ST. PETERSBURG — The gold pickup truck pulled up near Crescent Lake Thursday just after lunch. Two men got out and moved to the bed of the truck, to the cages.
Out came a goose. And another. And another.
As the truck disappeared, the three geese waddled across the street toward the lake.
Mama was back.
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Mama and the two unnamed gray Chinese geese had been missing from the lake for five days. Their sudden snatching by a now notorious goosenapper had left the residents of Crescent Lake — winged and limbed — in distress.
The lone remaining goose, Lenny, honked relentlessly for their return. The neighbors cried.
Austin Corley, a 19-year-old animal trapper from Manatee County, makes a living taking ducks and geese from lakes and selling them at small animal auctions where they are sold to restaurants and developers. He has left a trail of tears and feathers around the Tampa Bay area. At Crescent Lake, he is despised.
A year ago, Corley snatched Mama's mate and babies from the lake. Mama's honks of despair filled the lake night after night, so the neighbors got two Chinese white geese — Lenny and Squiggy — to comfort her.
Squiggy disappeared about six months ago. Then last week, Corley grabbed Mama.
Neighbors called City Hall. They called area animal auctions. They called the police. They started a petition to ban goosenapping that already has more than 150 signatures.
Taking a goose from a public lake is an ordinance violation and doesn't normally arouse much attention from law enforcement. But Officer Ray Merritt, a 24-year veteran of the St. Petersburg police, knew how much the geese meant to the residents of Crescent Lake.
He decided to help.
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Lenny raced toward Mama from under the Banyan tree. They honked and bleated and flapped their wings with what we can only interpret as joy. Mama and the two other furloughed geese plunged into the lake, dipping and bathing.
Officer Merritt pulled up to the side of Crescent Lake in his police car. He counted them off. One. Two. Three. All accounted for.
Merritt had been negotiating the release for three days. He'd contacted Corley through his probation officer, who is monitoring him on drug possession offenses. He'd also issued him a trespass violation. It means Corley can't come back to the lake for two years. Through Merritt, Corley said he didn't want to be interviewed for this story.
As Merritt stood watching the geese, a woman walked up clutching a bag of bread.
"It's a miracle," said Janet Wuske, 77, tears in her eyes. "It's amazing. Bless your heart."
"Sometimes, we get lucky and things work out in our favor," Merritt replied.
Wuske put her arms around him. Nearby, Lenny and Mama rubbed necks.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.