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The C.A.S.H. Courier

ARTICLE from the Fall 2010 Issue

The Geese and Cap’n Sully

By Peter Muller, VP, C.A.S.H.

On January 15, 2009, Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III was the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, NC. Shortly after taking off, Sullenberger reported to air traffic control that the plane had hit a large flock of birds, disabling both engines.

Sullenberger discussed alternatives with air traffic control but quickly decided that the only feasible option was ditching in the Hudson River. Sullenberger told the passengers to “brace for impact,” then piloted the plane to a smooth ditching in the river. All passengers and crew members survived. Sullenberger walked the length of the passenger cabin twice to make sure everyone had evacuated before retrieving the plane’s maintenance logbook. He was the last to evacuate the aircraft.

That story has been retold countless times by the media. I’m sure we all applaud the skill of the pilot and the “grace under fire” of the crew and passengers. But as animal protective advocates we can’t let it go at that. That story has evolved into a blanket justification for killing geese throughout the United States - especially in New York City.

Before the ink was dry on the New York City tabloids and before the umpteen reruns of videos on TV had even started, the usual gang of goose-killing advocates weighed in by calling for the killing of Canada Geese to “assure the safety of airline passengers.” They are still at it — counter to all known scientific findings about the “bird-strikes” on airplanes, and in particular the bird-strike involving flight 1549 on January 15, 2009.

One instant advocate of goose-killing was Sean Hannity, a commentator on Fox news. A video clip of his reaction can be seen at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAIv9bA1wWQ

A few days later, in the New York Post (a Rupert Murdoch paper), an alleged wildlife biologist, Steve Garber, advocated that all geese should be removed from New York City:

“It would be fairly easy for Port Authority workers to round up and net geese in June and July, when they’re molting and unable to fly,” Garber said. “Once they’re caught, they could be taken to a new habitat far from the city - or killed for their meat, which could be donated to homeless shelters,” he added. “If you keep on doing that, you will get the whole breeding population,” said Garber. “In a short period of time, you will have fewer breeding birds…” “There are lots of ways,” he said. “You can throw rocks at them. You can hit them with sticks...” Does Garber believe that there’s nothing wrong with shooting Canada geese, poking holes in their eggs, shaking their eggs so the embryos are destroyed, wrecking their nests, or taking any number of other measures to eradicate them?

As time passes the refrain of “Kill the geese” persists – with Captain Sullenberger’s landing mentioned at every turn. On June 12, 2009, New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that they are embarking on a plan to kill at least 2,000 Canada geese living within 5 miles of airports.

Mayor Bloomberg said: “The serious dangers that Canada geese pose to aviation became all too clear when geese struck US Airways Flight 1549. The incident served as a catalyst to strengthen our efforts in removing geese from - and discouraging them from nesting on - city property near our runways.”

On July 8th 2010 the department of Wildlife Services of the USDA rounded up 400 geese in Prospect Part in Brooklyn and took them to a building where they were gassed with carbon dioxide.

Again the “Sully story” played in the media as the justification for the slaughter.

Mayor Bloomberg: “Look, the Department of Agriculture has to deal with the fact that all these geese are a danger to people flying,” he said. “People are not going to stop flying and we have to make a decision. It’s geese or human beings — I can tell you where I come out on that. I don’t think you need a quote from me.”

Let’s take an objective, scientific look at the situation and assess rationally whether those shoot-from-the-hip goose-killing plans make any sense.

The geese in Prospect Park were resident geese who do not fly at the same altitudes that migrating geese fly. The resident geese will fly locally from one pond or grazing area to another; they do not need to reach the altitudes that migrating geese need to fly long distances. The geese that caused the bird-strike were migrating geese.

The Washington Post headline on June 12, 2009 – more than one year before the roundup was: “Geese That Downed Flight Shown to Be Migratory Birds. According to the paper, published Monday in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, finding the origins of the birds in the crash was based on analyzing a key property of the atoms in their remains…

Finding the ratio of the two types of hydrogen atoms in bird feathers can indicate the place of origin of the food that formed the feathers, and thus show where the birds themselves came from.

