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Crescent Lake mobilizes against goose grabbers

Dan Finn, 59, feeds the geese under the banyan tree at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Dan Finn, 59, feeds the geese under the banyan tree at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — Walt Schum was fishing for bass in Crescent Lake one day last year when he saw a white Ford 150 pickup pulling up to the curb. A young man descended the embankment to the lake.

In the back of the truck, Schum noticed large animal carriers.

As the fisherman watched, the young man snatched a goose off the ground and lit out for his truck.

"I went running up the hill after him, yelling at whoever I could to do something," said Schum, 40. "They just shut the door and the truck took off as fast as it could. I tried to get a piece of the license plate number. It was just insane what had just happened."

• • •

To the people who live near Crescent Lake, the geese and ducks were not just a flock of anonymous wild birds. They were neighborhood pets.

Jennifer Silva even had names for some of them. When she walked around the large city lake, she saw Mama, a buff-colored goose, her mate, a dark-brown Chinese goose, and their two babies.

So she was shocked one day when she saw Mama paddling around the lake, honking in distress. Mama's entire family was gone.

"I got this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and I remember thinking, please let this not be something a human being did," said Silva, 36, executive director of a social service agency.

Soon Walt Schum told his neighbors what he had witnessed.

"I lost it, I started to sob," Silva said. "It gave me one of those moments where I started to question humanity as a whole."

Humanity had a downside, that was for sure. The peace in one of Tampa Bay's most idyllic neighborhoods had been seriously disturbed. Crescent Lake had a goosenapper on its hands.

• • •

For days, Mama goose's cries filled the lake. Silva and her neighbors were desperate to comfort her.

"There are certain animals that mate for life and geese are one of those animals," said Mike Flanagan, 51, a public relations professional who lives near the lake. He did goose research.

"If they lose their spouse, they will sometimes die of grieving. She went in a couple weeks from having this nuclear unit, including a spouse and a baby, to being by herself. It was brutal. It was unbelievably sad."

Silva found a farm north of Orlando that sold ducks and geese as pets. The cheapest, a Chinese goose, went for $25; ducks went for $12 to $14. It was not goose season so the breeder had only two Chinese left, one of them a runt, the other sporting a crooked tail.

It is illegal to release a Chinese goose into the wild. But Silva was determined to help Mama. So one evening last December, the neighbors gathered around as she released the pair — Lenny and Squiggy — next to the banyan tree. At first, Mama pecked at them. Then she turned around and waddled into the water, the two young geese close behind.

"They were a family," said Silva. "I was crying. It was a beautiful thing."

• • •

A month later, Flanagan, the PR professional, looked out the window of his house and spotted three young men dropping bread near the banyan tree. At the curb was a white pickup truck with cages in the bed.

The young men told him they were trying to catch pigeons.

They men gave him their names: Austin Corley, then 17, his younger brother, and a friend, Brett Waldron, 18. They live in Manatee County.

When neighbor Dan Finn walked up, Flanagan was explaining that the loss of Mama's family had devastated the goose.

"I could tell they didn't care," said Finn, 59, a Realtor. "I looked them in the eye, and I said, '(Flanagan's) a nice guy, but I'm not. And if I was you, I wouldn't come back to this lake because you don't want to see me.'"

The police got wind of the goose controversy, but there wasn't much they could do. Officer Ray Merritt, 50, says he could tell the people in the neighborhood cared about these ducks and geese more than some people care about their children.

But he couldn't imagine calling the police in Manatee County, telling them to drop everything for a goose chase. There is no wildlife law that prohibits the snatching of these particular birds. It was just a city ordinance violation.

"I would have loved to have talked to him," Merritt said of Austin Corley, the driver of the pickup truck. "But I was not able to go to Manatee County to talk to him."

• • •

Birdnapping was epidemic. A few miles west of Crescent Lake, residents of Leslie Lake were also losing their ducks.

Several young men had shown up in pickup trucks and stuffed their cages. The second incident involved a white pickup.

