Gus and Gladstone: A Love Story

It was midsummer when Melissa and I moved into our new home. It was only about five or six miles from town but, in moving to our new home out in the country we felt that we had found our own special place in a local Eden. Our brand-new home was the realization of a dream for which we had worked and saved for many years. Our house sits on a ridge, alongside several others, and our back-yard slopes steeply down from the house to the shore of a tree-rimmed lake. Each day over breakfast coffee as the sun rose over the lake, we watched a single big white goose floating on the dark green water. To us, and with a little bit of fantasy, that domestic goose looked just like a graceful white swan. We asked our neighbors if the goose had a name, but apparently no one had thought to give him a name; they simply referred to the goose as “the goose.” So, we named him Gus - Gus Goose – after a not-so-bright but very good-natured Walt Disney character of our long-ago childhood comic books. Indeed, up close, and with a little imagination, Gus did look quite like a cartoon goose. He was large, round, and very white with bright orange legs, feet, and beak. And his dark eyes, rimmed with orange and pale blue, missed very little that happened in our neighborhood.


For much of each day that first summer, Gus paddled from one end of the lake to the other, occasionally hooting and honking, proclaiming exclusive title, not only to the lake, but to all the land and to all the grass that touched its shores. The only other geese we ever saw were occasional Canada geese, travelers from the far north. These brown and black geese, on their way south along the Mississippi Flyway, would stop for a day or so of rest before moving on. Gus tried his very best to drive them away from what he considered to be his private lake, but the wild and sophisticated Canada geese just ignored all the flapping and honking of our silly domestic goose and went on with their business of resting and feeding with quiet self-assurance.


During that summer, Gus supported himself by grazing on household lawns, but as autumn turned to winter and the green grass turned to brown, he seemed to have less and less to eat. So, we would go down to the shore each frosty morning to feed Gus some cracked corn and lettuce, a meal which he consumed noisily and with enthusiasm. Most mornings Gus would be right there by our dock waiting for his breakfast. On others, his business may have taken him to a far shore, but as soon as he heard our back-door open, he would hurry across the water to claim his corn. Goose feeding became as much a part of our morning routine as packing lunches and hot cups of coffee.


As that first winter deepened, ice formed at the edges of the lake and then one morning ice covered the whole lake. The lake no longer afforded Gus a sanctuary from the red foxes that inhabit the nearby woods or the coyotes that live down by the railroad tracks. We wondered how Gus was going to cope with that problem, but he solved it cleverly. He took to spending most of his time on our next-door neighbor’s basement porch. It was a good solution, because at that time the family had two teen-age girls. Consequently, there was usually lots of human activity at all hours of the day and night which was certain to discourage shy predators from coming too close.


However, the journey from their basement porch to our dock to get his morning ration of corn became hazardous because those big flat orange feet, so efficient when swimming, provided Gus with almost no traction at all on the wet, smooth ice. Hurrying for his breakfast, Gus would sometimes slip and fall forward on his face, wings and neck outstretched on the ice. Other times his feet would unexpectedly shoot sideways. Then Gus would do an awkward split and land on his rump. Fortunately, the winter was mild, and the lake remained solidly frozen for only a few weeks, although we did get to go ice skating a couple times. And when the ice melted, Gus regained the comparative safety of an open-water refuge if predators should come too close.


We had mentioned to the developer of our area that it might be nice if Gus could have some company, and one Saturday afternoon in late February, just as we were finishing preparations for a dinner party, a man parked his pickup in our driveway and headed down to the lake carrying a white goose under his arm. We hurried outside and watched the man as he released the new goose into the water. He told us that our goose would be much happier now that she had a male friend. What? Gus Goose, a girl goose? We had just assumed all along that Gus was a guy. We hadn’t known how to tell the difference, but seeing the two geese side-by-side it was quite clear that Gus was indeed a girl. She was less massive, her beak and head had a different shape, and she had a higher voice. What to do? Should we rename Gus with a female name, or should we continue to call her Gus. And then, what name should we give to the new goose? In the end, we named him Gladstone Gander, after another Walt Disney comic book character, and Gus Goose remained Gus Goose.


