GREENWICH, Conn. – Officials in this affluent suburb were fed up with Canada geese soiling local parks, to the point that mass execution was contemplated. After intense public debate, the plan was dropped in favor of non-lethal alternatives — including deployment of a border collie in a life jacket, yapping from aboard a kayak.
The geese are unnerved, but most people familiar with the new plan are pleased. Animal-protection groups hope Greenwich's example might be followed by communities in many states beset with similar nuisances.
"It's not brain surgery — it's doable," said Rodi Rosensweig, a Humane Society of the United States (search) spokeswoman. "Towns can make these changes if they want to."
Protected by the federal government, which must grant permits for any slaughter, Canada geese have multiplied dramatically in Atlantic Coast and Midwestern states. There are now an estimated 2.6 million resident Canada geese in the United States who don't migrate; they prefer wide-open, mowed grass to natural terrain, so their prolific droppings often litter parks and golf courses.
Federal officials say overpopulation is worst in the Atlantic flyway stretching from Virginia to New England. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (search) would like to reduce resident geese in the region from 1 million to 620,000 — possibly by allowing states to expand control methods without federal permits.
"Two geese in the park are cute — 1,000 geese are not so cute," said Nicholas Throckmorton, a Wildlife Service spokesman.
Communities seeking to oust the geese have tried noisemakers, scarecrows, fake coyotes and alligators — often with little lasting effect. Thousands of geese have been rounded up and killed in recent years, after exasperated local authorities obtained Wildlife Service permits. Protests have sometimes followed.
Greenwich officials were seeking permission to kill up to 200 geese during the midsummer molting season when the birds can't fly away from pursuers. But even though many park-goers are weary of the geese, the planned execution generated vocal opposition — and town officials announced June 1 that they would pursue a non-lethal plan devised by a Virginia-based group called GeesePeace (search).
Within days, GeesePeace president David Feld was on hand at Greenwich's idyllic Binney Park, observing as two border collies — one by land, one by kayak — chased a dozen geese away. Feld explained that the collies, though trained as herders who would not attack, are nonetheless viewed by the geese as menacing predators.
"We're making this into a place where Canada geese do not want to be anymore," said Feld.
The GeesePeace plan, tried by a dozen or so towns in other states, includes harassment by dogs and an educational campaign to persuade people not to feed the geese. A third component, which won't start in Greenwich until next spring's nesting season, calls for volunteers to find nests and cover each egg with corn oil, a technique which prevents hatching.
Feld said the strategy was developed after debate over killing geese divided his neighbors at Lake Barcroft in Virginia's Fairfax County.
"We were at war with each other," he said. "I told the community, 'Look, we went to the moon. We can figure out how to do solve this problem.'"
Several conservation and animal-protection groups helped encourage Greenwich to drop plans for a goose slaughter, including the Humane Society of the United States. The society is offering free video packages to local officials nationwide, promoting non-lethal methods of coping with unwanted geese.
John Hadidian, director of the society's Urban Wildlife Program, said most state wildlife and conservation departments provide little help with such efforts. He also said many communities — unlike Greenwich — keep quiet about plans for goose slaughters so that opponents have no chance to protest. "That's not democracy in action," he said.
Greenwich officials haven't ruled out the possibility of geese slaughters in the future, depending on whether the GeesePeace strategy succeeds. Its supporters hope nearby towns in southwestern Connecticut and New York's Westchester County will join the initiative, perhaps persuading the geese to revive their lost tradition of summer migration to the Canadian Arctic.
Though the new plan has broad support, some activists are critical. The Connecticut-based Friends of Animals says Greenwich should avoid using dogs or oiling eggs, and instead focus on landscape changes that would make park lawns less inviting to geese.
Said Friends president Priscilla Feral: "Why create animosity toward a bird that has far less to do with polluting the environment than humans do?"