Poop Dreams

It’s 11 am on a hot September Thursday, and Roy Morgan is trying to decide if he needs a bigger engine—or a different method. After ten minutes of driving a NatureSweep machine around a small lawn in Oakland’s Lakeside Park, Morgan’s employee has picked up perhaps half the goose poop in his path. Morgan, his supervisor, Jim Ryugo, and the driver all stare doubtfully into the hopper, where a collection of grass, sticks, feathers, and poop has accumulated. On the side of the machine, the words “Goose Pooper Remover” cheerfully follow a cartoon of a bird that, strictly speaking, is a duck.

“Well,” says Morgan slowly, looking down at the grass where the NatureSweep swept, “if you go over it more than one time, you’ll pick up more poo-poo.”

After two weeks of test driving, park officials still aren’t sure if the NatureSweep, currently on loan from the company’s marketers, is worth the $10,000 price tag. They’d need more than one machine to cover the whole park, plus attachments (tractors to haul the sweeper around), modifications (Morgan’s larger engine), and labor costs. Without question, it’s one of the most expensive options under consideration by the city to manage the Canada goose droppings strewn across park lawns.

Though this is the first year that money may be officially allocated towards the issue, the problem is not new, for migrating geese arrive on schedule every year. Lake Merritt hosts between 200 to 400 resident geese year-round. But the lake is also a tourist destination. Visiting geese—and they can number in the thousands—arrive in late spring and stay until late summer, by which time they’ve molted and grown a new set of flying feathers. In the meantime, they spend their summer days like anyone on vacation: In the words of Jones & Stokes, the consultant retained by the city to assess the problem, “the bulk of daily activity is devoted to foraging, loafing, and preening.”

And pooping. An average of 28 times a day, per goose.

“I had an experience where I took some home one day,” says Morgan, glancing down at his shiny burgundy wing-tips. “As a supervisor, I wear shoes, but I still gotta come out here. I learned my lesson, but it’s a problem.”

Because Lake Merritt is a protected wildlife refuge, the city can use only nonthreatening, nonlethal methods to address the geese question. In addition to purchasing a NatureSweep, the consultants’ suggestions include discouraging feeding and creating fenced “goose exclusion areas,” known in layman’s terms as pens. Since the geese cannot fly while they’re molting, even low fences would keep them out of designated areas. By the time they were able to clear the barriers, it would be time to migrate anyway.

The above options and others were presented for community input in late July, and are currently under consideration. Jennie Gerard, chief of staff to Oakland City Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who co-sponsored the community meeting, estimated that the head of the task force would present final recommendations in December or January.

In the meantime, the geese aren’t going anywhere. And actually, it doesn’t seem like anybody really wants them to. For starters, there’s a question as to how much of a problem the poop presents. Though it more or less precludes lawn-sitting and could pose a potential health risk to children who might put it in their mouths, no serious disease issues have been documented. Meanwhile, the number of park users hardly dwindles during the summer, and delighted children can often be seen tossing bread to doting birds around the playground. Even the community meeting, says Ryugo, was attended by an overwhelming number of people who came to speak in defense of the geese, suggesting that the city leave well enough alone.

“It’s first a wildlife refuge and then a public park,” says Eli Saddler, conservation director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “I think people should take pride in the fact that we have a wildlife refuge in our city as opposed to complaining because of the impact of wildlife.” He added, “The bottom line is that people can always go other places to do other things, while the birds have few other places to go.”

There’s no question why the geese choose Lake Merritt. Adaptable creatures to begin with, geese prefer short grass, easy access to water, and a low threat from predators. The lake has all of this and more, since dogs are prohibited, and passersby often feed the geese despite the fact that, as herbivores, they’re self-sufficient.

“There’s no dogs, no predators, so there’s no ‘natural selection,'” says Ryugo. “There’s a lot of reasons Canada geese stay here. I don’t think we’re gonna change that.’

What the report refers to as “dog hazing,” however, is an option under consideration. When it comes up, though, both Ryugo and Morgan sigh.

“It just adds one more thing to manage,” says Ryugo, who’s already spent a great deal of time this morning discussing engine needs, hours per lawn of poop, and salary issues surrounding the potential acquisition of the NatureSweep. “There’s a dog consultant, and a handler, then a specially trained dog. You can’t have just any dog.”

As he speaks, a pedestrian walks by the geese, trailing not one, but three small dogs on leashes. The dogs, though together perhaps a third the size of one goose, lunge eagerly at the birds, who don’t notice. “They’re not even fazed!” Ryugo exclaims.

As they turn to leave, he and Morgan glance wistfully at the lawn bowling green just across the street, where happy bowlers toss balls over the pristine grass. “The bowlers don’t want ’em there,” cracks Morgan. “They’ll chase ’em out!”

The green—and its cheerful bowlers with their clean soled-shoes—is surrounded by a low chain-link fence. Goose-free zones. Sounds like a plan.

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