From the very first day that they were together, Gus and Gladstone were rarely more than a few feet from one another. They swam side by side, foraged together, bathed together, groomed together, came to breakfast together, and slept close together on the shore, each head tucked under a wing. Gus and Gladstone eventually mated and sometime thereafter, Gus built her nest at one end of a large flower box next to our house. The nest was an uncomplicated affair, little more than a shallow depression in the pine-bark mulch with a few small sticks forming a rim. Gus laid six eggs and about a week after the last egg was laid, she began to sit on the nest. Gus quickly became devoted to her nest and eggs, leaving them only two or three times a day, and then for just a few minutes. Day after day while Gus was sitting on the nest, Gladstone waited by the water, standing guard, and looking up the hill toward the flower box where Gus was just barely visible above the rim. Each time Gus would leave her nest and start walking down to the shore, Gladstone would run halfway up the hill to greet her with loud calls and great flapping of wings. His genuine joy at having her rejoin him, if only for a short time, was clearly apparent. But Gus was a most determined creature, for after she had rinsed off in the lake, taken a short drink, and eaten a little grass, she would put her head down and trudge purposefully back up the hill to begin another long session incubating her eggs. Gladstone would follow close for a short way, stop, and then silently watch her go the rest of the way to the nest before turning back to stand guard by the lakeshore.


As the weeks wore on, Gus got thinner and thinner – she was eating very little – and even though Melissa took corn to her and put it right next to the nest, she refused most of it. Gus was no longer round and white. Her feathers turned a pale gray and even her big orange feet lost their bright color. Our feelings of anticipation turned to worry because Gus had been on her nest for close to five weeks and no little yellow goslings had appeared. A trip to the library and a call to our veterinarian suggested that the eggs should have hatched in around thirty days and that something must be wrong. We waited a few more days, just to be sure, and then, when Gus was down by the shore, we removed her eggs, put them in a basket, and carried them away. They smelled rotten, right through the unbroken shells. Gus returned to her nest, sat where her eggs had been for one more night, and then left it for good. The experience did leave its mark however, because sometimes, even weeks later, when Gus passed by the flower box on her way to graze on our front lawn, she would look in through the plants toward the end where her eggs had been, pause for a moment as if dimly remembering something, and then continue on her way.


The next winter was milder than the one the year before. The little lake never completely froze over, and the geese always had a safe place to swim. We fed them most mornings and their noisy enthusiasm for cracked corn and lettuce was great. Gus was once again nice and round. Her colors had returned. But, when spring came and we opened our windows, it was clear that Gus and Gladstone had both become a whole lot noisier than they had been the previous fall. It seemed that they felt obligated to make a huge commotion whenever anything at all happened on any part of the lake, no matter how inconsequential or distant it might be. Their honks, hoots, and trumpeting echoed over the whole area, often well before sunrise and long after dark. Some of our neighbors complained that the peace and quiet they had sought by moving from town into the country was being spoiled by “those *#&%@ geese”. We had to agree. In late April, someone shot Gladstone in the neck, probably with a pellet gun. The wound apparently was not serious, but his white feathers were stained with blood for several days. We worried that some day the geese might come to much greater harm. It had become “the goose problem” and it was discussed at a meeting of the homeowner’s association. One day, the developer came by to ask if we would mind if “our” geese were moved somewhere else. We said that we wouldn’t mind. But we did. He indicated that he would take care of the matter and that we shouldn’t worry. But we did. We cared about those silly noisy creatures, and we cared a lot.


On a Saturday morning in mid-May, a man in a plaid shirt and bib overalls whom we had never met came to our home carrying a long hook-shaped snare made from stiff wire. He indicated that he had been hired by the homeowner’s association to catch the geese. He said that he had tried to do that the day before but had failed because the geese would not let him get close enough. He instructed Melissa to call the geese to her so that he could use his snare. Together, Melissa and the man went down to the shore. Melissa called and both geese obediently came right up to her. The man quickly snared Gladstone and held him by one leg high in the air so that Gladstone could neither walk nor fly. With Melissa holding Gladstone’s wings, the man trussed Gladstone’s legs together with twine and then secured his wings with more twine. He then carried Gladstone up the hill and tossed him into the back of his pickup truck. He indicated that he would check to see where the goose was to be taken and drove off. Gus was out in the middle of the lake, screaming.


