“Honestly, what are we becoming? It is frightening, and it’s hitting home. We can’t just let these things happen.” So says Coun. Gary Burroughs about a hunting incident that robbed the town of five of its eight “mascots of the waterfront,” as some describe the Embden geese who have made their home on the land of the former customs house in the dock area.
The geese have built a profound relationship with those who visit them regularly. Locals such as Dory Karr and Sarah Burroughs among others have made pilgrimages to feed and connect with the growing flock every morning over the last several years. Some of the birds come running to greet their human friends. Gary to this day is greeted enthusiastically by Mac, the senior male, whose foot the animallover heroically released from an ice patch several years ago. How to best protect them and ensure the safety of people close to the waterfront is unclear, said the councillor, but he has asked for a report on what can be done.
He wants consultation with all the relevant agencies, federal, provincial and local, to determine who is responsible for the waterfront and what legislation covers the area and the situation. He is also asking the Town to look at whether it can require licensing for fishing or any other activity on the waterfront. And if something similar occurs, residents need to know who to turn to for help, which level and office of government they should contact.
Finally, he wants to know whether there is any role for a Town bylaw enforcement officer to play should a similar situation arise. Council agreed to ask staff for a report and suggested a deadline of March for completion.
The facts of what actually happened haven’t been officially confirmed by an eye-witness, and so technically remain hearsay, says the councillor. He believes a Niagara-based man took a young acquaintance out in his boat for a hunting expedition on the Niagara River on Boxing Day. As they approached a group of decoys at the base of East and West Line — in the area of the Smugglers Cove Boat Club — the man apparently spotted the unusual geese, and tried to scare them away, telling his companion not to shoot. The young man allegedly shot anyway, killing four of the eight geese. A fifth bird was injured, likely by a boat, perhaps this same one.
The story continues, says Gary, that the hunters collected three of the dead birds, with the fourth being pulled downriver by the current.
He says it has been recounted that local men, also hunters, were stationed in a blind at the water’s edge, and chastised the men in the boat for their actions.
While hunting with proper paperwork and training is not illegal on the river, there are several issues that are unsettling in this particular incident that the councillor sees as safety concerns and are part of the reason behind his request to Town staff.
First, it should be made clear these were treasured animals, neither wild nor entirely tame but pets nonetheless to the many who have fed them and cared for and about them in the decade or so they have been nesting in the dock area. Embden geese are typically livestock: the big white bird we see in storybooks and on farmsteads. This particular flock found its way to the water’s edge and into the hearts of many locals, including both Gary and Sarah Burroughs, Marion McMicking, and many others.
Another issue at stake is the fact these are not migratory birds. According to the laws and licences of seasonal hunting, only migratory birds can be killed legally. However, a call to the Ministry of Natural Resources wasn’t particularly edifying. When asked if Embden geese are legal targets, the employee looked the bird up online and said, “It looks like a snow goose — I’m going to go with migratory.” This particular breed is not built for flight, and, having stayed in one location year-round for a decade, is clearly not migratory.
Other potential legal infractions include shooting from the water towards the shore, which is obviously dangerous, given the fact there are residences, public trails and parkland, and other serious casualty risks, says Gary. But again, without tangible proof or a first-person account, there is little-to-no legal recourse.
Another significant issue is the reason Gary believes the birds had travelled up-river from their former home on the former customs house land. He tells of a glut of fishermen from all over Ontario overcrowding the water’s edge, and deliberately denying the birds their path of access to and from the water over the rocks between the Jet Boats operation and the concrete wall that is part of the adjacent Town-owned property.
Because this breed of birds is not built for flight, they need to be able to walk into and out of the water. “This issue can’t be left alone, and does tie in to the fishermen,” Gary says. “When the birds were in danger they could find safety on that land before the fishermen crowded them out.”
“Everything is too late,” the concerned councillor continues. “Fishing grounds have been decimated. It can’t be normal to allow this stuff to go on.”
It may or may not be too late for the three remaining birds. The fifth, injured bird was collected by an officer from the Niagara Falls Humane Society, who was notified by concerned residents. The bird’s leg was broken in several places and her wing was severely damaged. “I believe she was hurt by the boat while trying to protect her flock — Jill was very protective,” says Gary. According to Marion McMicking who made the call to the NFHS, the bird was in so much pain she was easily rescued and taken away. A rehabilitation expert in marine wildlife inspected the goose at the Humane Society, says McMicking, and deemed her beyond saving. The bird — named Jill— has been euthanized.
Some locals fear the attention to the entire story will put the diminished flock at risk — either by the efforts of well-meaning residents wanting to re-home the geese, or by government officials seeking to follow the letter of the law, which some fear could mean removing the geese.
The councillor — along with many others who have joined very lively commentary on social media — is deeply concerned about the safety of our residents, and the inherent risks in the practices of the hunters on and off the river. He believes all levels of government need to take action. “The role the Town should and will play is we have to keep this story alive,” he says. “Assuming local government cares, we need to make those at the provincial and federal level do so as well.”
Both Sarah and Gary Burroughs tell of garbage, tangled fishing lines, decapitated fish heads and other detritus scattered along the waterfront. Sarah says when she asked the fishermen to clean up after themselves, they simply swore at her. When she approached local bylaw officers, she was told there was nothing to be done. “Now we’re dealing with coyotes down there,” she says. “I don’t blame them, there’s garbage everywhere.”
“There is an immense sadness that’s going on,” Sarah concludes.