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On Patrol with the Geese Police — Woof, Woof

This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Like the sacred cows of India, Canadian geese may

wander where they will. Airborne, they are admired for their awe-inspiring

beauty as they call to each other and soar in ever-changing patterns.

On the ground, parents waddling proudly with fluffy goslings stop

traffic. And goose "family values" earn human respect: Geese

are monogamous and male geese help to raise their young.

But in Central New Jersey, these geese can cause problems — not

the wild geese on their way to Canada, but the "resident geese."

Once almost extinct, the 12-pound "Branta canadensis maxima"

has given up migrating to stay in a moderate climate where lovely

groomed lawns, golf courses, and corporate campuses, offer a perennial

picnic. Just as with the deer population that has outgrown its welcome,

the rapidly multiplying geese aggravate property owners. No one likes

to play softball in a field layered in goose poop. But unlike the

deer, the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916.

Hurt a Canadian goose and you will pay. You could even land in jail.

Aside from any potential health hazard, geese are an esthetic and

economic problem. Goose poop — each bird produces at least a pound

and a half per day — builds up a residue of fertilizer that, in

a lake or pond, results in green scum and murky water. Soccer fields

or golf courses seeded with bluegrass are a goose dessert and may

need to be resodded many times over.

So three times daily at the Carnegie Center a pickup truck marked

"Geese Police" pulls up to one of the lakes where the geese

are feeding, and a "shepherd" handler and his border collie

emerge. At a command, the dog sprints out at top speed and runs a

wide circle around the geese. Once he is directly opposite the handler,

he stops in his tracks, crouches low, and glares menacingly at the

now wary birds. His tail low, creeping close to the ground, the dog

stalks the geese. Alarmed, the geese quickly exit and fly in V-formation

to another lake or a field where they will not be disturbed.

David C. Marcks, owner of Howell-based Geese Police, saw a need and

started a business 13 years ago to fill it. With 18 handlers and 22

border collies, he serves such clients as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Rider

University, Lucent Technologies, and the Princeton Recreation Department,

charging from $70 to $1,200 per week, depending on the size of the

property and its accessibility. Marcks’ office covers from Sussex

County to Gloucester County plus parts of Bucks County and Philadelphia,

and he has four franchises so far, in Greenwich, Long Island, Chicago,

and Seattle.

Goose overpopulation is a major "wildlife services" complaint,

third only to deer and groundhogs or woodchucks. Geese like groomed

golf courses, corporate lawns with bucolic ponds, and athletic fields

seeded with bluegrass. At these places, Marcks says, "you might

as well have a sign that says `Eat at Joe’s.’" Though one estimate

suggests that there are 80,000 resident Canadian geese in New Jersey

and the population will double in five years, others believe there

must be many, many more. "Once they no longer migrate," says

Marcks, "they don’t teach their young to migrate. If you have

100 resident geese and 1,000 migrant geese joining them, the 100 won’t

fly off."

A Canadian goose can be distinguished by the white cheek patch on

its black neck and head and its gray-brown to dark brown body feathers.

It will eat anything from cattails to pond algae to corn. Geese have

a lifespan of seven to nine years and a fertility span of four or

five years. This week is a crucial time for goose handlers because

the geese are beginning to lay. Once those eggs are laid, nothing

will induce the parents to leave, and once the goslings hatch and

the adults molt, they don’t fly.

Goose shooing is a new business, and unlike those who employ several

methods, Marcks is singleminded: Using dogs that act fierce (but are

impeccably trained so they never touch a bird) he persistently herds

the geese away from his clients’ sites until they settle elsewhere.

"We replace the natural predators," says Marcks.

Border collies are the favored breed to herd sheep and therefore geese.

If you saw the movie "Babe," you know about sheepdog trials,

how the dogs are supposed to confidently work the sheep following

such quiet commands as "Come By" and "Way to Me,"

ending with "That’ll Do." They run out on an arc to arrive

behind the sheep and drive the sheep around the course into a pen,

stopping to separate out two marked sheep. The teamwork between the

handler and the collie is so inspiring that a weekly broadcast of

sheep trials brought millions of viewers to the BBC television series,

"One Man and His Dog," for more than a decade.

Like "Rex" and "Fly" in the "Babe" movie,

border collies are of medium size and the traditional color is black

and white, with a white blaze on the face, white collar, and a white

tail tip. In the movie, the sheep talked about being afraid of Rex

and Fly and called them "wolves." Border collies are said

to be more closely related to wolves and primitive dogs than any other

breed.

"It’s the wolflike glance," says Marcks, "which triggers

thousands of years of predatory instinct. Their chase behavior is

based on stalking, not retrieving, and their tail drops down in a

prowling mode. The sheep or the geese think they are going to be eaten."

