Pamela Shires Sneddon
What could explain an infatuation with geese? I don’t mean cute little blue-and-white painted figures stenciled on a curlicued wooden heart. No, I’m talking about geese fully feathered and honking. The kind who attack body parts, create smelly bogs and sound like rusty gates…and have achieved a level of self-righteous justification seldom attained in the animal kingdom.
Geese are never in the wrong. Masters of the strategy that the best defense is a good offense and ever on the lookout for provocation, they are easily affronted. At any reproof from me – “What are you two doing on the porch?” – they stretch their necks and the rusty gate intonation takes on a note of disbelief.
“Who, us? You are addressing us? We are as innocent of any wrongdoing as day from night, as succulent new grass from nasty green weeds…and what are you doing in our yard?”
My strange attraction stems in part from two books read at an impressionable age: Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, which made geese endearing, and Jessamyn West’s Friendly Persuasion, which made them smart.
But mostly, it’s Lucy’s fault.
I first met Lucy when I arrived home from school one day some 40 years ago, startled to find a goose sitting in an improvised cardboard pen in our farmhouse kitchen. My mother had succumbed to Lucy’s charm when some friends needed to get rid of a pet who had grown too big and noisy.
“I had no intention of taking her,” my mom said, “but….” I looked at Lucy with her long, slender neck and her gray-brown markings laced with white. She cocked her head and fixed me with a bright gaze from a golden-rimmed dark eye.
“Queeee-eeg?” said Lucy softly.
Is a Goose for You?
Can’t wait to have a Lucy of your own? Here are some points to consider:
Are geese allowed? Check with municipal or county agencies to see if keeping geese is permitted where you live and what regulations apply. You might need to have an enclosed pen, and there may be specifications such as pen size, distance from property lines and number of birds.
What’s involved? Domestic geese are interesting, amusing, flock animals who form strong social bonds and generally do best with six or seven of their own kind. Basic requirements include a secure outdoor space, including water to swim in; protection from predators and harsh weather; an appropriate diet and veterinary care. Very noisy and aggressive in the defense of territory, geese must be supervised around small children. With good care, geese can live well into their teens and beyond; a lifetime commitment is required.
Sources. Hatchlings can be purchased online or through local feed stores. Geese in need of new homes are available through a network of farm-animal sanctuaries and rescue groups.
Geese need help. Numerically, far fewer geese (perhaps “only” 150,000) are slaughtered each year in the United States as compared to ducks (25 million) and chickens (9 billion). Nevertheless, as long as animals raised for food receive no protection under the Animal Welfare Act, every manner of neglect and abuse can and does occur in their rearing, transport and slaughter. Contact the ASPCA’s Government Affairs and Public Policy department to become involved in helping to pass legislation to protect all farm animals Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (212) 876-7700, ext. 4550.
It was the kind of sound a question mark might make if you stretched it all the way out to the end. Mom didn’t have to explain her change of heart.
Despite her charm, Lucy was soon moved outside, a change she resisted. But after several unsuccessful assaults on the kitchen, she attached herself to the nearby garage.
She also fell in love. The object of her affection was, in fact, an object: an old red wagon parked next to the garage. This love, although unrequited, never dimmed. Lucy defended the wagon fiercely, making my daily hay-hauling duties to the horses in the front pasture a test of wills. Hissing, honking, wings flapping, Lucy would follow me and her wagon all the way to the pasture, feinting at me with her beak, her fat body swaying from side to side as she tried to keep up. Only when the wagon was once again parked beside the garage could she relax. Even then I could hear her talking it over, clicking her beak across the wagon’s rusted sides. “What a terrible thing! I took care of her, though – don’t you worry!”
In spite of the histrionics, Lucy rarely bit anyone. My dad was the exception, owing to the fact that Lucy’s self-designated sphere of influence, next to the garage, was my dad’s favorite retreat. There he found solace for the soul, repairing broken appliances and ailing cars. This particular day, Dad was tinkering with his favorite ’37 Oldsmobile when he dropped a wrench in the dirt next to the garage. As he leaned over to pick it up, a portion of his anatomy crossed the boundary of what Lucy regarded as her territory. She retaliated with vigor and lightening speed. Dad was, unfortunately, wearing his favorite 1942 Navy track shorts.
The loud “Dag-nabbits!” (Dad’s strongest language) and shrill honks brought my mother, my four siblings and me running outside. There we were treated to the sight of a grown man in patriotic but threadbare shorts chasing a goose around the yard, shouting murderous threats of what would happen when he caught her. Although normally Lucy wouldn’t have been a match for my dad, she was moving surprisingly fast, becoming almost airborne at times. Luckily for her, it was hot. The combatants soon returned to their respective sides, Lucy making indignant goose remarks to herself, smoothing her ruffled feathers; my dad muttering, “Roast goose, yessir! One of these days that goose will be Christmas dinner!”
My nine-year-old brother, Ted, had other plans for Lucy. He had decided to enter her in the Pet Parade at the Porterville Community Fair. The fair was big in Porterville. It was to summer what the rodeo was to spring and the Armistice Day parade was to fall. A kickoff event for the fair was the Pet Parade, with prizes for the cutest pet, biggest pet, smallest pet, best costume, and so forth.
