It's a scene that would have made Alfred Hitchcock jealous.
Scores of squawking and squabbling seagulls surround Reen Little Brook as he feeds dozens of geese on the banks of the Charles River.
The gulls and geese are fighting over scraps of bread and poppyseed bagel he tosses out. Normally he nourishes the geese with cracked corn, but today, plain bread will have to do.
"They don't take too kindly to sweet bread. For one, it's not nutritious," he explains.
Geese have lived along Magazine Beach for nearly two decades, since several birds were first brought there by an employee at the nearby water purification plant. Now the geese number around 80. Little Brook has been coming to feed them for five years.
The geese know Little Brook, and Little Brook knows the geese. He has named some of the birds after their physical features. He can identify all of them by appearance and personality.
He points out one goose with a bump on his beak. It makes sense that Little Brook has named the goose Bumpy.
"He's the senior citizen. He's a very, very smart duck," he says of his winged friend. "He's a character. He's very astute, serious and very, very cautious. He's gregarious but he can be aloof at times."
Come winter, the whole gaggle--Bumpy, Spotty, Brown Beauty and all the rest--will head for a special shelter that has been built for them near the Boston University bridge. There they will dine on cracked corn until spring comes around.
As afternoon turns to dusk, Little Brook is joined by Susan G. Radonsky, who has come to feed the geese with her daughter Tatiana.
"Yoo, hoo--they want their food," she calls to Little Brook, who has momentarily left his shopping cart full of bread to inspect some of the birds close up.
Radonsky has never fed the geese before and she's having trouble getting the hang of it. One chunk of bread lands on a goose's back. A gull swoops down to snatch it up. Another goose just walks away from the bread she's holding in her hand.
Meanwhile, the gulls and geese are screeching loudly. Radonsky breaks out laughing.
"This is better than any Britney Spears record," she says. "Listen to Britney Spears, then listen to the thrill of the belching, or whatever you call it. This could be a record."
She knew what she was in for when she came to feed the geese.
"It's going to be cold. There's going to be poop," she says. "But I'm here. I'm freezing my butt off and my feet are sticking to the ground."
Radonsky is glad she came. It's like life on a farm, she says--"you breathe in the aroma."
She also came because she's a friend of Marilyn Z. Wellons, one of the most vocal fans of the fowl. When Wellons first saw geese by the Charles River, she thought it was funny. The long-legged birds looked out of place.
Now the geese are no laughing matter. Wellons and others have founded the Friends of the White Geese, a collection of a dozen or so environmental activists who fear that the geese are falling victim to foul play.
For months now, members of the group have handed out "Mother Goose News" fliers and written letters to the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), which manages Boston-area parks.
When a goose died this summer, they alleged it was killed by a dog--evidence, they say, that the geese need protection. The Friends offered to pay the MDC for an autopsy of the bird.
But Little Brook had already buried the goose, and when they dug it up, the body was too decomposed for a postmortem.
The Friends of the White Geese's crusade for the web-footed birds has, at times, turned nasty. They have called MDC officials "sickos" and accused them of corruption. They have branded State Representative Jarrett T. Barrios '90 (D-Cambridge) as one of the leading enemies of the geese and have called for the MDC "to humanely dispose" [sic] of Barrios.
The group's campaign began quietly enough last spring. What set it off was a small triangular patch of land just past the Boston University bridge, where the geese nest for a couple of months each spring. Advocates for the birds call it the "goose meadow."
Until last fall, the meadow was fenced in and allowed to grow wild. But last October, the MDC filled the area with soil. The agency seeded grass and paved a path through the field so riverside strollers can walk nearer to the Charles. Wellons says that made nesting dangerous and stressful for the geese.
Last March, when the geese were nesting, the group began distributing leaflets to passers-by near the goose meadow and held signs reading, "Goodbye, Mother Goose?" They urged motorists to honk to show support for the honkers waddling around down on the river.
Eight months later, the group is still at it.
"The geese have been tremendously popular. They have fans all over the metropolitan area," Wellons says.
The geese survived the nesting season last year even, with the changes to the goose meadow. Since that time, 11 goslings have hatched and 10 geese have left to form a new gaggle. But Cambridge lawyer Robert J. La Tremouille, another member of the group, says he could tell the experience was troublesome for the birds.