What is now the border collie can be traced to the breeding in 1894

of a very rough and powerful dog to a more gentle variety. The first

written reference to "the Shepherd’s Dog" was in 1576 when

the physician to Queen Elizabeth I wrote that "at the hearing

of his master’s voice, or at his shrill and hoarse hissing, bringeth

the wandering wethers and straying sheep into the self same place

where his master’s will and wish is to have them."

Whereas retrievers are bred to retrieve, the border collie is bred

to "gather." Its ability to gather the flock for routines

such as dipping and shearing was vital to the economy in England and

Scotland. "Without the sheep dog," wrote the 18th-century

Scottish Borders poet and shepherd, James Hogg, "the mountainous

land of England and Scotland would not be worth sixpence. It would

require more hands to manage a flock of sheep and drive them to market

than the profits of the whole were capable of maintaining."

Marcks refers to what he calls "the wolfish glance,"

but most breeders term it "the Eye" and judge dogs by the

strength of their concentration on the sheep: The Eye mesmerizes and

"holds" the sheep. The dog also looks predatory in other ways:

He carries his tail low and when he stops, he crouches forward with

his belly close to the ground.

David Marcks is steeped in the border collie herding tradition. He

grew up in Brick, where his father was a painter, and his father’s

boss owned a farm in Colt’s Neck. "As a 10-year-old kid I used

to paint the fences on the farm. They would send a guy and a black-and

white-dog named Chip to move cows and bulls out of the paddock."

As an adult Marcks earned an agronomy and turf management certificate

from Rutgers Cook College and ran golf courses in Greenwich and and

for the Monmouth County Park system. Geese were a problem.

"There are a million ways to rid your property of Canada geese.

I tried them, and they don’t work," says Marcks. "I tried

sprays and noisemakers and even Irish setters and Labradors, but their

chase strategy is based on retrieving." In a bookstore he saw

a picture of a border collie, remembered Chip, and called the National

Border Collie Association to ask if collies could herd geese. That

was in 1985. "They thought we were crazy," says Marcks.

"Not every border collie is slated for this work," says Marcks.

"Some dogs are just too `grippy.’ And an untrained border collie

would as quick as kill a goose as look at it." Only limited training

can be accomplished in the first 12 to 14 months. "You just put

manners on them for the first year," says Marcks, whose dogs are

trained at a center named Geese Police Academy in North Carolina.

"Then you can put them under some stock pressure. If a young dog

were ever challenged by an ornery ram or ewe, he would never work

again." After 14 to 16 months of stock training, a two to five-year-old

dog can cost from $3,000 to $7,000.

Then Marcks takes over. He trains the dogs (who need constant reminders)

and trains the handlers. In his yard they practice with Indian runner

ducks that don’t fly. "It takes at least a month before a guy

goes out on his own," says Marcks. "The dogs are like kids

with a new babysitter. If they think they can get away with something,

they will. You are never done."

Border collies live for 12 to 14 years and have so much energy that

a 12-year-old may still act like a pup. "That border collie working

is like another dog playing frisbee," says Marcks. "Their

desire to go out and stalk and herd is what drives them. Dogs learn

to read the stock and go in and get it back into control." Dogs

learn that when working cattle they are allowed to be rough, but with

ducks and geese they aren’t. "They weigh 28 pounds and can grip

the nose of a 2,800 pound bull and get to where they want it to go

but be as gentle as a lamb on a duck."

"Our original dog had three breasts removed and a full hysterectomy,

and she lived three more years. I spent my life trying to replace

her." Still, Marcks prefers to "run" males. "As you

get into owning multiple dogs, males are a little easier to handle

because they will decide on the pecking order. But the females will

challenge it and challenge it."

Central Jersey has not yet adopted a regional approach to the goose

problem, so for every site where geese don’t go, another site will

get them. Right now the shoreline of the Millstone River by the Sarnoff

Corporation (which has never chosen to do goose removal) or the grounds

at Canal Pointe are a likely destination.

Dow Jones was one of the first corporations in Princeton to address

the problem and now it doesn’t have one. In 1991, says Robert Heinrich,

the facilities manager who owns three border collies himself, he persuaded

Dow Jones executives to invest in a pair of resident border collies,

Bert and Bessie. They chased away the resident geese. Now three dogs

live on the property and keep migrating geese from nesting.

The dogs aren’t trial-trained but they have natural herding instincts

and are allowed to roam free. "We send maintenance guys out three

to four times a day," says Heinrich, "to run with the dogs

and take them out for walk around the pond. On a day when we have

heavy geese populations the dogs chase them into the pond."