Ted planned to leash-train Lucy, envisioning the two of them strolling triumphantly into the arena accompanied by the crowd’s applause. The plan suffered a setback when Lucy squatted down and refused to budge; nor did it help that Ted had postponed training until an hour before the opening drumroll. Meanwhile, my sister Jane, who was 10, had been working on her entry, our Shetland pony, Pepper. Ted planned to show Lucy as Mother Goose, but finding costume parts and forcing them on a reluctant bird took more time than he had allotted. My sister, a punctual person, was furious.
“Now we’re too late to walk! What are we going to do?” She burst into tears.
Lucy, excited, began honking.
My dad came upon the disintegrating scene as he was pulling out of the driveway in our 1950 Ford convertible, chartreuse green with a Continental kit for the spare tire on back. “Stop the noise!” he roared. “I’ll be late for my meeting, of course, but I’ll take you.”
“But, Daddy,” Jane howled, “we can’t go in the convertible!”
Lucy honked louder.
My dad hopped out of the car, pushed the front seat forward and got behind the pony. “What’s the matter with the convertible? You wanted to go to the fair; you’re going to the fair!”
Fuming, Jane helped coax Pepper into the back seat while Ted and Lucy, after some disagreement about the seating arrangements, squeezed into the front, with Lucy managing an indignant “hoink, hoink!” Once in, Pepper plunked his rump on the back seat like a regular Main Street cruiser, his hind legs daintily to one side. His front legs presented more of a problem.
“Keep that horse’s feet off the back of my neck!” snapped my dad as he put the car in gear. Off they headed to the fair, the five of them panting from the added warmth of the heater, its controls stuck permanently in the “on” position.
Pepper had a great time. He whinnied nonstop, and Ted swore he waved a hoof at the few startled people on the sidewalk. Jane was scrunched down as low as she could get, hoping no one would see her. Lucy didn’t care for the ride, but Ted had her in a hammerlock – or at least what he thought was a hammerlock – and held on. Lucy was not without a means of expressing her displeasure, however. An interesting but little- known fact about geese is that their digestive systems have a special mechanism to break down fiber, resulting in, and I quote, “a bright green, peculiarly pungent dropping about once in every seven evacuations.” When geese get nervous (or are in hammerlocks), they can no longer count to seven. Although Lucy’s companions were unaware of the biological explanation for this goose behavior, they knew they were lucky to be in an open convertible.
At the fairgrounds, my dad unloaded his disheveled passengers in front of an appreciative audience busily assembling for the parade. “Stop crying, Jane, I got you here in plenty of time. Ted, if that goose bites anyone, it’s Christmas dinner in June. And don’t forget, you’ll have to walk home!”
Jane can no longer recall if Pepper won anything, but Lucy secured the prize for “Most Useful Pet” because she 1) guarded the house, 2) ate weeds and 3) laid eggs.
And Lucy did lay eggs – beautiful, enormous white eggs. They were a bonus until she felt the ticking of her biological clock. To this she responded by making a nest and refusing to leave it. Day after day, she sat on her sterile eggs, tenderly turning them and talking to them in little goose whispers. We began to feel sorry for her.
I don’t know who first mentioned Murray Park, but it soon came under discussion as a future home for Lucy. This park, located about half a mile away, had a small lake with many ducks and geese. It would be a sacrifice for us, but we needed to do what was best for Lucy. Of course, we didn’t consult her.
One fine summer day, we bundled Lucy into the car and drove her to Murray Park to begin her new life. “Good-bye, Lucy!” we cried, “Good-bye!”
At home, my hay-hauling trips were now uneventful; no one had to dodge threatening lunges and hisses just for passing by the garage; and my dad could work on his cars unhindered…but a part of life was missing.
Then one morning the phone rang. It was a neighbor who lived a quarter of a mile away. “Didn’t you have a goose?” she asked. “Because there’s one walking past our house right now, and she’s headed your way!”
Slam went the phone! Out the door we raced, down the driveway, around the bend in the road, past the barn. From there we had a view between the shiny, green-leafed orange trees that lined the lane. In the distance and smack in the middle of the road, a tiny speck grew larger. Lucy was coming home.
There are a few moments in this life that call for a brass band, waving flags and a big crowd, and this was one of them. We didn’t have the band or the flags, but we did our best to be a crowd, jumping and cheering as the small, lonely figure determinedly marched on, dust spurting at each webbed footfall, beak open. Faint honks reached us, increasing in volume as she approached. We could almost hear her saying, “Well, enough of that! You wouldn’t believe the riff-raff at that disgusting place. And the ducks! Well….”
I was thinking about Lucy the other day as I leaned over the back gate. My current geese, a bad-tempered pair of African grey ganders aptly named Adolf and Josef, were standing outside, trying to get their beaks through the pickets to give my legs a tweak.
“Tell me, boys,” I asked, “what do I see in you?”
Adolf paused in his efforts, turned his head on the side, and gave me a bright-eyed, quizzical look.
I think he was asking, “Most useful pet?”
Pamela Shires Sneddon is a freelance writer and book author who lives in Santa Barbara, California.
© 2003 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2003