Brandishing coffee cups and protest signs, about 100 sleepy-eyed demonstrators blocked entrance to the Venice canals shortly after sunrise Monday, successfully keeping state and federal wildlife officials from killing 350 ducks until a judge could grant the birds a reprieve.
Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki issued a temporary restraining order four hours later blocking extermination of the birds--which wildlife officials fear are infected with a fatal and communicable avian virus. The order is in effect pending a June 1 hearing.
The government believes that the birds should be euthanized to keep them from infecting the 2.8 million wild waterfowl that traverse the Pacific Flyway each year. Venice residents contend that their beloved pets deserve a better fate: a quarantine in the country, medical care and a chance to live.
"We want them quarantined and tested so we can see if this plague is real," said Bill Dyer, a Venice resident and unofficial spokesman for the demonstrators. "All the answers aren't in yet. . . . These are scare tactics from Fish and Game, who believe when in doubt, wipe it out."
Patrick Moore, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game, said his agency is now precluded from killing or capturing the birds.
Moore noted that during the weekend about two-thirds of the ducks had been nabbed by Venice residents and placed in hiding.
"Our major concern now is that people will move the birds around and spread the disease. It would be a terrible thing for Venice to be the city in the country that spreads this disease far and wide."
As early as 4 a.m. Monday, protesters began taking to the canals to make sure there would be no death in Venice. When agents from the Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drove up just after 6:30 a.m., the crowd formed a barricade of bodies on the bridge across Sherman Canal to save their ducks from lethal injections of potassium chloride.
But as things are wont to do in this quirky beach town, high seriousness--the outbreak of Duck Plague known as duck virus enteritis--soon lost out to high silliness. Venice residents protected their neighborhood as only they know how.
Protesters arrived at the canals via bicycle, Birkenstock and Rollerblade. Not satisfied with just ducks, many brought dogs, a woman walked up sporting a silver-crested cockatoo and one boy brought his rat. When things got boring as they milled around awaiting the court decision, local television stations interviewed the boy and played with his pet rat.
And then there were the cellular phones, at least a dozen in the crowd, connecting their owners with protesters at the courthouse and others tailing the retreating wildlife officials. When the phone owners got bored, they called each other. Just to make sure the phones were working.
And because every demonstration has to have its dissident, that role was played Monday morning by a grumbling Mike Stern, who lives on Sherman Canal.
"These people are too rich and have too much time on their hands," he said of the protesters. "My biggest qualm with this is that there are people starving in L.A. and these people are worried," he paused for effect, "about ducks. "
Still, even Stern was prepared to do his part. Had the ducks lost their court battle, he and a buddy had been instructed to snag a nearby canoe, grab his neighbor's three pet ducks from the murky canal and make them disappear.
"I'm not a psycho activist like the rest of these people," Stern said. "But the ducks do add something to the place."
Many protesters blamed an ongoing canal renovation for creating an unhealthy environment in which the disease could spread. Many canals have been temporarily closed for dredging; others are stagnant and choked with ducks and their excrement.
The virus--a herpes strain that causes internal lesions and bleeding in ducks, geese and swans--is spread in part via fecal matter. Moore said it is not known how the birds became infected but he fears that the court solution is no solution.
Before making his ruling, his clerk recounted, the judge wanted to know how the Venice residents "planned on preventing the animals from infecting others. They said they had found a place that agreed to take them. . . . The judge said OK that's fine."
So the neighbors will transport the ducks to an animal preserve in Kern County, one they will not name but say is under contract with the Department of Interior to care for sick, injured and orphaned animals and those requiring quarantine. The cost of caring for the ducks is $500 a month--not including medical care--and residents say they will foot the bill.
"Now we have to figure out the long-term options," Yolande Michael told a jubilant crowd after getting word of the court decision. "We have to figure out the long-term options. Can these ducks be brought back? I'm certainly hoping that we can get our ducks back."
To Moore, who said his agency has not decided what legal steps to take, the quarantine-and-test plan is a recipe for disaster. "You can tell if a bird is infected but you can't tell if it isn't," he said. "You have to do a necropsy. You have to take tissue. Transporting the birds, that alarms us."
At the agency's request, the county Department of Health late Monday issued a quarantine order prohibiting anyone--including residents--from moving the ducks from the area.
In the end, the long morning of protesting and waiting for an answer was too much for Dyer, the unofficial spokesman for the pro-duck faction. Overcome with emotion, he sat on the grass near Linnie Canal and burst into tears as his colleagues began to organize on the ducks' behalf.
"Are you all right?" asked a worried neighbor as she patted his shoulder. "Can I get get you something to drink? Something to eat? I've got some fat-free muffins at home."