To say the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a little sliver of swampy land off the coast of Queens, is a beautiful place would be an exaggeration — it’s still very much a part of New York City. You can see One World Trade Center a dozen miles away, you can hear trucks rumble past on their way to the Rockaways. There’s trash strewn about. Most of the wildlife there, at least during my visit on a warm Saturday in June, consisted of thousands of tent caterpillars crawling over every surface, some smushed into little lines of pulp by visitors. But by New York standards, this place is pretty wild. To David Karopkin, it’s one of many goose graveyards across the city.
Karopkin first saw geese being slaughtered seven years ago, when government officials entered Prospect Park in Brooklyn, a few blocks from his childhood home, rounded up 368 geese, placed them in crates, and drove off to a goose gas chamber. They did this without any notice to the public. It was 2010; It had been a year since the "Miracle on the Hudson" — when U.S. Airways pilot Sully Sullenberger safely landed an Airbus A320 that had been struck by geese safely on the Hudson River. Despite those being migratory geese, i.e. not the geese that regularly nest near New York’s airports, the city government was scared into doing something about its goose population.
Karopkin is a kind of goose medium, seeing dead geese where everyone else only sees parks and and golf courses and tarmac.
The city then went on an avian murder spree, capturing and gassing birds, oiling and shaking their eggs so they wouldn’t hatch, shooting them out of the sky near airports. Since the day Sullenberger landed his plane in the river, the city has killed 70,000 birds. And though geese account for only about 2,000 of those deaths (seagulls made up the majority), Karopkin has taken up their cause. He has a fondness for the goose, an animal no one but he and about a dozen other volunteers for his animal-rights group, Goose Watch, seem to like.
Karopkin started Goose Watch after the Prospect Park incident. It’s is a loosely-affiliated group, a kind of collective goose detective agency of a few dozen people on an email listserv. They share tips, scoops from Freedom of Information Law requests filed with the city to see where, when, and how many geese they plan on killing or have killed recently. Volunteers will go out to see if they can catch government agencies in action. It’s also one of a few groups around the city trying to save animals everyone else considers pests — there’s one for wild coyotes on Long Island and another one for wild parakeets in New Jersey.
And though Karopkin has stepped down from a leadership role at Goose Watch late last year, he’s still a kind of goose medium, seeing dead geese where everyone else only sees parks and and golf courses and tarmac. Several weekends a year, he’ll go out to Jamaica Bay and other goose-gathering locations, and write down his observations. Other volunteers at Goose Watch often try to catch government animal control agents in the act, shooting or gassing geese, or oiling their eggs (you can watch their videos on YouTube).
Jamaica Bay was apparently once a veritable Gooseville, with hundreds or thousands of geese. We saw about ten geese on our trip there last month, prime goose-spotting season. In Karopkin's eyes, we were walking through a goose ghost town.
Karopkin seemed somewhat shaken as we made our way through the park. He’s 32, a little nerdy and reserved, a lawyer for the state during the week. He was wearing an “I Heart New York” shirt with a picture of a goose instead of the usual heart logo (he insisted I not photograph it, for fear of being targeted by New York State’s copyright lawyers). He perked up when he saw a pair of geese, and took some photos.
“What kind of city doesn’t have wildlife,” Karopkin said. “That’s probably not a question I would have asked myself ten years ago. It’s because of the killing of these geese that I have a new appreciation for wildlife, because I look at wildlife now and go, “some asshole wants you dead.’”
But there weren’t enough geese to satisfy Karopkin. Not as many as when he was here last summer. The further we walked, the sadder he looked.
We saw a red truck parked on the far side of an inlet. Galicia Outes, a 37-year-old paramedic who volunteers with Goose Watch and who was on patrol with David that day, thought the trucks looked like the ones they use to round up geese. We raced over to check it out. It was nothing, just some parks people.
Goose roundups are less common these days, partially because Goose Watch has put pressure on the government to stop them, and partially because there aren’t that many geese left to kill. Often, the United States Department of Agriculture, which is contracted by the Port Authority and is granted permits by the wildlife refuge, comes in and sprays oil over the eggs of geese and other birds so they don’t hatch, or they’ll “addle” the eggs — shake them until the embryo collapses. This way, the goose moms stay nesting and relatively undisturbed. But a chick will never hatch from such eggs.
We were only a few miles from JFK, and later we headed to the edge of it, just a mile or so from one of its runways, trying to catch a glimpse of one of the government’s more brutal management techniques. From this vantage point, looking over the Atlantic onto one of JFK’s runways you can often hear, and sometimes see, Port Authority employees using a shotgun to kill geese and other birds out of the sky
“We try to provide a healthy habitat and ecosystem for the animals here. We try to avoid active management,” Patti Rafferty, the chief of resource management for the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge and the encompassing Gateway National Park, said. “But that’s not always possible in an urban habitat when we have lots of external forces.”
Karopkin and his fellow volunteers understand that birds do present a danger to planes. He doesn’t want to underplay that. They just don’t think the harm of killing them justifies any theoretical reward.
“Is there a risk of another flock of geese or other birds hitting a plane? Sure, of course,” Galicia Outes said. “But we’re like flying metal tubes through the air. There are a lot of different risks involved in that.”
