Wild goose chases provide profits for entrepreneurs Keeping messy birds at bay becomes a needed service in New Jersey

March 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CLIFTON, N.J. -- William Wharrie used to spend his days welding metal machine parts. It was decent work for a decent wage, he said, but nothing compared with the business he has created now.

These days, Wharrie jumps into his minivan every morning with his border collie, Chevy, and heads to a growing list of clients to provide a service that has become almost as essential in suburbia as landscaping, lawn mowing or trash hauling: Wharrie and his dog chase Canada geese from municipal parks, schoolyards and corporate grounds.

He is one of several entrepreneurs in communities around New York City who have turned the proliferating, defecating flocks of geese into a profitable business.

The goose droppings - a pound a day per bird - can create slick, bacteria-rich mats in areas overrun with geese, creating a health hazard and an unsightly mess that can ruin lawns.

The problem is not limited to suburbs. At a new park along the Hudson River waterfront in Hoboken, a flock settled on a new soccer field in 1997, quickly wrecking sod that had cost about $1.50 a square foot to install, said Pierre Maneri, the park superintendent.

Geese Police

"Being a city park superintendent, I never dealt with anything like this before," he said. "At parks conferences, I used to skip the sessions on wildlife. The most wildlife I've had here are rats and pigeons."

After trying to repel the geese with balloons and other devices, Maneri called another goose-harassing company, Geese Police, based in Howell Township, which brought its dogs for a demonstration. "We may try the dogs soon," he said.

The new businesses have sprouted as geese increasingly abandon their traditional migratory way of life.

Instead of flying south each fall and north each summer in familiar chevrons, the geese have found paradise right here, with short-cropped lawns, scattered ponds and a dearth of predators.

The birds prefer closely cropped lawns, instinctively avoiding tall grass, which could harbor an arctic fox or some other foe. "We've made it perfect for them," Wharrie said.

For several years, communities from the Dakotas to Massachusetts have tried cutting goose populations by using dogs, opening special hunting seasons, netting the birds (with the meat sent to soup kitchens), spreading distasteful chemicals on grass, setting off fireworks or releasing threatening balloons.

But only now has the need for goose deterrence become consistent enough to turn it into a business. "The federal government protects them, people feed them," Wharrie said. "Suddenly they've created a great business for me. I love this country."

Though migratory geese are protected by federal law, the ones who have settled here for the winter are not. Nonetheless, the federal government, through the Department of Agriculture, is promoting humane methods like harassment by dogs to keep down suburban goose populations.

The dog programs are also usually supported by animal rights groups, which have strongly opposed hunting or netting the birds.

For his company, New Jersey Wild Geese Control Inc., based in his hometown of North Arlington, Wharrie has hired three full-time dog handlers, each with a goose-chasing border collie that has been trained, at a cost of $3,000, to harass but not harm.

The demand ebbs in winter, Wharrie said. But with fewer geese migrating, there is always work. On a frigid morning in January, a flock of about 60 geese and a companion flock of gulls occupied Clifton Memorial Park and the adjacent high school ball field. Since fall 1997, Wharrie has had separate contracts with the school district and the town of Clifton to patrol several times a day. The town is paying him $420 a month for the park patrols. His contracts with corporate clients are much more lucrative, he said, though he declined to discuss those fees.

Wharrie and several other handlers said that border collies were ideal for the work because they resemble arctic foxes.

Clifton officials said that before the contract with Wharrie, and before an ordinance was passed in 1997 prohibiting the feeding of geese in the park, there were often several hundred geese.

'It's kind of nuts'

Despite a sign announcing the ban on feeding the birds, people still frequently stop by with old bagels, and even a tray of macaroni and cheese one day, Wharrie said.

"It's kind of nuts," he said. "They do this, then they pay taxes to pay me to chase the geese."

He and an associate, Brian Cerosky - who sold antiques and installed fences before switching to bird chasing - headed to the next stop, another park. Then Wharrie drove west to Parsippany, where he has his most lucrative contracts, with the data-processing company ADP and luxury auto dealers.

At ADP headquarters, Wharrie had strung fishing line in a checkerboard pattern across a small pond, another method recommended by federal wildlife officials to make the birds feel uncomfortable. Chevy burst out of the van and sent a flock flying across the road to the lawns of Lucent Technologies.

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