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Opinion Columns

Opinion: When it comes to Denver’s geese, their voices must be heard, too. Let’s talk.

On Jan. 29 there will be an important and informative gathering at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work organized by the authors who are members of the Governor’s Coalition for Animal Protection (GCAP).

Marc Bekoff

The purpose of this gathering is to discuss how geese are being treated in Denver. The event is called “Geese & People: Protection & Policy” and is hosted and supported by the school’s Institute For Human-Animal Connection in conjunction with the Sturm College of Law’s Animal Law Program.

It is the first of a new series that is open to the public called the “Human-Animal Coexistence Catalyst Series.” This newly launched series aims to gather experts on timely topics involving human-animal interactions and to hear from concerned citizens. Both nonhumans and humans must have their voices clearly heard. 

This first event comes in the wake of recent geese roundups in Denver city parks, and as the city appears poised to continue such killing in 2020.

Justin Marceau

Our views, informed by the best available science, law, philosophy and research on nonhuman animals, is that non-lethal solutions to human-animal conflicts like this are essential.

Coloradans cherish their open spaces and public parks, and this event will give the public a chance to reflect on the value of avoiding inauthentic, overly sanitized parks.

We are hosting this discussion regarding the benefits of sharing our outdoor spaces with geese and other animals and to educate people about strategies for coexistence using guidelines of compassionate conservation. 

Marlon Reis

At this gathering, opening remarks will be made by Philip Tedeschi, Graduate School of Social Work and IHAC; Caoilfhionn Schwab, a student at the Graduate School of Social Work; and Marlon Reis, First Gentleman of Colorado. The panelists include Dr. Sarah Bexell, Graduate School of Social Work and IHAC; Dr. Carole Woodall, Canada Geese Protection Colorado; Courtney DeWinter, Canada Geese Protection Colorado; Dr. Joann Hackos, Evergreen Audubon; Debbie Main, Denver Animal Advocate; and Marc Bekoff. 

As a prologue to this discussion, let’s briefly consider who geese are. Geese are amazingly adaptable birds. When they migrate, they’re attracted to urban settings that offer what biologists call “optimal habitats” where they can find favored food and in which they’re able to rest.

Philip Tedeschi

Humans are usually the reason why geese go where they do, and when they become a nuisance, some humans favor “culling” or “euthanizing” them. Of course, “culling” and “euthanizing” are euphemisms that attempt to elide or sanitize the killing that occurs; it’s not at all a mercy killing because the geese aren’t irretrievably ill or suffering interminable pain. 

Geese also can help people heal and feel good about themselves. Marc received this story last June: “Hello. Thank you for being against the culling of the Wash Park geese. … I am so sad that they were killed. I took thousands of pictures of them. I am too sad now to walk to the park. … One reason I walk is to help with depression, and the geese being gone make me so sad. … I didn’t realize how strong of a connection I had to them, until I drove around the park and saw them gone. “

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Other stories we’ve heard remind us of Rachel Carson’s classic treatise Silent Spring. People didn’t realize the impact of environmental poisons, including pesticides, until the birds stopped singing and there was haunting and unprecedented silence. 

Make no mistake about it: geese are intelligent, sentient and emotional beings who feel a variety of different emotions, including grief.

Nobel prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz once wrote: “A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms identified as common among grieving human children … the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang….” Killing geese breaks up families and friendships. 

But it is not just the science behind goose emotions that is ignored when cities kill their geese; it is also a departure from basic biology to expect lethal solutions to work.

As shown by the current resurgence of migratory bird populations in the parks around Denver, killing geese to sanitize a park isn’t a one-time event. It will have to be an annual blood bath because it’s simply a “feel good” immediate solution to a “problem” that won’t go away. 

It’s well known that there are humane and non-lethal ways to come to terms with the presence of the geese including planting different grasses that do not attract them and using models, sounds and other deterrents such as fake birds of prey to persuade them to go elsewhere.

Some people get upset when hazing and other forms of interference are used, and while we would prefer letting nature take its course absent human interference, the reality of the situation is that the killing will continue if something “less harmful” isn’t done.

It’s also not widely known that Colorado towns, cities and counties do not have to work with Wildlife Services, who are well known for killing millions upon millions of other animals annually in the name of coexistence.

If Denver wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to solve a goose problem, might we imagine investing in feces removal technology or labor, as opposed to ineffective and ruthless killing?

The gathering at DU is a public service to stimulate passionate and cordial discussions among people who care about the plight of geese and other animals with whom we must share time and space in a wide variety of communities.

Peaceful coexistence is the decent way forward. It’s essential to have open and transparent discussions, rather than deception and obfuscation, and for people who are concerned to contact local media and voice their opinions.

As the late Gretchen Wyler once remarked, “Cruelty can’t stand the spotlight.” Denver’s lethal approach has attracted national attention and condemnation. 

Compassionate conservation tells us “First, do no harm” and the life of every single individual matters, in this case each and every goose. And, because of being alive, each goose has inherent or intrinsic value for who they are rather than for what they can do for us. 

It’s high time to get killing off the menu of options for dealing with other animals who are forced to live among us because we’ve stolen their preferred habitats.

As a rule, we support non-lethal wildlife management practices. If that requires thinking outside the box on the part of decision-makers, so be it. We need a robust dialogue about options that don’t require killing to solve human-wildlife conflicts. 

It’s not only so-called animal rights advocates who favor mutual respect and coexistence; it’s the decent thing to do. When we treat other animals with kindness, compassion, respect, and decency, we, too, benefit. It’s a win-win for all. 

ATTEND: Geese & People: Protection & Policy will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. on Jan. 29. Craig Hall, University of Denver, 2148 S. High Street, Denver.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder; Justin Marceau, Brooks Institute Faculty Research Scholar and Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law; Marlon Reis, First Gentleman of Colorado; and Philip Tedeschi, Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC).