'Goose Whisperer' Bonds With Park Birds

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 8:13 PM

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.

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.

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