Plight of Calif. quackers stirs basic political acts ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON — VENICE, Calif. -- For years, this somewhat scrubby beach community on the southern fringe of Los Angeles has been known as a magnet for folks who want to be left alone to do their own thing.

One of their own things has been keeping hundreds of ducks in four man-made canals tucked within a six-block rectangle inland from the beach. The canals were the brainstorm years ago of a local man named Abbot Kinney who decided to bring a touch of the "real" Venice to its namesake town. They even have Venetian-like humped bridges crossing each of the canals, providing enough headroom for a gondola to pass under, though none was sighted by a recent visitor.

Shortly after dawn the other morning, a hundred locals in a demonstration of grass-roots political action jammed the bridges. They blocked state and federal wildlife officials from making a Waco-like raid on the duck population, which is said to be infected with a fatal virus readily communicated to other birds.

Because the Venice canals are in the path of the Pacific Flyway over which an estimated 3 million waterfowl move from Canada to Central America every year, the duck police are fearful of an epidemic and showed up to exterminate the lot by lethal injection.

But they didn't count on the local reaction to this planned duck holocaust. Getting wind of the impending raid, according to Venice resident and duck lover Stacey Straton, neighbors grabbed about 60 ducks and 10 geese and spirited them off to a wildlife sanctuary in another county. There, they are being quarantined, with the Venice residents committed to paying the bill of an estimated $500 a month.

Residents also yanked some of the ducks out of the canals and hid them in their houses and garages in scenes right out of "The Diary of Anne Frank." It's not hard to tell which ducks are local and which are transitory, Straton says. "We know our ducks. They're kind of like mutts. They don't fly much."

Yolande Michael, a psychologist who is one of the save-the-ducks leaders, says the protesters recognize the need for action, but argue that the ducks should be tested individually by virologists to see if they are infected, rather than summarily executed en masse.

Back in 1981, Michael says, about 60 ducks were quarantined in a similar incident and eventually the carrier was found and removed. Now, she says, a vaccine may be available with which to treat the ducks. She said that, if necessary, all should be gathered up and taken to the sanctuary for testing, and tagging if they are disease-free.

The human barricade the other morning resulted in a restraining order until June 9 against the state and local officials to permit further consideration of alternatives to the executions. "In a way," Straton says, "we've already won a little bit."

The ducks, however, are under a Los Angeles County Department of Health quarantine order barring the removal of the ducks from the area, which suits the protesters fine for the time being.

Meanwhile, the Venice duck war is reaping a harvest of favorable publicity for the residents and the ducks, with local television vans rumbling over the Venetian bridges to interview the locals -- including the swimming and waddling quackers now out of hiding. Medical experts on wildlife have offered advice.

The residents, Straton says, believe that the dredging and repair of the canals, now going on, may be resulting in algae in the water that is infecting the ducks. They blame the contractors for not living up to a promise to protect the environment as they work.

Outside forces are not the only problem in the Venice canals. At a small local sanctuary set up by the neighborhood, Michael says, female ducks injured in repeated encounters with local male ducks are isolated and treated -- a further evidence of how much the Venetians care about their feathered friends.

The local sanctuary bears a sign that says, "Save Our Ducks, Spend Our Bucks," and children held a bake sale last Saturday to raise money for the cause. Earlier, Michael says, locals had chipped in $1,200.

The Venice Canal ducks seem unaffected by the furor, although Michael, who knows them better than most, says, "I think they like all this attention." No wisequacks, please.

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