‘Goose Whisperer’ Gains Fame in Holland

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

DELFT, Netherlands – A gaggle of geese runs riot in the Hof van Delft Park. They honk, they hiss, they harass and _ it’s hard not to notice _ they scatter droppings everywhere.

Soon, a lanky young man comes to impose order on the chaos. Whistling softly and murmuring “tut-tut-tut,” he strides straight toward the center of the flock _ a place few would dare to tread, especially wearing clean shoes.

They call him “The Goose Whisperer,” and he has a job to do.

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Martin Hof has become a minor celebrity here, in part for his ability to communicate with fowl, which some say borders on the magical.

And while there’s something special, and a little comical, about watching him talking, humming, and yes, whispering to the birds, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

At age 23, Hof has developed an unusual approach to managing urban geese populations that is gaining adherents in the animal-friendly Netherlands _ the first country in the world with an animal rights party in parliament.

“It’s all about respect for the geese,” he says.

The main problem at the Hof van Delft and most parks is that the birds have been allowed to overbreed and are clashing with the humans whose territory they share.

But rather than destroying them, Hof finds new homes for the geese, dividing them along family lines to reduce the trauma of the move. On the other side of the equation, he works with the humans who consider the geese as either pets or pests.

That means discouraging feeding the birds and educating city workers on preventing the animals from overbreeding in the first place.

“They call them ‘silly geese’, but they’re so smart, they learn everything,” says the pony-tailed Hof. “We teach them, we silly people, to break through their natural barrier whenever we come up to them with bread.”

After one goose lunges at a passing jogger, attempting to bite his legs, Hof approaches the troublemaker for a little chat. To show he’s a friend, he squats to goose level and cups his hand to look like a goose head, forefingers extended like a beak. He raises his arm up and down, mimicking a bobbing goose head; the goose follows it with her own head.

Their conversation is too quiet to hear, but the goose appears calmed and waddles off to rejoin her group.

Hof says the goose wasn’t being aggressive, she was just startled that a stranger ran right into her personal space without warning. That hissing noise geese sometimes make? “Pure stress,” Hof says.

Incidents become more common when geese are fed by parkgoers, Hof says. Eventually, children get nipped, neighbors complain and birds are destroyed.

Hof says that’s wrong, and unnecessary.

To begin with, he keeps a database of a hundred or more farms or parks that actually want a few geese. City workers usually don’t have the time for such niceties.

They slaughter indiscriminately, which is also cruel to the birds that remain, Hof says. Geese are generally monogamous, and a pair may live together 40 years.

Partners that are suddenly split may never recover from the shock. “Some literally die of loneliness,” he says.

For those skeptical about the emotional lives of geese, there’s a more practical reason: survivors may call endlessly for missing family members, increasing noise problems.

After an experience saving a goose caught in a fishing net when he was 7, Hof became fascinated with the birds. Sixteen years later, he can usually identify families at a glance.

But he carries out various tests to be sure. He walks into the middle of a group, whistling and making a kind of clucking sound to imitate their chatter, then observes their reaction.

“Just when I drove them apart, you saw that families started calling each other … they say ‘hup hup hup hup: Here I am! Where are you?'”

Individuals take a little longer to get to know. But at his shelter in the town of Coevorden, Hof fluidly names dozens by sight: Brenda, Carmen, Aida, Flago, Sunny, Pablo, Caesar.

Hof says half his job is managing people.

Joke Fransen, walking her dog, complained vociferously about goose droppings.

“It’s getting worse every year,” she said. “Put them in a pan or make pate out of them, I say.”

But after a few minutes speaking with Hof, she’s beaming and laughing too. She likes the geese, just not so many, and she wholeheartedly prefers relocation to killing them.

To make Hof’s strategy work long term, city workers also have to learn about bird birth control.

It’s not complicated: every two weeks during the late spring, a worker needs to check near the edges of waterways for eggs. Smearing them with corn oil is an effective and nonpolluting way to prevent unwanted goslings.

Gerard Zwart of the Amsterdam’s public health agency, which has hired Hof’s company for several projects, says the city has been so influenced by his thinking it plans to rename its “Vermin Control Service” to the “Nature Management Service.”

The cost of using Hof’s service is about the same as the old eradication program, he says. A typical job of relocating 30 geese would be about $2,000-$3,000.

Capturing geese for transport is “the most stressful part,” Hof says.

“Yes, yes, yes, girl, I’m not going to hurt you,” he tells one. “Wow, you’re a very tough guy, I can see that,” he tells another that tries to nip him.

He kisses each on the back of the neck before loading them onto his “Royal Geese Carriage” that will whisk them away to a better life.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)