Comparing the ratios from geese known to be migratory with remains of the New York birds showed them to be migratory, too.” It is important for us to note here that the determination that was made was based on the origin of the food that formed the feathers. It was not, as was frequently misreported, based on DNA analysis.

Resident Canada geese and migrant Canada geese are the same species – no DNA distinction between them has ever been established. They are the same species; they behave differently due to the climate differences in the regions where they fledged, which they consider their home.

Moreover, the statistics of flights and bird strikes causing airline passenger injuries or fatalities are insignificant compared to other causes such as pilot error and mechanical failures.

A detailed statistical analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute “Bird Strikes on Aircraft-What’s the Risk?” http://www.awionline.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/19142/pid/19130 shows clearly that to place these statistics into a national context, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data in 2008 (the latest calendar year available for statistics), there were a minimum of 54,823,492 airport operations (defined as the number of arrivals and departures at U.S. airports of air carrier, commuter/air taxi, general aviation, and local aircraft), providing transportation for 736,470,443 passengers. With a reported 7,516 wildlife strikes, approximately .013 percent of all aircraft takeoffs and landings struck wildlife. The government claims that only one in five (20 percent of) bird strikes are reported. Yet, assuming this is accurate, even if 100 percent of all strikes were reported, this would still mean that less than .068 percent of all aircraft operations struck wildlife.

While the five human fatalities attributed to wildlife strikes in 2008 were unfortunate, considering that nearly 736.5 million people traveled by air via U.S. airports, the risk of being killed as a result of a wildlife strike is nearly non-existent.

The chance of an airline passenger being killed due to a bird-strike of the aircraft is 0.00000068%. You would have to take a flight every day for over 200,000 years before you had a 50/50 chance of being killed due to a bird-strike of your plane. However, most goose-killing advocates will never let mere science interfere with their irrational rants; they simply go on:

On 10/1/2010, Mayor Bloomberg said: Incidents like the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 show us how important it is to keep geese from nesting near airport runways. Please know that we’ve already taken a number of non-lethal measures, including: public education to discourage feeding, the use of dogs for herding, pyrotechnics, bird deterrent wires and netting, and more. We’ve had some success, and we’re now working with the United States Department of Agriculture Office of Wildlife Services to take additional steps to avoid serious accidents and ensure the safest possible conditions for New Yorkers and travelers alike. Wildlife Services announced that it has a plan to kill two-thirds of the resident Canada geese in New York State and elsewhere.

Who is Wildlife Services and what does that announcement mean? Wildlife Services is a division of the US Department of Agriculture. In practical terms, we can think of Wildlife Services as a private extermination service that operates within a division of the federal government. Historically, they are notorious for getting contracts from the livestock industry to kill most of the large predators (cougars, panthers, and wolves) in the US.

Wildlife Services does nothing on its own initiative. However, any individual, corporation, or government entity can enter into a contract with Wildlife Services to have wildlife on their property or within their jurisdiction killed.

So it’s the contracting party – in this case, the government of New York City - that has to be pressured not to enter into such contracts. Wildlife Services’ plans will not be carried out unless the New York City government is willing to pay for it.

Non-lethal methods will achieve the goal of reducing the goose population and dissuading geese from the airports. There is radar equipment used at many airports that can detect migrating flocks of geese and warn airplanes away from the bird flights.

Clearly, we have ethics on our side; but we also have science on our side. We have economics on our side: non-lethal methods are much more cost-effective than killing. We also have documented experience on our side: there are communities throughout the country that have switched to non-lethal Canada goose population control and are totally satisfied with the result.

The question becomes: Since we have ethics, science, cost-effectiveness, and experience on our side, why is killing geese even considered an option?

The problem is the misperception of the city government that there is no strong constituent demand for the humane, non-lethal option.

To remedy this, the animal protective community must become politically active by making our position known to our legislators. We urge you to visit www.lohv.org.

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