Frank Drift of Dutchtown Nurseries in Skillman is solving Johnson

& Johnson’s problem. Drift is a rodeo performer (his particular event

involves separating steers from the herd) who saw border collies working

in Texas. Nearly 11 years ago he bought trained dogs to shoo geese

at Johnson & Johnson. Now he has two handlers and four dogs (two commute

daily and work without handlers on the J&J site) to serve Ortho McNeil,

Ortho Pharmaceutical, Foster-Wheeler in Clinton, and NEC Research

Institute on Research Way.

Competitors abound and some show a dismaying lack of experience. "Everybody

and their mother goes out and buys a border collie and thinks they

can do this," says Nick DiNicolangeo of National Goose Control,

who has been in business in East Hanover for three years and now has

eight dogs and six handlers.

"It appears to be an easy way to make money," says Gene Shaninger,

a Rockaway-based trainer who competes in national trials. "People

think that for the mere price of a `rescued’ border collie and transportation

you can make money driving around and letting the dog run. The problem

is that they have not learned to handle the dog, and they will run

into trouble." Although Shaninger does not do regular goose control,

he and his dogs are called on to handle particularly problems, such

as a goose with a broken wing.

Border collies are not the only possible solution, insists Kirk LaPierre

of Rutherford-based A-1 Saver Animal Services. With an "integrated"

service he controls all kinds of wildlife from skunks to possums to

bats. For geese LaPierre charges anything from $200 for a consultation

to $2,000. With $1,000 you get two months’ consultation and hands-on

dispersal with his products, anything from noise solutions such as

propane cannons, pyrotechnic devices, and bird distress callers, to

decoys, to a "Rejects It" spray (methyl anthranilate) that

costs $20 per application for a small lawn and must be reapplied after

every rain.

One simple suggestion: pound 12-inch stakes in the ground and connect

them with silver duct tape. "It moves in the wind and flashes

and crackles," says LaPierre, "and geese are offended by it.

They hate to be touched."

Other methods include planting ground cover around a pond instead

of grass (the geese don’t like it), installing fencing or vertical

rocks to deter pond access, installing a short electric fence, allowing

grass to grow taller, hanging out flapping flags, substituting fescues

for bluegrass, and enforcing non-feeding rules.

More stringent measures might involve getting Federal permission to

"addle" the eggs, shaking them so the embryos do not develop,

or covering the eggs with petroleum jelly. Other methods involve oiling,

puncturing, or freezing the nest. A few eggs must be returned to the

nest or the mother goose will lay another batch. Some believe that

one or two eggs be left "unaddled" so the parents won’t be

quite so disappointed.

"The key at this time of year is to harass them so they nest someplace

else," says LaPierre. "During March they lay their eggs, and

the parents will not leave the goslings. From May to June the adults

molt and will be on the ground for 4 to 10 weeks. Right now is the

hottest time of the year to harass the geese."

If the geese do lay eggs at the Carnegie Center, the Geese Police

dogs will monitor the geese during peak hours to keep them out of

traffic lanes and parking lots. They will herd the goslings to the

back pond to deter the adult geese from wandering into the greenway

area and possibly getting aggressive with the human occupants.

Until Central New Jersey takes a regional approach, any goose solution

is strictly temporary. "I have never claimed to be a solution

to the overpopulation problem," says Marcks. "I can fix Carnegie

Center’s problem, but I cannot fix Princeton’s problem. You can hire

me, or spray your grass, or bang on garbage cans, and the geese will

just go someplace where they are not bothered."

Brick offices have replaced barns in most places in Princeton. Houses

are being built on the old Walker Gordon dairy, the former home of

Elsie the Cow. What used to be a "beefalo" and sod farm on

Quakerbridge Road is now just a farm stand in the shadow of Sam’s

Club. A few head of livestock grazing in the fields at American Cyanamid

represent the lone remnant of Central Jersey’s once flourishing agrarian

economy.

But the sheepdogs are happily employed. Because they work in a tradition

that is at least 500 years old, the soles of our shoes stay clean.

To watch them — wholeheartedly and obediently and energetically

at work — is also good for our souls.

Geese Police Inc., Box 656, Howell 07731, 732-938-9093.

http://www.geesepoliceinc.com. David C. Marcks.

A-1 Saver Animal Services, 71 Sylvan Street, Rutherford

07070, 201-933-9700. E-mail: saveranimal@prodigy.com. Kirk LaPierre.

Dutchtown Nurseries, 361 Sunset Road, Skillman 08558,

908-874-3504. Frank Drift, owner.

National Goose Control, 61 Timber Hill Drive, East Hanover

07936, 973-884-9522. Nick DiNicolangeo.

New Jersey Wild Geese Control, Box 7293, North Arlington

08031, 201-955-1934. William Wharrie.

Gene Shaninger, 332 Split Rock Road, Boonton. 07005, 973-299-9785.

Border Collie Rescue Organization, 12895 Colonial Drive,

Mount Airy, Maryland 21771. 301-253-2732. Nancy Starkey.

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