Stephanie Benavidez is a naturalist at the Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt, and for her, it’s more than a job – she says she sees herself as the lake’s protector and “keeper of the flame.” Lake Merritt was established as a nature sanctuary in 1870, and is the oldest in the country. Benavidez sees it as her job to continue the legacy of an urban oasis, a strip of nature in the middle of downtown Oakland.
“I’m the voice of the refuge and its inhabitants,” she says. “I speak for all the animals and plants.”
On a Thursday morning, Benavidez is sitting in the driver’s side of a white van parked in Lakeside Park, in front of the Nature Center, when three geese – with long, black necks and black eyes, gray feathers and a white stripe across their faces – waddle across the street.
“Hi guys,” she says to the geese as she leans out of the window. “My mother used to say, ‘Those geese, every time they come down the street, they act like they own the place,’” she continued. “I said, ‘They do. They know they own the place.’”
They certainly do. Every summer, from June into September, Lake Merritt is goose territory. As many as 2,000 birds gather around the lake for molting season, when the birds lose their flight feathers and need a place safe from predators to graze and drink water, before their feathers re-grow and most of the geese fly away for the winter, leaving about 200-400 geese at the lake.
The problem, some park visitors say, is what they leave behind – feathers and droppings, which cover the grass and smear the sidewalk, especially around Lakeside Park, during the summer months, when visits to the park peak.
“They’re perfectly harmless, but there are such big crowds and they make such a mess,” said retiree Tom Job, who lives by the lake and jogs around it in the morning. “They represent something of a decrease in the quality of life for humans during that molting period.”
While city officials have tried to address the conflict in the past by holding meetings and purchasing equipment to clean up after the geese, or keep them out of areas of the park, budget cuts have stymied and sidelined cleanup efforts. And there’s no chasing them away – they’re protected as part of the wildlife refuge. “This was not a park designed for people,” Benavidez said. “Where do you put the animals when there is so much recreational human use?”
The question of how to balance the needs of both the geese and park visitors has been debated for years. During the summer of 2007, the debate came to a head – the city commissioned a study of the geese and also attempted to address concerns with a meeting at the Lakeside Garden Center.
A few solutions were raised at the meeting and the following year: establishing a “No Goose Zone;” buying a specialty-trained dog to chase the geese away; putting up fencing around Lakeside Park to keep them off the grass; putting up signs in the park that encourage people not to feed the geese; using a Naturesweep, a device similar to a street sweeper, except it cleans up goose poop.
But four years later, all the proposed solutions have fallen flat. Fencing went up in 2008, but was taken down within a week because neighbors of the park complained it was unsightly. The Naturesweep didn’t work well on the park’s uneven terrain; even if it had, budget cuts mean there’s no one to drive it.
“We’ve looked at a number of different options that have been suggested by various parties as things we should consider, and we have,” said Jim Ryugo, who manages parks, trees and buildings for the city’s public works department. “But we come back to this square one, which is that Lakeside Park is a bird sanctuary.”
Ryugo said he thinks the most cost-effective strategy to limit the amount of goose feathers and waste would be to mow the grass more frequently in Lakeside Park, limiting the birds’ ability to graze. Some have suggested that if people stopped feeding the geese, they wouldn’t be such a problem; within the year, signs will go up within the year encourage visitors to not feed the geese. As part of the new park being constructed at the south end of the lake, there’s also a barrier of shrubs between the water and the lawn that may keep the birds out.
“By making the new park less attractive to geese, we’re hoping that will help reduce the conflict,” said Joel Peter, the program manager for Measure DD, which allocated $198.25 million for waterfront improvements at Lake Merritt and the estuary.
For years, Benavidez used to conduct an afternoon feeding of the geese, during which she would grab a bag of feed and invite the public to join in. But a few years ago, when city officials were focused on addressing the goose conflict, she was asked to stop.
Benavidez says she doesn’t think feeding geese is a problem, noting that there are so few people who do anyhow. Benavidez has worked at the nature center since 1974, and she’s seen more than a few ideas on how to handle the geese rise and fall. And the geese are still there, and she sees it as her job that they, and the other species at the lake, remain protected.
“We want to create that sense of ownership and protectiveness,” she said, “and have citizens that want to maintain this kind of environment and say, ‘This is good.’”