They were geese — about 25 birds, many of which initially migrated from the wilds of Canada, now found hanging out in the pond outside the Robert M. Foster Judicial Center in Yulee. They were pretty, sure, but they were also a pain in the ass, especially for people who work in or frequent the building, the main site of the Nassau County Courthouse, jail and other county offices. They aggressively approached passersby for food. More important, they pooped — in the parking lot, on the steps, everywhere.
"[Visitors] were literally tracking goose poop through the courthouse," says James Harrington, who operates Wild Things Nuisance Animal Removal.
This was gross, and Robert M. Foster, the long-time circuit court judge whose name adorns the judicial center, would not stand for it. He adjudicated the geese guilty of defiling the courthouse with their excrement and declared a summary punishment: execution, by either crossbow or shotgun. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service upheld the verdict. Harrington carried it out at dawn on Saturday, July 19. (The geese were offered neither blindfold nor cigarette.) He used a shotgun in accordance with FWS guidelines, though he says he'd rather have used the quieter crossbow. Either way, the birds were going to die.
People showed up in force when they heard the order had been issued. They weren't protesting; they wanted dinner, and pleaded with Harrington to give them the next goose he killed. (He couldn't oblige because of federal regulations, and the dead birds were instead buried in a shallow grave nearby.) Fourteen geese met their maker that morning. The remaining 11 or so absconded and have not been seen since.
Nobody showed up to protest, Harrington says. "People told me I was doing a great job and they were happy to see the courthouse clean again."
But many people who work at the courthouse say the geese were more pleasure than annoyance. They liked to watch them — particularly the babies (called goslings), some of which Harrington reportedly also killed. No one would go on the record, though, because they fear reprisals from any courthouse staff or Judge Foster.
But if you're looking for animal-related outrage, there's always PETA. Kristin Simon, a PETA employee whose official title is Cruelty Case Work Associate Manager, says geese have posed similar problems across the country, and this is all humans' fault.
"It's likely these animals have been fed and were well-meaning, but did not really know they were harming" visitors when they approached them, Simon says. "Animals who appear aggressive are often just expecting a handout. We are encroaching on their habitat, so these encounters are more and more natural. These animals are just trying to survive and feed their families."
Foster did not return several phone calls, but Harrington, whose company dispatches a lot of "nuisance" animals in Northeast Florida, agrees, at least in part, though he adds that other factors beyond human conditioning come into play. He says geese have been problematic in Nassau County for the last two years, and this sort of issue is not uncommon in Northeast Florida.
"They actually are attracted to our area," Harrington says. "It's all of North Florida, like gated communities. They are the perfect place for them. Then people feed them. It is what was happening. They were approaching people to get food. It's a wildlife version of welfare."
Still, Simon says, PETA would rather see these welfare queens granted leniency. Killing them is "not only cruel, but it's ineffective," Simon says. "If they are attracted to the area, more geese will continue to go there. This is really sad to see these animals lose their lives. They all have their own instincts to survive."
She wishes Nassau County officials had tried other ways to eliminate the goose problem. "This is your basic population ecology," Simon says. "They are attracted to certain things, and if you eliminate those things, they go away, but if you continue to have things that are attractive, they will stay and others will come. It doesn't take a lot of research to find that humane goose deterrents are easily attainable and long-term effective."
Harrington counters that they had tried several different methods over the last two years, but the geese never took the hint. They waved large white flags at the birds with the hope of shell-shocking them into leaving. They trapped the geese in nets and relocated them. They put a non-toxic but foul-smelling chemical into the geese's nests. But the geese kept coming back.
Harrington says that when county officials initially began trying to remove the geese, there were about 60 of the birds. By the time the federal execution permit was issued, there were about 25.
Now there are none.