"The first time I really saw the geese look happy was when the nesting season was over, when they were back at Magazine Beach," he says. "They looked as happy as a bunch of geese in water."
Leafleting continues at the goose meadow, which La Tremouille calls the geese's "bedroom." But the geese have crossed under the BU bridge and now live along the beach, which he calls their "living room."
That means La Tremouille and his fellow friends of the fowl cannot see the birds when they hand out fliers.
"I miss the geese. I miss people visiting them and showing their children," he laments. "I visit the geese when I go over to feed them."
Guarding the Gaggle
"There are some people who can't stand goose poop," she says incredulously.
Perhaps ironically, she adds, "But it's a riverbank, not a living room or a golf course."
She insists she "debunked" fears that geese spread illnesses, such as the West Nile virus. She called up a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and read studies about goose waste.
"You'd have to eat a couple of handfuls before you got sick," she explains in a nonchalant tone of voice.
Wellons has made it her business to find out everything there is to know about the goose meadow. She even filed a Freedom of Information Act request last spring compelling the MDC to release documents about the goose meadow.
Sitting at her dining room table one fall day, she unfurls several large diagrams from the MDC showing the goose meadow. As one of her cats crawls across the blueprint, she explains her theory of how the MDC is colluding with BU to kill the geese. She calls it "politics as usual."
"There's a great deal of cronyism at the MDC," she says. "That can lead to very irregular things."
But MDC and BU officials say it's no secret that, when BU renovated its boathouse last year, the MDC asked the university to clean up the triangle and to pay for the project.
MDC spokesperson Chuck Borstel says there is no chance the goose meadow will be restored as Friends of the White Geese demand. And the agency just can't honor requests like an autopsy on a dead goose.
"We're not even responding to them anymore. We've done all we can," he says. "These people have gone a little extreme saying that there's a conspiracy out there. It's a little out of control."
"We've spent a lot of time--too much time. Too many resources have been wasted on it," he adds.
Day 111 at the Meadow
La Tremouille is a gruff-voiced Cambridge attorney who's not new to environmental causes. He has worked on several campaigns against city zoning policies, and on other issues such as the Urban Ring--a proposal that would connect all four lines of the T with a circle line. The geese are only his latest cause.
He's created an e-mail account: email@example.com. He sustains goose supporters with regular--sometimes daily--electronic updates.
The tidings from the goose meadow are voluminous and vitriolic. His messages rail against "sick developer types" who are "attacking" the geese.
"Some very reprehensible human beings were hiding behind the facade of decency and planning," he wrote in an update last spring.
The updates often report on the number and health of the gaggle--as well as on other members of Friends of the White Geese. One day last April, La Tremouille reported the birth of two goslings and Wellons' reaction to the news.
"This should be a joyous day," he wrote. "I know Marilyn's eyes lit up when I told her. I know they certainly do look lovely."
Last week, La Tremouille sent an update headed "Day 111 at the Destroyed Nesting Area." According to La Tremouille, that message reached more than 300 e-mail addresses.
Managing the list and writing thousands of words of updates has become a time-consuming chore, and La Tremouille doesn't leaflet at the goose meadow as often as he used to.
"I'm spending so much time on that mailing. It completely swamps me," he says. "It's really distressing for me. Each of those reports takes between two and three hours and I put up three to seven a week."
A Humane Disposition
"He's getting way out of whack on this and it's very distressing. He's the one person," La Tremouille says. "The minute he starts talking about intervening against the geese, he's getting outrageous."
Barrios, who declined to comment for this article, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Cambridge Chronicle this summer. The letter suggested that the fowl issue be handled "in a humane and caring way, with respect for both geese and humans."
Wellons says that's a euphemism for putting the geese to sleep, as often happens to animals once humane societies get possession of them. Now she and La Tremouille have put up posters calling for the MDC to dispose of Barrios in a similarly humane fashion.
This language has cost Wellons and La Tremouille some support.
Pam Steiner, who describes herself as a long-time environmental activist, got involved after she got a flier from Friends of the White Geese. She even leafleted for a while.
She still believes in the cause of the geese but now La Tremouille's personal attacks and venomous language have turned her off.
"If people impugn people's motives the way he has, it marginalizes the issue and that's a tragedy," she says. "They can dismiss him as a little bit nutty and that's a shame. It's a poignant issue."