A MAN AND HIS GOOSE
by Jim Hannaford photos by Spencer Callahan and George Fuller
It’s not unheard of to go down to the beach or a park and end up meeting a new friend. but it’s a little unusual when that new friend is of a different species.
But that’s what’s happened to lots of folks in Fairhope.
For Tracy Wilhelm, it happened eight years ago.
“I would go down to the bay on a regular basis. I noticed this one goose just seemed to be very different from the other ones,” says Wilhelm. “One day I sat on the ground and he came right up and sat on my lap. I thought, ‘Holy cow, look at this, there’s a goose in my lap!’ “
When summer rolled around, Wilhelm went for a swim in the bay – and that big, silly white goose joined him.
“At first, he would swim around me, and that was pretty neat, and then I lay down in the water and he swam behind me and crawled onto my back. I thought, ‘What in the world is going on?’” He even became comfortable enough with his big human friend to perch on his open palms, seemingly posing for pictures as strangers with cameras would gather. Before long, the goose that Wilhelm would dub “Lucas” would spot him as he was arriving at the park in his vehicle, and would rush up to greet him in his friendly and noisy way.
another day, another friend
Maybe this story seems familiar to you. This same goose does have lots of friends.
Carole Schneider has been visiting him regularly for 15 years. She calls him “Garfield,” after a character on a Chicago television show she used to watch. For Cindy Lawler, it’s “Buddy.” She has been friendly with him and his lady friend (who also has several names) for about 10 years. This is even though Lawler lives in Illinois (she works one week a month in Mobile).
Others call him Frank, and his life partner Helen. Her other names – the ones we know of, at least – are China, GG
(for Garfield’s Girlfriend), and Lucy.
“He just likes people,” ays Schneider. “He’s a people goose. He’s not afraid.” Lawler, who had pet geese as a child, suspects
he was a pet at one time, too. Dianne Shows Nelson drives over several times a year from Biloxi to see them. “He can be across the pond and I’ll say, ‘Hey Buddy, come see me,’ and he will jump in the pond and swim straight to me.”
When tragedy struck recently, after a series of injuries and ailments threatened the two birds, a small army of volunteers rallied together to their rescue. And in the process, this disparate circle of friends widened and became a small community of sorts.
Lucas and Lucy, as Wilhelm calls them, are of the Chinese swan goose variety. They are among the fairly small number of ducks and geese that are year-round residents of the North Beach Park area, and are not to be confused with the larger numbers of migratory Canada geese (gray, black and white) that flock to the area by the dozens in the spring and summer. The city of Fairhope has had problems with water pollution in the area and has cited the waste from the birds as a contributing factor. As a result, the city has arranged to have large numbers of the geese euthanized at least once, in 2012. More recently, the city made it illegal to feed them, and violators can face a $500 fine.
it takes a village, or whatever
If you take enough time to notice them, these two geese stand out from the others. Lucas (or Garfield, or Frank, or Buddy) is unusually vocal and personable while Lucy (or GG, or Helen, or China) is more selective socially. She will often keep her distance, squawking her disapproval if he tarries too long from her side.
Things took a scary turn this spring, when the beloved female suffered a serious puncture wound on her foot, possibly from an animal bite. It’s the latest in a string of injuries for her or her mate: He was hit by a car several years ago and suffered a cracked beak and, in late 2014, she was shot with an arrow and was treated at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Foley. She
also has been shot with a pellet gun, X-rays show. The male goose has a lingering foot injury that may also have been caused by an animal bite, and both suffer from degenerative arthritis, according to a veterinarian who has treated them repeatedly.
Bobbi York, another of the geese’s friends, lives in Loxley and works in Fairhope. She visits them before work and often
on her lunch break and after work, as well. She frequently takes photos of them. “They make my day better,” she says.
Back in late March, Frank, as she calls him, approached her car briskly and was squawking more busily than usual.
She noticed that the one she calls Helen wasn’t moving, and then she saw the blood, lots of it. This set off a chain of events that resulted in the injured female goose being taken by the city’s animal control officer first to a wildlife rehabilitation center in Orange Beach for several weeks – away from her male partner – and to have prolonged care from veterinarian Dr. David Dykes in Foley.
Her injury was serious; there was even a rumor that she had perished. During this prolonged separation, she seemed despondent in her kennel atmosphere while he was alone and distraught at times at the beach, according to Wilhelm, who played a chief role in her recovery.
Her foot injury has been slow to heal, and may not. During this crisis, some of the goose lovers became afraid that the female, with her limited mobility, would not be able to take care of herself or escape from predators. Meanwhile, his pre-existing foot injury seemed to be worsening. The volunteers took turns administering antibiotic medication to each of them three times a day for 10 days and for a week or two, the two geese were placed inside a large cage at night (and released each morning) for their protection.
Coming up on three months after this serious injury, Lucy was hobbling around successfully but with some obvious difficulty, with Lucas by her side – when he was not off cavorting with a human friend or two.
“She is doing remarkably well on that one leg,” York says. “It’s amazing to me how well she swims. She has a lot of heart – him, too.”
thank goodness for spencer callahan’s photography addiction
Over the years, Wilhelm and Lucas have attracted a bit of attention with their swimming routine. One day, chiropractor Spencer Callahan was indulging in his photography hobby and was literally looking for something interesting to shoot.
He shot the pair with his iPhone during that first encounter, and chanced upon them again a few months later when he had his digital camera.
“It’s definitely not something you see every day,” he says. “It’s a pretty powerful bond they have when you’re watching them interact. You don’t expect to see that between a man and a goose.”