Last summer Thom Eley watched, dumbfounded, as a couple visiting the playground at Anchorage's Cuddy Family Midtown Park changed their child's diaper and threw the soiled one into the park's centerpiece.
"The mother took the folded-and-loaded diaper," Eley says, "and heaved it into Cuddy Pond with a kerplunk," then hurried out of the area. The park, Eley observed, has no shortage of trash cans. But he also noted a considerable amount of trash – plastic bottles, cups, and bags – floating in a layer of scum on the pond surface. Maybe the couple thought the pond was the place to toss out a dirty diaper.
Eley's spouse, Cherie Northon, is less worried about the poopy diaper than she is about all the duck and goose feces dissolved in the pond. When Northon raised the issue in 2012, she realized local, state, and federal agency staff familiar with the Cuddy Park pond were also concerned, but no one stepped forward to coordinate its cleanup. "Everybody complained about it," Northon recalled, "but nobody was doing anything."
Northon is executive director of Anchorage Waterways Council, a nonprofit that works to protect and restore water bodies and wetlands in the city. Eley is a board member.
The council is trying to focus the attention of various agencies and the public on the growing problem.
According to Northon, while water flowing into the pond had relatively low levels of bacteria in August 2015, samples taken across the pond found levels of more than 40 times higher than the maximum concentration of E. coli bacteria allowed by the state for bodies of water used for recreation. Other potentially dangerous bacteria have been found in similar concentrations. In other words, don't touch the stuff, it's poop soup.
This is not a state secret, but people react differently to the news. Here's an exchange documented on the park's Facebook page between Bethany Gil and her young son during a visit last fall: "Greyson, take your hands out of the water, we need to wash." "Nooo I don't want to wash."
"I don't want you to get the E. coli from the water," Gil pleaded, struggling to wipe his hands.
"But I waaaaaant E. coli."
Feeding the problem
On a recent sunny Sunday, I found the park full of people. An ice cream truck in the parking lot piped out music.
Parents and children clambered about the playground at the west end of the pond. Other adults and kids converged from several directions, walking the paved trail surrounding the pond.
The pond and nearby lawns were alive with Canada geese, at least 350 by my count. Small clots of geese gathered near people on the path. Many, perhaps most, of the people were feeding geese. That's no surprise. Cuddy Park has become the city's unofficial goose- and duck-feeding venue.
I strolled along the path between unnaturally unwary geese that turned and fixed me with their beady, black eyes. Expecting to be fed, they approached boldly, hissing and shaking their heads when I didn't offer a handout. I sidled up to several visitors with kids who weren't feeding the birds, either.
Heidi Barnes admitted that the murky water and the thousands of splotches of goose feces on the path and grass were "disgusting." "I don't bring the dog here," Barnes said, shaking her head. As her husband and two children pedaled off down the path, she told me they liked the park and its avian panhandlers despite the pollution. "You're in nature," Barnes said, adding that the park is a good place to teach kids about geese.
Kerri Schiavi was accompanied by three grandkids. Schiavi is "not a fan of Canadian geese. The poop is awful. You can't walk on that path at all."
However, "when they stay in the water, I think it's great."
Leo Pyett and Vonna Thomas brought their Chihuahua. Pyett said the little dog and their son love to watch the geese. Nevertheless, he believes the water in the pond "may be a little diseased." Nearby, geese several times larger than the diminutive dog loomed closely enough to give a little dog big nightmares.
Like everyone else I talked to, they recognized that the geese loitered about the pond because they were being fed. "People feed them right in front of the signs," Thomas exclaimed.
Like many intractable issues, Cuddy Park pollution is difficult to control because it's a people problem.
Few ducks would inhabit the pond if people stopped feeding them. In contrast, the geese eat grass when they aren't binging on human food, so any Anchorage pond next to a grassy lawn will attract geese. As it is, as many as a thousand ducks in winter and hundreds of geese in summer linger about the Cuddy pond awaiting their next handout. With the birds repeatedly stampeding from pond to parking lot greet humans carrying food, the grass near the pond has a badly beaten look.
Without the grass, the banks of the ponds are sloughing. The highly concentrated nitrogen in waterfowl feces is fertilizing a healthy layer of scummy algae atop the pond. Plastic bottles and other trash are snagged by the scum. Cuddy Park is fast becoming the filthiest park in the city.
Nevertheless, many people like to see, and are tempted to feed, the flocks of waterfowl in an urban setting.
You can find somebody, often several somebodies, feeding waterfowl in Cuddy Park any day of the year. I've seen bread, cracked corn and poultry feed strewn on the turf and parking lot.
A website that claims to offer "expert" advice on Alaska adventures described Cuddy Park as a place "where flocks of ducks and geese paddle back and forth waiting for handouts." And you can "bring a little bread, toss it at your feet, and within seconds you'll be surrounded by a flock of friendly ducks."
To their credit, the website's sponsor removed those lines when contacted by Northon and now recommends that visitors resist any urge to feed the ducks.
Northon wants to minimize the pollution by curtailing waterfowl feeding. Last fall, she arranged several walkabouts for agency staff and other interested people. With a small water-quality grant from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Northon's staff designed a colorful, interactive sign explaining why feeding waterfowl is bad for Cuddy Park. Northon hopes to erect the signs this spring at each of the four locations where people approach the pond.
How Anchorage lowered goose population
Twenty years ago, Anchorage's Canada goose population was doubling every five years, with predictable problems such as water pollution. Most shocking, a flock of geese brought down an Air Force Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft with the loss of all 24 lives in 1995. State and federal wildlife agencies led the effort to curb population growth and cut goose numbers in half, to a level supported by the public.
Part of that effort involved no-feeding signs at popular waterfowl sites, including the small wetland that became Cuddy Park. Some people never stopped, but the numbers declined and chronic offenders became more covert. When the wetland was turned into a "duck pond" and the area "prettified," the no-feeding sign was removed.
That appears to have been interpreted as a green light to feed the ducks and geese, and many are blatant about it. Most should know that white bread and angel food cake are not suitable foods for wild animals and that ducks don't normally overwinter in Anchorage. But they persist.
Call and response
Some people have a visceral urge to feed wild animals, perhaps as a way to connect with nature. I think it's more than that. Watching ducks is connecting with nature; watching them gobble up bread crusts is something else.
The need may have something to do with call and response, the thrill an evangelical preacher feels when the congregation shouts "Amen!" or the relief a teacher feels when a noisy class is brought under control.
Many play the call-and-response game with their pets. Some dog owners like to play fetch as much as their pooches. Cat fanciers dangle strings or tease their cats into chasing laser beams.
Call and response is an ancient human technique for gaining attention and creating a connection with others. Unfortunately, people don't come running when you toss a slice of bread on the grass. But ducks and geese do.
People who are serious about watching wildlife use binoculars. And there are environmentally acceptable ways to attract wild birds close for viewing: birdhouses, birdfeeders and birdbaths. These seldom cause overcrowding and never pollute waterways. Because there is no immediate quid pro quo, the call-and-response feedback loop is muted. The birds aren't dancing to your tune.
After Thomas told me people were feeding geese in front of the no-feeding signs, I looked for one of the signs and didn't find one. With Northon's help, that shortcoming will soon be rectified.
Cuddy Park visitors who aren't feeding waterfowl can connect the dots — too many birds pollute the water. It remains to be seen whether those delivering handouts can curb their primal impulses — even when they are standing next to the new no-feeding signs.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News.