Nibbles is either Washington’s luckiest goose or its most tragic.
Steve Gross didn’t even know Nibbles was a goose when he met the bird in May, about a mile off Maryland’s Kent Island. Steve had anchored his boat, the Slam Dunk, in the Chesapeake and was swimming with some friends when they were approached by what they took to be a duckling.
It was just a palm-size ball of fluffy yellow feathers.
“We were looking around for its family,” Steve said. “We couldn’t find it. So we decided to grab it and take it to shore.”
Steve eased his 42-foot vessel toward the beach and deposited the bird near a family of ducks. Steve said that as he was pulling out, the baby bird frantically paddled toward him. Many of the wooden pilings were topped with raptor nests, convincing Steve that a juvenile wouldn’t last long on its own.
“If we don’t take him, he’s hawk food,” Steve said.
And that’s how Nibbles came to Washington.
Steve, a real estate agent, lives in Harbour Square, a development in Southwest Washington built around an impressive water garden. There’s usually a family of ducks living there, and Steve thought Nibbles could bunk with them. But the duck family was unwelcoming.
And that’s how Nibbles came to live in Steve’s condo, first in the bathtub, then in a homemade pen on the balcony.
Nibbles’s exploits are as well documented as any toddler’s. Steve posted photos and videos of life with Nibbles, from meeting his cats, Bruce and Claire (they seemed to get along), to taking him on boat trips on the Potomac. Nibbles followed Steve around like a puppy dog. As Nibbles got older, it became clear he was not a duck, but a Canada goose.
Canada goose or mallard duck, the federal government thinks of the species the same: Both are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Nests and eggs may not be tampered with. Babies may not be removed from their parents. Unless you’re a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, you may not raise a Canada goose.
Steve said he didn’t know that at first. “We weren’t trying to break the law,” he said. “We were trying to save an animal.”
When Nibbles was about 2 months old, local animal control officials got wind of him. Steve said he explored placing Nibbles with a wildlife rehabilitator in Virginia who would keep him in a large enclosure and acclimate him to other geese. But Steve passed after that person couldn’t guarantee Nibbles wouldn’t be killed by a hunter after he was released.
Steve thought Nibbles would be better off closer to home. In early August, he took Nibbles to the James Creek Marina on the Anacostia and let him go.
“It was very traumatic for me to leave him in the wild, alone,” Steve said. “I thought I was abandoning a child.”
The people at City Wildlife, the District’s only wildlife rehabilitation center, aren’t thrilled when people take wild animals into their homes and raise them as pets.
“It’s a very complex drive that makes us like animals, but it doesn’t necessarily make us act in their best interest,” said Paula Goldberg, executive director at City Wildlife.
If animals are fed the wrong food, they can develop bone weakness and metabolic disorders. Constant contact with humans allows them to imprint on people. Raised with dogs or cats, they might not fear foxes or other predators. If an animal doesn’t learn in the first few months of its life how to be that animal, it likely never will.
And not all humans are as friendly as Steve.
On a rainy day last week, Steve introduced me to Nibbles. A few weeks ago, Nibbles had decided he didn’t like James Creek and had moved up the Anacostia to a different marina. He was the only goose hanging around near the boat ramp. Nibbles came up to Steve and his girlfriend, Daira Duric , and ate cat food from the palms of their hands.
There were some geese farther up the river, but Nibbles wasn’t interested in them. He would let Steve lift him up and toss him into the water — so he could practice using his wings, Steve said. Nibbles flapped a few times but never took flight.
To Steve, the gosling he found in May has had five months of life he never would have had. To wildlife experts, the gosling will never be the goose he should have been.
As we stood on the boat ramp, I asked Steve what sort of life Nibbles has now.
“He’s got a special life,” Steve said. “Whether it’s proper? It’s certainly not typical.”
Then we got in our cars and drove away, leaving Nibbles behind.
A photo was improperly credited in Sunday’s Answer Man column about the blue British phone booths that vanished from the George Washington University campus this summer. The picture was taken by Nyma Syed.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.