"I ran up and said, 'You're not doing this to our lake,' '' said Christy Vanderpool, 51, who lives on Leslie Lake. "The cops ran his plate and told me it was a kid driving his father's pickup truck and he was from somewhere south of the Skyway bridge."

• • •

The path to Austin Corley leads down Interstate 275 to rural Manatee County.

Corley grew up mostly in Palmetto on property that the tax records list — ominously — as a poultry ranch. But his father, Jackie Corley, says he never had a ranch, just a bee farm that he lost a few years ago in a divorce.

Corley's girlfriend answered the door at his current residence, her parents' home in a development near Parrish. "He's gone fishing," she said. A reporter left a number and asked him to call.

A few miles away, Brett Waldron's father, Roger, says he hasn't seen his son in a while. He knows Brett works at a car wash and collects ducks with Austin Corley. Brett told him Corley was licensed to take them.

The state keeps a list of wildlife trappers and Corley's name is, in fact, on it. The state does not regulate these trappers. All you have to do is fill out an application and send it to the National Trappers Association. No state fee. No training.

"They sell the ducks at auction," Roger Waldron said. "But they're supposed to get permission whenever they get the ducks."

• • •

The public record suggests Corley hasn't always been polite about removing ducks.

In January, he showed up at a private lake in a gated community in Riverview. There, police say, he nearly ran over a woman who tried to stop him from taking ducks from the pond behind her home.

He threatened to back into the woman, then came so close that she felt the heat from his tailpipe. Valerie Powell, 50, jumped out of the way just in time. Corley took off, cages full.

The woman got his tag and picked him out of a photo lineup. Corley was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, namely his truck.

In June, Corley, now 18, was arrested again, this time in Manatee County. He had tried to pass a $50 counterfeit bill at a Sonic drive-in, records show. Palmetto police say he had 24 grams of cocaine. Apparently no ducks or geese were involved. The cases in both counties are pending.

• • •

Last week, a woman walking around Crescent Lake was passing the banyan tree when she noticed a gold pickup with cages full of birds in the back. In front of her, a young man who had grabbed a large bird, slammed it into a cage and drove off. She didn't get the tag number.

Mama and her new family were spared.

• • •

Finally, Austin Corley calls back.

"They're nobody's ducks," he says. "It's not goosenapping."

Most people like it when he removes the birds because they make a mess on the sidewalk, he says. He doesn't feel like he's doing anything wrong.

What about the arrest in Riverview?

"No, I wasn't charged with nothing," he says.

Assault with a deadly weapon? Remember?

"Oh, that's a whole other story. That lady was insane. She came out screaming and cursing. She was holding onto the back of my truck. I'm going to clear that up. I thought you were talking about last week."

Last week?

"Yeah, last week, people in Tampa got mad at me. There are tree huggers everywhere. I caught a duck out of a pond and some people got mad. Oh my, the poor duck. It's a duck. I didn't hurt it. I caught it."

He just graduated from high school. He's been grabbing ducks and geese for extra cash since he was in ninth grade. He sells them at an animal auction, where he gets $5 to $20 per bird. He envisions they end up living happily on farms, but he's not really sure.

Life on a farm is one of the possibilities. There are others. The manager who answered the phone at a small animal auction in Arcadia said the buyers also include Asian restaurant owners.

At Crescent Lake, they don't even like to think about that.

"I'm terrified this guy is going to come back," said Silva. "We all just want him to leave this park alone and find another way to make a living."

• • •

Corley promises he's not coming back to Crescent Lake.

"There's too much drama there," he says. "I'm staying away from that."

He's moved on to Tampa. Lots of ducks and geese in Tampa.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

"They were like pets to us who love them," said Janet Wuske, 76, a retired school teacher who has been feeding the ducks and geese at Crescent Lake for nearly a decade, "not just geese and ducks in a lake."

Crescent Lake mobilizes against goose grabbers 08/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:23pm]
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