May 11 - 17, 1994

May 11 - 17, 1994

The Scoop on the Poop on the Big House
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Dave Roth goes beak to beak with urban wildlife

The county jail is a giant pigeon roost. Is the answer murder most fowl?

By Michael Kiefer

Dave Roth brought a friend to the New Times offices, a demure little pigeon he calls Tootsie. He set her on a desk and she strutted around, nodding her head as if in agreement with Roth's thoughts about pigeon control at the Madison Street Jail.

Roth has started a heated debate with county authorities over whether pigeons should be trapped and/or killed as the county suggests, or if the jail's structure should be altered to keep the pigeons from nesting there. Roth has meticulously gathered facts and figures claiming that it would be far less expensive and far more effective to rig the building with wire or fabric netting especially designed to keep birds out. They seem to not want to hear him.

"Could this be an example of why the county is in debt?" he asks.

Roth's a dark, bearded man with eyebrows that flex and fly so vigorously to punctuate his remarks that they sometimes threaten to leave his face altogether. He was once a fire fighter, once owned a pair of sporting-goods stores, and now supports himself working odd jobs to devote most of his time to the Urban Wildlife Society, which is an animal-[advocacy] organization that can get 40, 50, 100 people to support the cause pretty quickly.

He assiduously researches the birds- which he calls "rock doves" and disseminates his information as a newsletter to anyone interested, consults on pigeon problems, and lobbies the county.

"..I was a former pigeon abuser," he says. He would shoot [at] them [to scare them] off his air conditioner with a pellet gun. Then in 1989 he had a pigeonly epiphany. "One decided to adopt me, and I'm trying to atone for my errors."

He keeps several as pets; Tootsie is one of them. She walks over to him affectionately so that he'll rub and ruffle the feathers on the back of her head, then in her delight, she leaves a deposit on the desk.

Pigeon poop is the problem at the Madison Street Jail. With its horizontal gunslot windows and giant louvers that conceal, among other things, the prisoners' exercise area, the jail looks like a ten-story air conditioner, alive with lint. Birds poke in and out of the louvers and cling to the window ledges, dozens at a time, following the sun and the shade from the north to the south sides of the building.

Every fiscal quarter, when workmen go behind the louvers to clean, they find a three inch-deep layer of excrement. Every day, according to assistant county manager Jack Shomenta, janitors mop the front steps. He estimates it costs the county about $20,000 per year, essentially a full-time salary, just to clean up droppings.

On December 13, the county announced that it would invest $9,800 to install poison perches and kill the birds. "There was such an immediate uproar that the county set up a pigeon hotline that received 2,000 calls, ranging from hardcore bunny huggers to people screaming that pigeons were just flying rats and should all be killed. Shomenta, for one, was surprised that so many people could get that worked up over pigeons.

Dave Roth staged a "Save the Pigeons" demonstration outside the central court building; 40 people picketed. And he organized a "Pigeon Coalition" that includes members from the ASPCA, from bird and animal rehabilitation shelters, and from other Valley animal-rights organizations.

Then when state and federal wildlife agencies warned that poisoned perches could also kill protected bird species such as peregrine falcons that turn up downtown, the county changed course.

On February 22, Roth and coalition members, along with Robert Ohmart, a professor of zoology at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies, met with county officials. The new plan was to trap and either release or, more likely, euthanize the birds.

"We don't know for sure, but we think it will run between $10,000 and $15,000 the first year, said Bob Gagen, who was then director of facilities management for the county.

You'll spend that on Phenobarbital alone," to kill the birds, let alone trap them," retorted Treva Sloat of the ASPCA.

Roth and the pigeon coalition want the county to install netting that would keep the pigeons out altogether. Then they would be forced to go elsewhere. He taped the meeting so that he could hold the county to its pronouncements. He had visual aids to convince the county officials that pigeons are not filthy "rats with wings."

As Robert Ohmart recalls, "Dave brought a pigeon and let it walk around on the table, and it was friendly and it pooped on some papers. And he tried to get them to cuddle it. And I'm sure they viewed him as somewhat of a pigeon-hugger nut-type. I left feeling it was a done deal. They're going to trap pigeons."

Leave aside, for a moment, Roth's truly odd affection for a bird that most people don't want to touch. He's got a strong financial argument for taking the humanitarian approach to the jail's pigeon problem, as well.

Shomenta has pointed out that to install specially designed bird-proof metal netting on the north and south sides of the jail building would cost $28,000. It would be a permanent measure. If it costs $10,000 to $15,000 to trap and euthanize the birds per year, simple arithmetic says that the cost of netting would be recovered in two to three years, not to mention the cost of the daily cleanup [which, Shomenta stated, above, costs $20,000.00 per year, thus raising the total cost to around $30,000 every year]. Furthermore, there is a vinyl coated fabric netting available that is nearly invisible, and still cheaper than netting, that lasts five to ten years before it needs to be replaced.

Shomenta has put out a request for proposals to end the pigeon problem. He admits that he has received at least one proposal to install netting, but he cannot reveal its cost. He has received several for trapping. It would be a lucrative contract for any extermination company, guaranteed long-range employment because it doesn't work.

Here's where it gets funny. County officials claim to be considering proposals to trap pigeons and then release them at a faraway location. But where?

"One of the wildlife groups indicated they would transport them over the state line to California," Shomenta says. California officials would certainly be thrilled. It wouldn't work, because pigeons are known for their uncanny ability to find their way home. Even Roth denounces the release proposal as "A-1 flaky." Of course, Shomenta concedes that the release theory stipulates that the birds be euthanized if they can't be humanely taken and released elsewhere.

"If they let them go, they're going to come back," says Joe Gellerstedt, an executive at a Midwestern company that has manufactured bird control products for more than 40 years. "What they're really going to do is kill the birds somewhere else, and if people get wind of that they get very unhappy."

Furthermore, according to wildlife and pest control experts, removing birds would be like bailing out a boat without fixing the hole in the bottom. As soon as prime habitat becomes vacant, new pigeon tenants will move in.

"Instead of making the jail inhospitable to pigeons, they're going to try to trap them," says Robert Ohmart, the zoologist from ASU. The only thing they will do is trap a few for a short period of time. Then the remaining ones will wise up, never go near the traps, except for the young dumb ones. They'll create a giant void, and there's hundreds of thousands of pigeons out there looking for a home."

Removal is not going to stop it because of your reservoir of pigeons in this valley - we're talking millions," says Joe Yarchin, an urban wildlife specialist with the Game and Fish Department "There's something that's driving the animal or allowing the animal to come into the area. That needs to he straightened out."

The "something," of course, is food and shelter. Shomenta has considered cutting down on the food source by banning hotdog vendors from in front of the jail. 

"We never had this problem before they were there," he says.

Roth also presented to the county as evidence a letter from Dr. Richard Kramer, research director for the National Pest Control Association. "While the strategy of bird removal, (bird trapping and/or lethal baiting) reduces the population, it only offers a temporary solution to the problem," he writes, "Birds will migrate back into the area and reinhabit previous roosting sites if they are not excluded from the site. So in either case, for long-term bird management, exclusion is essential." 

Shomenta won't reveal which way he is leaning. Professor Ohmart speculates: "I think they're started on a road of pigeon removal and they're not going to be confused by the facts." 

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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