grew up in Brooklyn, is a former actress—her credits include the European tour of Hair—but these days is best known as the informal spokeswoman for the park’s embattled Canada geese.

In July 2010, biologists with the United States Department of Agriculture surreptitiously rounded up nearly 400 of the birds, including goslings, and trucked them to a gas chamber at JFK. The city, on whose behalf the USDA acted, framed the culling as a matter of aviation safety—it was a mass of Canada geese, for instance, that was to blame for Captain Sully’s ditching on the Hudson. But more geese had arrived at the lake, as they do every winter, and although the city had not definitively said it would destroy the animals, its contract with the USDA is good through June 30. “Never again,” Artz said. “That’s what I promised myself.” Artz insists that the birds in Prospect Park are “resident geese,” which spend the entire year in Brooklyn and thus pose little danger to airplanes. She suspects a different motive at work. “Geese generate an incredible amount of poop,” she said. “No, it’s not pleasant to look at. That doesn’t mean we should kill them.”

Artz hadn’t wanted to hold her vigil now, but the Prospect Park calendar fills quickly, so she had to settle for March, at least two months before the next goose-icide would most likely occur. (In the early summer, geese molt; during that time, they don’t fly.) Despite the timing, she had assembled a large and varied group: senior citizens on motorized wheelchairs; a man with a tattoo of a bird on his neck; a gaggle of children, and one golden retriever, wearing STOP KILLING GEESE T-shirts. The geese themselves bobbled in the water nearby.

But why save these geese? Why save any goose? Geese are beautiful, people said. (This is true.) And endangered. (This is not.) But one thing a goose definitely has on, say, a rat—whose extermination is rarely protested, even though rats are closer to us on the evolutionary ladder and, no kidding, have been found to laugh and hold varying degrees of optimism about their own futures—is the simple matter of size.

“You may not be able to distinguish the features of a sparrow when it alights on your feeder,” says Sy Montgomery, the author of Birdology. “But when you get something as big as a goose, you can get a better sense of the personality.” And once you start to see personality, you start seeing other things. “Geese are unbelievable parents, and they mate for life,” says Chris Santopietro, the owner of Geese Relief, a Connecticut company that uses border collies to shoo the birds. “And in this day and age, that’s something pretty neat.” He added, “Sometimes their intelligence is incredible, and sometimes they’re incredibly stupid. Hey, just like humans.”

After a rousing speech, Artz yielded the stage to State Senator Eric Adams. “If we save these birds,” Adams trumpeted, “we save our children, and we save ourselves. The pain and suffering any parent feels when he or she loses a child—that’s not isolated merely to human beings. One of these little ducklings”—he caught himself—“er, birds.”

“Hatchlings!” someone offered.

“Hatchlings,” Adams agreed. “It’s the same experience.”

A few minutes later, Adams led the crowd in a chant of “Give geese a chance.” On the outskirts of the rally, a woman shook her head. “Don’t forget about those possums,” she muttered, and walked off in the direction of the street.

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Fowl Thoughts