On July 8, 2010, the residents of the Prospect Park area in Brooklyn, NY awoke to find the otherwise boisterous lake in their park almost entirely devoid of waterfowl. Citizens and neighbors asked, "What happened to all the geese?" Park officials initially claimed the birds "flew to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge," but park-goers realized that molting geese and goslings cannot fly. The New York Times was notified and following investigation, broke the following story:
In the early hours of that July morning, 368 geese and baby goslings were secretly rounded up by USDA Wildlife Services agents, trucked to JFK Airport, gassed to death, double-bagged, and dumped in a landfill. Using canoes and netting, the USDA agents corralled the flightless geese and their young goslings, placed them into small pens, used plastic zip-ties to bind their feet together, and crammed them into mobile gas chambers to be killed (in subsequent years the geese were sent to commercial processors for slaughter).
Entire families of geese were wiped out as New Yorkers went to work on a ordinary Thursday morning with no inkling of what had secretly happened under their noses in "Brooklyn's Backyard." The slaughter was executed by USDA Wildlife Services, through a contract with the City of New York subsequent the "Miracle on the Hudson" crash as part of a long term goal to drastically reduce the local Canada goose population in hopes of preventing another major bird strike.
Though New York City's "resident" Canada geese (geese that nest locally) were not responsible for the "Miracle on the Hudson" crash, a coordinated campaign to kill New York City's geese began immediately. Though limited Canada goose roundups had been conducted on Rikers Island for the previous 8 years, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg contracted the City with USDA Wildlife Services to exterminate New York City's Canada geese.
"It's geese or human beings — I can tell you where I come out on that," Mayor Bloomberg declared, later adding, "there is not a lot of cost involved in rounding up a couple thousand geese and letting them go to sleep with nice dreams."
After the killing of Propsect Park's geese was publicized, outraged community members organized through a Facebook page and held a vigil for the geese attended by local politicians and prominent animal advocates. More than 100 people attended the event and it was covered by several major press outlets, including NBC and the New York Times. Two more rallies would be held for the geese in ensuing weeks. In response to criticism and public pressure, Prospect Park formed a special Wildlife Committee to address and implement non-lethal management of the geese. Based on recommendations from the Humane Society of the United States, Prospect Park trained its staff to conduct "egg addling," an involved process which prevents laid eggs from developing, this procedure requires using an umbrella to scare away extremely protective parents away from their nesting site in order to lather and coat the eggs in vegetable oil. The eggs are replaced into the nests, but are no longer viable. The Prospect Park Alliance also hired "GooseBusters," a company that uses a trained border collie to harass the geese away, although potentially to another park where the USDA might kill them. Nevertheless, even the formation of a program to harass the resident geese and oil eggs was not enough to guarantee that a repeat culling of the geese would not occur in the summer of 2011.
In March 2011, another event was held at Prospect Park. "Hands Around the Lake" was organized to honor the geese at Prospect Park and to plead for their right to live. The event attracted more than 100 participants, again including politicians and animal protection organization spokespersons. But there was still no guarantee that that Prospect Park's remaining geese would be spared from another USDA roundup, and no indication what the "magic number" of geese would need to be to keep the feds out.
When nesting season began in April, there were about 35 Canada geese in Prospect Park. Among them, the miracle goslings were discovered - hatched from oiled eggs, and found in the northern part of the park, an unusual location to find nesting geese in Prospect Park, these unlikely additions into the world gave the community even more drive to protect Prospect Park's geese.
That's when "GooseWatch" stepped into action. The goal was to ensure that if another USDA roundup occurred at Prospect Park, it would not go unnoticed or unrecorded. Approximately 35 Canada geese (including the miracle goslings) were at Prospect Park when molting began in 2011. We intended to photograph and videotape in the event that USDA agents returned to Prospect Park to conduct roundups for the second summer in a row. Word got out about our efforts, and we developed a plan to organize a stake out of the park. We recruited volunteers to monitor the park in the early hours of the morning every day during the molting period when the geese were flightless. Armed with a cell phone and camera, our team alternated nights at the park between 11pm and 8am instead of sleeping at home. More than 100 neighbors of the Prospect Park community offered their phone numbers for an emergency speed dial list, and promised to rush to the park to join in protest in the event of a roundup.
Prospect Park's geese were spared from slaughter during the summer of 2011. USDA officials claimed that the 'low' number of geese at Prospect Park did not merit a cull, however, fewer geese have been rounded up elsewhere. Many believe our actions contributed to the USDA's decision to spare Prospect Park's geese. Nevertheless, 575 Canada geese were killed in parks across NYC that summer.
Dozens of volunteers were on patrol every morning from early June until late July once we knew the geese could fly again. We were equipped with a cell phone and a camera, ready to document a roundup and call for backup - the phone list had grown extensive, over 500 people in addition to our media contacts. GooseWatch volunteers waited, ready to act in the event that USDA agents arrived to conduct their goose killing operations. By spreading out across the city we were able to reach more people, and our volunteers met people in all five boroughs who were outraged to learn about the killing and willing to help.
Despite our best efforts, we were unable to monitor Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a large federal park which sits directly next to JFK Airport. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced her support for a roundup and slaughter of the geese there, describing the threat as imminent. We knew there was a large population of geese at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, with more families expected. However, we let our guard down, as no roundup had ever been allowed at the refuge. GooseWatch activists protested the announcement by Sen. Gillibrand, and was granted a meeting with her office. However, it was not enough.
We soon learned that 750 geese had been rounded up from the refuge and taken to slaughter, an unprecedented action on a federal wildlife refuge. Yet, we were able to obtain groundbreaking candid photos of the roundup operation. These were not provided by USDA or the the City of New York as we had requested, but by a spokesperson of National Park Services, on whose land the operation had taken place. GooseWatch NYC distributed these photos to present clear images to the public of USDA agents conducting lethal management operations in New York City parks.