Gayle slinks close to the ground across Theis Park, aiming to get close to a flock of Canada geese before they’re aware.
It doesn’t work.
The grassy expanse stretching between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Brush Creek provides no cover for a slowly creeping dog. And the geese are on to her. She’s been there before.
From half a block away, dozens of geese flap skyward, swooping just out of sight upstream.
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No worries. Gayle likely will move them from there, too.
A border collie whose main instinct is herding, Gayle is trained to do duty for the Geese Police. It’s a never-ending relocation quest, especially in January, which is high season for pond-hopping and foraging by nonmigratory Canada geese in the Kansas City area.
Why not just leave them alone?
“A goose poops about a pound and a half a day,” explained David Swickard, owner of the area’s Geese Police franchise. “And you can have 500 land at a small lake in one night. You do the math.”
Swickard is hired by area parks departments, property owners and building managers who’ve done the math — or stepped in the slimy green remainders. His job is to get the flocks out of wherever they’re fouling the environment.
“You get it on your shoes. You roll over it with your baby stroller. Then you go into your house,” Swickard said. “The droppings can be a source of E.coli, cryptosporidium, giardia — bacteria or parasites you don’t want in your house or on the playground where your kids play.”
The Kansas City area is in a migratory lane, so at peak times of the year it gets geese passing through that add to the year-round population.
“But most of the geese in Kansas City have lost the migration instinct. They mate for life and stay here. So we just move them from lake to lake,” Swickard said in between calling orders to Gayle, who was aiming to rattle about two dozen geese noshing on the south side of the Kauffman Foundation’s lake.
Again, the geese honked away before Gayle got close. Even from a distance, they see her as a threat, more so than any other passing dog or pedestrian. The border collie is perceived as a threat, partly because of the wolflike “eye” she presents. Like the breed trained in Scotland to herd sheep, Gayle uses her natural stalking behavior that mimics a predator.
Unlike hunting dogs, herding animals aren’t interested in catching or retrieving prey. They’re rewarded by the stalk. And a big plus: They don’t bark during the chase.
Eight-year-old Gayle is helping Swickard train 3-year-old Rebel, who’ll become top dog when Gayle is retired. For now, Rebel is getting schooled in the traditional Scottish commands used for border collies, a process that can take two to three years.
“Lie down” doesn’t mean lie down; it means stop what you’re doing. “Away” means go right. “Come by” means go left. “Walk up” means move toward the flock. “Easy” means slow down. And a sound that’s part “sh-sh-sh” and part clicks means go faster.
On a typical day, Swickard can travel from the airport to the Country Club Plaza to an office park in Leawood and spots in between. And back again. The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department is a big client, as are some major area real estate development companies and office parks.
Geese are particularly attracted in the winter months to grass that has stayed the greenest, making chemically treated lawns and golf courses prime targets.
To get a flock to move, Swickard will visit the same spot every day for a week, staggering times so that the geese aren’t conditioned, say, to a regular 7 a.m. upset.
“Geese are smart enough,” he said. “They’ll learn to move away just at that time, and then come back when they know you won’t be there. The key is to vary when the dog appears.”
Eventually, the flock understands that a certain foraging spot isn’t a safe haven and moves somewhere else.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, geese pair off in late winter and tend to use the same nesting sites year after year. Now through March is prime time to keep geese moving if the goal is to prevent their spring nesting at a particular location.
The society approves “harassing or scaring the geese to teach them the site is not safe.” And if nesting does occur (generally between late March and early May), it says people can addle the eggs to prevent hatching.
Swickhard has “nuisance wildlife control” permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, required in Missouri, and a state-required permit in Kansas that allows him to shake, oil, freeze or puncture eggs to keep them from hatching. Permits also are required if he cages and moves a goose family to another location — a process, he said, that hasn’t proved to be very effective.
“We try to set the bar high for ethical harassment behavior,” Swickard said. “There are PETA and SPCA members who watch us closely. We want to assure them we’re working in a controlled situation.”
He acknowledges that geese need safe environments, but said the success of his franchise has come down to one question: “Who owns our parks and athletic fields — us, or the geese?”