As the day wore on, her screams became more intense, and to our minds, more and more anguished. We waited. The man did not return. Although Gus returned to shore that evening, she continued to shriek for her lost Gladstone through much of the night and into the next morning. When we returned from church around noon, Gus was calling more earnestly than ever and swimming in tight circles just off the end of our dock. There was no sign of the man who had snared Gladstone and further, we had no idea at all where Gladstone had been taken. The man had left his snare behind and we thought that just maybe we could use it to catch Gus and then we could reunite the geese. But we had no idea where Gladstone was. And, if we were to catch Gus and then take her to the wrong lake, it would simply make matters much worse. The developer could not be reached by phone.


I went out to my shop in the garage to work on some shelves that I was building with the sole intent of making enough noise with hammer and saw to drown out the sound of Gus crying down on the lake. Some friends dropped by and we were discussing the shelf project when the door connecting our house with the garage burst open and Melissa shouted “I’ve had it! I just can’t stand it anymore!” Our friends looked at both of us in some bewilderment believing that her outburst signaled some here-to-fore unknown but serious problem in our marriage. However, it was the sound of Gus, lamenting the loss of her Gladstone, that Melissa could not stand. Melissa said that she was determined to do something about it and that she would start doing it right now. She went back in the house and spent much of the afternoon on the phone. After many calls, false leads, and some dead ends she finally discovered the name and phone number of the man who had snared Gladstone. From him she learned that Gladstone had been taken to Bleyer’s pond, a small private nature reserve about ten miles from our home, where there is a resident flock of domestic geese.


We got some cracked corn, called Gus, and with surprisingly little coaxing she came about halfway up the hill where I caught her using the man’s snare. She struggled very little as I secured her feet and we put her in the back of our SUV, wrapping her in a blanket so that she could not hurt herself if she flapped her wings in the enclosed space. I drove while Melissa rode kneeling on the rear seat and facing backward so that she could comfort Gus and hold the blanket. As we went along, I could hear Melissa quietly talking to Gus, trying to reassure her, telling her that things were going to get a whole lot better. Gus simply made small noises and stayed mostly still with her head and neck protruding from a fold in the blanket.


When we got to Bleyer’s Pond, we could see a flock of around twenty or so large white geese grazing on the far shore, around a hundred yards or so from where we had parked. We watched the flock for a few minutes, and we could see that there was one goose that seemed to remain apart from the rest. Could that be Gladstone? No way to tell. All the geese looked pretty much the same. We got back in the car and drove to a place where the road passed close to the shore. We stopped and unloaded Gus. I carried her down the bank to the water, took off her blanket, and cut the string holding her legs. Then I lowered her to the ground and released her. Gus walked unsteadily to the water’s edge, stopped, and then stayed quite still, looking from side to side. She appeared to be terribly confused – nothing at all looked familiar. She had no idea what had just happened to her or where she was. Gus stepped carefully into the water, picking her feet up high with each step as she walked in the shallows as if to say, “I do not know this water nor do I like it very much.” Although I had been her captor, she stayed close beside me as together we walked slowly along the shore. That may have been because I was the only familiar thing in view.


We were startled by a loud call from the far shore. Gladstone?? Could it be?? A big white goose came out of the flock of identical-looking white geese. The voice was familiar. It just had to be Gladstone. Somehow, he had recognized Gus from far across the pond and now he tore across the water, neck outstretched, head low, calling continuously. Gus answered his calls and paddled swiftly out from shore, leaving a broad wake behind her. The two came together somewhere near the middle of the pond. In the meantime, the whole flock of white geese had moved like a wave, quietly from the shore and into the water, staying some distance behind Gladstone. They watched as Gus and Gladstone circled around each other, honking enthusiastically. Then, side by side the two headed across the water toward the flock of other geese. At that moment, the whole flock, which had been absolutely silent up to that moment, began to call, each long neck and orange beak pointed straight up to the sky, jubilantly celebrating the reuniting of these two. Gladstone and Gus swam back to the trumpeting flock. It seemed to us that Gladstone was introducing his bride to the other birds. The loud trumpeting continued. Melissa and I, with tears blurring our vision, watched until we lost track of our two special geese as they joined the flock and could no longer be distinguished from the others by human eyes.

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