Opinion:  The Mass Killing of Denver's Geese is cause for concern and outrage

Justin Marceau & Marc Bekoff

Denverites love dogs and cats like family. There is also a growing interest in protecting wildlife across our beautiful state. 

Increasingly, more and more people recognize that companion animals and wildlife are individuals and not merely undifferentiated and anonymous beings lacking emotional lives.

They form meaningful social relationships and feel a whole host of emotions including joy and pain. They strive to avoid the latter and experience as much as they can of the former. 

That is why the suffering of animals and their well-being must be given priority when crafting policy decisions. The mass killing of thousands of geese across Denver, particularly in Washington Park in recent weeks, is cause for deep concern and, for many, outrage. 

Many people who previously have never been involved in issues of animal welfare are extremely upset by this lethal management program.

Considerable national and international attention has rightly been aimed at the secretive way this killing was carried out. 

More public scrutiny is given to a zoning amendment or liquor license than to the decision to slaughter more than two thousand geese last week.  Here we focus on three of the most common justifications for this extermination that we are hearing from city officials.

First, city officials have claimed that feces from the geese is a “nuisance and a health risk.” As for the nuisance, imagine a policy that permitted one to kill the dogs that regularly poop in their yard in Denver. 

Or, imagine a law that made it permissible for the city to kill dogs whose fecal matter is not promptly removed from a park by their owner. It is unfathomable, and for good reason. Treating goose poop as a nuisance is both obvious and beside the point.

And, concerning the health risks, they are apparently apocryphal. Officials point to Cryptosporidium as the biggest risk, but the CDC specifically states there is not “any evidence of Crypto being spread directly from birds to humans.”

A second reason for killing geese offered by some officials is that they are “threatening.” For those of us who spend time around these geese, no elaboration is necessary to understand how absurd this is as a justification. 

One of us has a 5-year-old daughter who has spent dozens of hours around the geese and aptly responded to that characterization by saying, “That is a lie; they are so sweet.”  

Third, nearly every article discussing the city’s decision to kill the geese mentions Denver’s supposed plan to donate the goose meat to “needy families.”  

This messaging has allowed many a self-justifying Denverite to feel good about their city’s killing plan. What can be better than feeding needy people? But this is deception and scapegoating of the worst kind. 

It is deceptive because the USDA permit that Denver requested does not say anything about using the meat for food, and many experts have serious doubts about whether urban geese that consumed herbicides and pesticides are actually edible. 

But more importantly, it is terribly unfair to suggest that Denver, which just voted to retain criminal penalties for persons who merely camp within the city limits because they lack a home, is looking out for the needy by killing the geese. Denver has a homelessness problem, and it should be addressed. But many needy persons report feeling resentment over the way they are being used.

These people did not ask Denver to kill its geese, and they don’t appreciate being held up as a justification for the action.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the public has been told repeatedly that there were no non-lethal options for reducing the goose population and that killing would work. Both are false.

Other communities have successfully used hazing, dogs and dog statues, and statues of predators and flying models to deter geese.

If the $150,000 allocated by the city for the killing was instead invested in creative solutions (maybe there could be a contest), we might be surprised by what the entrepreneurial spirit of Coloradans would produce. And the killing sprees will have to be done annually for they are only temporary solutions.

If they really worked in the long-term, there would not be a need for killing programs to be conducted each year as has become the norm in other parts of the country.

Many Denver residents think of themselves as rugged outdoorspeople. To those in rural communities, Denverites live in a concrete jungle punctuated by a few pristine, heavily managed greenspaces. 

For people outside of the urban areas, it must be telling to see the city’s residents treating goose poop as an emergency, while they lecture their rural neighbors on wolves, deer, mountain lions and countless other species. 

Make no mistake about it, the protection of the geese and our ability to come up with non-lethal humane solutions is directly related to the protection of wildlife across the state.

Denver’s love of wildlife, it seems, suffers from a fatal dose of NIMBYism. 

Justin Marceau is professor of law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Both are members of the governor-appointed People for Animal Welfare (PAW) panel but are writing as individuals.