Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > Canada
The Great Rainy River Canada Goose Fiasco

A Little Knowledge and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Kill Two
Birds with One Chunk of Collective Stupidity

Published 12/14/10

I'm angry, frustrated and helpless. I'm going to change names here, to
protect good people and idiots, but this story is totally true.

Jane is one of the good people. She called me in early December to say that
there were several Canada geese at a small patch of open water in Rainy
River, a town of about 1,000 people in northern Ontario. One of the geese,
she said, had fishing line wrapped around its foot. A local man only
identified as a veteran of the Korean War - I'll call him the war vet - was
feeding the birds. What would happen when the last traces of water
inevitably froze over?

Some Canada geese will winter as far north as there is open water, but they
can't be expected to survive complete freeze-up. The bird with the entangled
foot needed immediate help, I said. It needed veterinarian attention, and
possibly a permanent home after treatment. The others, if they were not
compromised, would probably move south when the water froze.

The goose with the bad foot was caught. The foot was dangling by a thread of
tissue, and so was removed.

But then the goose was released!

I hasten to add that Jane was not responsible for that last decision. She
was busily trying to find sanctuary for it, but such sanctuaries are
extremely scarce in that vast, forested region and the Ontario Ministry of
Natural Resources (MNR) has absurdly restrictive regulations concerning
wildlife rehabilitation; rehabilitation is not something that the ministry
encourages. At least the end was quick. Predators tend to preferentially
prey upon the sick or injured, and an eagle killed that unfortunate goose
shortly after it was released.

Unknown to me there was another goose apparently also entangled with fishing
line. On the night of Dec. 9 I attended a meeting and arrived home late to
find an urgent message from Jane. It was nearly midnight but I called back
anyway and she was awake and upset. As I had predicted the geese had flown
when the last water froze, except for one bird that was flightless. The war
vet had been feeding that bird, taming it to the point where it also could
be captured and helped. I had not known about the second goose in trouble.

Earlier that day, as the would-be rescuers closed in on the hapless goose,
one guy loudly and suddenly changed his mind, proclaiming the bird to have
missing primaries, thus was fine and able to survive. The war vet was
justifiably dumbfounded by this abrupt development; the goose bolted and the
chance to catch him was lost. Meanwhile, all of this unknown to me, the war
vet was castigated for feeding the bird bread. Indeed, the editor, call him
Ed, of the local newspaper had published an opinion piece two days earlier
saying the MNR had said the other geese were probably too weak to migrate
(wrong!) and another would-be expert claimed the bread would swell in the
birds' stomachs, making them think they were full, and they'd starve. That's
nonsense. Mouldy bread or bread left to rot in the water can certainly be a
problem, but the war vet had been hand-feeding fresh bread, which would not
hurt the birds. They needed help!

The primaries are the outer-most and longest feathers of the wing, essential
for flight. If they were really missing, then that bird could not fly. It
was in grave danger and while Jane wanted to know what options were open to
her, I told her that I was concerned about the bird surviving even that very

The MNR had said that a goose's feet were somehow immune to heat-loss and
frostbite. Not exactly. No matter the air temperature, fresh water is never
colder than zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the feet can
endure that temperature. But in the absence of that option, when air or
ground temperature drops well below zero, the birds are at risk to the cold
and loss of tissue to frostbite, not to mention their enhanced vulnerability
to predation.

In my first conversation I had told Jane to try to find a sympathetic
reporter to listen to the facts, but the media pickings are slim up there
and she was stuck with Ed. She said when she talked to him and asked him to
talk to me, he asked how I could know anything because I live in the south.
Like so many people he foolishly trusted the MNR's local office - never a
good idea. It said that the flightless bird would survive on its own.

The next day, the 10th, the remaining goose was dead, out on the thinnest
ice where there had last been open water.

Ed never did phone. But Jane told me that the war vet and others were blamed
for the fiasco because the attempt to catch the bird had so stressed it (and
don't forget the bread).

Hence my frustration. Excluding the war vet and Jane, too many people were
incapable of logical, analytical thought. Geese don't drop dead because of
being chased or stressed, or there'd be dead geese everywhere. But put them
in a harsh climate, prevent them from flying, slowly choke off and then
remove open water and natural food sources, and then fail to give them the
help they need, and yes - that will kill them. One person allegedly said it
was no big deal; just two dead geese. He's right, but that would apply to
his death, yours or mine. In the cosmic scheme of things nothing we do
matters, but to us, to good people, things matter. People caused the problem
and people, having brains nearly as large as a coconut, have the ability to
resolve it.

And as for the people who most cared, and who were most accurate in their
assessments, they are now the people most hurt, and blamed by the
incompetents for a fiasco that did not have to happen.

Barry Kent MacKay

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