Goose Watch has had its share of critical press. In 2011, the New York Post called Goose Watch “goose-rights wackos.” A year earlier, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the Wall Street Journal that in his view, goose management was a zero-sum game — geese vs. human beings, and he was firmly on the side of humans. But Goose Watch’s recommendations — to stop culling the goose population and start focusing more on other, more humane management methods — are more in line with current academic thinking about geese and planes than the anti-geese press would have you believe.
A study by the Federal Aviation Authority in 2011 found that planes hitting birds (officially called bird strikes) actually peaked in 2000, and declined by 29 percent since then, despite the number of takeoffs and landings increasing each year. (There’s no proof that shooting geese or capturing them contributed to that decline.)
What kind of city doesn’t have wildlife?
One promising and burgeoning method of goose control method is bird radar, which has been studied extensively by Yossi Leshem, a researcher in the zoology department of Tel Aviv University. Approximately 500 million migratory birds fly through Israeli airspace each year, and Lesham has worked with the country’s Air Force to track the location and flight patterns of birds and warn pilots of where to avoid them in real-time.
“I have no doubt that if LaGuardia Airport had bird radar, they would have seen the geese over the Hudson [that hit Sullenberger’s plane]”, Lesham said.
JFK is one of the busiest airports in the world, and its proximity to the ocean and the wildlife refuge means bird strikes aren’t uncommon — there were 23 reported last year, according to the FAA, but none of them caused major damage. That doesn’t mean the next one won’t be more deadly.
Lesham said that it wasn’t realistic for cities to rely solely on radar, because you can’t change flight patterns for every single takeoff and landing when there are more than a thousand a day. But, Lesham told me, you need to do something besides kill the birds.
“Killing a big mass of birds doesn’t solve the problem,” Lesham said. “After you kill 40,000 geese, another 40,000 will come.”
Missy Cummings, a professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, said there were several potentially more effective methods than bird culling: you could build large, fancy versions of scarecrows at airports, you could use drones to scare them off, or you could use radar, and sound-emitting devices. Guns and culling, she said, should be an area of last resort.
“It’s such a drop in the bucket to the bird problem,” she said. “Even if you gave [the Port Authority] M16s and they were shooting all the time, you’d still have birds.”
Part of the problem, according to Karopkin and other Goose Watch volunteers, is that the Agriculture Department gets paid to kill birds, just like a private exterminator would. According to documents Goose Watch obtained via Freedom of Information Law requests, the USDA was paid approximately $200,000 over three years to cull geese and other birds. That, Karopkin said, gives them a perverse incentive to exaggerate the bird problem, and sell airports on geese capture and egg oiling. The department has landed in hot water before for its extermination practices: an investigation last year by Harper’s Magazine found the agency regularly tortured wildlife and killed endangered species without any clear justification that it was for ecological integrity or the safety of humans.
But the bigger problem, to Karopkin at least, is that hardly anyone likes geese, and so they’re easy to kill. They poop everywhere, they defend their turf with loud sounds and quick movements. They’re not cute and cuddly. As a GQ article last year ranking the “lamest birds in the world” said: “Fuck geese. Geese are assholes.”
And this attitude, more than anything, is what riles up Karopkin. It gets to the hypocrisy he sees central to not only goose-human interaction, but all human interaction: we create the conditions that cause geese to bother us, and then we blame the geese. The solution, he says, is to change the conditions.
A very brief goose history: there used to be hundreds of millions of Canada geese and other waterfowl throughout North America. But European colonizers and their offspring liked to kill them, along with many other native birds, for their feathers and their meat. A popular hunting method in the late 1800s involved using a “decoy” flock of geese. Essentially, hunters across the U.S. would keep a population of geese in a field so that migratory populations would swoop in to meet their goose friends and they could get an easy shot. Goose-hunting using decoys was so popular that, by the early 1900s, Canada geese were nearly extinct in the United States and Canada. Bans and limits were put in place by the federal government and several states on hunting geese and on maintaining decoy flocks.
The leftover decoy geese were often let go, but their ancestral instincts had been erased: most no longer knew how to migrate, and so they settled in our parks, on our streets, near our houses, anywhere they could. And even though we hated them, their preferred habitat — short grass and still pond water — was amply available across the continent in the form of well-manicured lawns, the fountains that ordain the plazas of corporate complexes, golf courses, and refuges next to airports. And then it was decided there were too many of them, that they were assholes, and potential plane killers. They needed to go.
Since the day Sully Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson, the city has killed 70,000 birds.
The last time Karopkin saw the government round up geese and take them to slaughter was in the summer of 2013, in the same park we walked around a few weeks ago. A dozen or so USDA employees wearing rubber gloves drove up in pickup trucks, caught a few dozen geese, placed them in orange crates with their gloved hands, loaded them onto the back of the trucks, and carted them to a gassing facility at an undisclosed location. Karopkin filmed the whole thing, holding back tears.
“There’s something heartbreaking to me about disappearing these animals,” he said. “It was just, ‘Goodbye, get in the truck, you’re gone.’”
Sitting on a bench overlooking Jamaica Bay, Karopkin began talking about the way we treat each other in New York. We’ve created a hellscape, cramming ourselves on top of each other in apartments, shoulder to shoulder in our underfunded subways. But, slowly, we’ve learned to not take out the problems of the world we’ve designed on each other. Murder — human murder — is at a multi-decade low, Karopkin said. Maybe we could learn to extend the same respect to the goose.