Gone to the dogs


Goose Control of West Michigan trains border collies for effective control of geese on corporate landscapes. Courtesy Theresa Villarreal

Most people hate it when their job requires them to go on a wild goose chase — but not Theresa Villarreal. She and her highly motivated and highly trained associates at Goose Control of West Michigan do it every day on corporate and institutional landscapes all around the region.

Villarreal’s associates at her Fremont-based business are trained by her and won’t make a move without her say so. They are as loyal as any employee could ever be: Cooper, Bella and Bruno are border collies, and with their innate skill and zeal at herding animals for their human masters, they make Canada geese fly away to somebody else’s property.

Villarreal started her business seven years ago and it is growing; today she helps 18 clients keep their grass, sidewalks and parking lots free of nasty goose droppings.

The use of border collies to stop geese from fouling corporate landscapes, college campuses, golf courses and condo/apartment complexes is not exclusive to West Michigan, nor is the problem.

Barbara Avers, a waterfowl and wetland specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said complaints to the DNR about Canada geese have been going on for 25 years or so in southeast Michigan.

She said the Canada goose is “one of our best success stories” at the DNR. They were rarely seen in the 1950s and hunting them was unheard of — but then the state government began attempts to re-introduce them and, by the early 1990s, there was a population explosion.

Avers said the size of the Canada goose population today is not so much the problem: The problem is where they are concentrated.

In metropolitan areas, landscaped developments with manmade ponds have created what amount to geese refuge areas because there is no hunting and no natural predators.

Better yet, the well-maintained grass, growing right to the water’s edge, is what they love to eat — up to three pounds a day, and a gaggle of geese can do a lot of damage to cultivated turf grass.

These rainwater retention ponds also offer protection for the adult geese and their young, so many of the so-called “resident” Canada geese in Michigan stay put from early spring through the fall, and sometimes even year-round if the ponds don’t freeze completely and there are fields nearby where the geese can scavenge corn and other grains.

In essence, developers and landscapers in Michigan “created these Canada goose meccas,” said Avers.

When a flock of Canada geese start hanging out, a lovely, expensive landscape becomes a virtual minefield of goose excrement that people step into and track indoors, and high school athletic teams aren’t able to use slippery, fouled playing fields.

Earnie Porta, CEO of Arkion Life Sciences, a Delaware company that markets a non-toxic goose repellent sprayed on grass to make it taste bad, guesses the overall goose control industry might be as much as $25 million annually.

On his website, Porta says dogs are often used in conjunction with the Arkion product, called FlightControl.

In Michigan, the DNR works on goose management with property owners and sometimes conducts a roundup when other attempts to drive geese away have failed. A permit is required — usually $200 for a business and about $100 for a homeowner, according to Avers. The roundups take place in June when the adult geese are molting and largely unable to fly, making them easy to capture. Parents and their young are gently captured and transported to state game and wildlife areas, where they are released.

In addition to the permit cost, the property owner must pay the state-approved contractor hired to do the roundup, which is one of the things Villarreal does.

Goose control is “a pretty big business,” said Avers.

“We have hundreds of applicants every year” for roundups, said Avers, many of them businesses and parks.

A more drastic solution long used in severe problem areas in southeast Michigan is destruction of nests and eggs, but only after other methods have failed, according to Avers. A permit from the DNR is required, but the number issued is increasing every year, she said.

The DNR also tries to manage goose numbers through hunting, said Avers. There are two groups of Canada geese seen in Michigan: Migrant Canada geese spend the spring, summer and fall far to the north, as far as Hudson Bay in Canada, and winter farther south than Michigan. They tend to be smaller than the resident geese, which don’t migrate very far, perhaps just from Ohio or Indiana up to Michigan. The resident geese are the ones that tend to hang out in the goose meccas and sometimes stay through the winter. Canada goose-hunting seasons in Michigan in the fall and winter are timed to target the resident population; the migrants already have passed through.

Avers said many types of chemical repellents have been tried but can be expensive because treatments have to be repeated due to rain. She said the DNR recommends a combination of different techniques.

“Geese are very smart birds,” said Villarreal, and they learn to ignore some of the things people do to try to drive them away, such as strobe lights, taped distress calls, fake coyotes and even fake swans, which are reputed to drive off Canada geese.

The law does not allow the geese to be touched or harmed, and the border collies are trained not to harm them. Villarreal said the dogs, upon command, approach a flock of geese in a crouch that geese recognize as a predator. When the dogs get close, they fly away.

Sometimes Villarreal and her dogs try to get the flock to face a different direction before taking off. They tend to take off in the direction they are facing, so if facing roads with heavy traffic or tall buildings, geese could be struck by cars or crash into buildings.

A flock of geese on a pond cannot escape Villarreal and her dogs. The dogs swim out to them and haze them to get them airborne, but if the birds are too far out, Villarreal carries a kayak on her car that she uses to get to the geese.

But her dogs are the main component, and Villarreal jokes that her senior dog, Cooper, who is 8, “thinks he knows how to do this better than I do. I swear if he knew how to drive, I wouldn’t have to come down here every day.”

Starting about 15 years ago, Villarreal occasionally went to southeast Michigan to help her sister and brother-in-law who have a “goosing” business there. They have long used border collies and were the source of Villarreal’s first pups when she started her company. That was in 2007, managing problem geese at Calvin College, but she starting adding clients and soon had enough business to quit her day job. She has since managed problem geese at Cornerstone University, Steelcase, Farmers Insurance, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Spectrum Health, not to mention condo developments and golf courses.

Villarreal obviously enjoys her work, but it isn’t the dream job some dog lovers might think it is. Her working season runs from around the first of March to the end of the year, and it takes a lot of hours and a lot of driving in all kinds of weather.

“I work six days a week, up to 10 visits a week (to some client sites). There are times I work 10 hours a day, just circling Grand Rapids,” checking for geese on client properties.

“This job is labor intensive,” she said — but the border collies like it that way.

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