March 29, 2006
Feathers Ruffled Over Greenport Geese
By Lisa Finn
It's certain that fuzzy kittens and cuddly canines are common household pets and, according to some, cherished family members. But, when it comes to assorted snakes and snails, birds and bovine, horses and hare, fish and frogs, goats and geese, East End town and village codes are less than clear: Are they beloved household pets or noisy nuisances for neighbors?
That was the question of the evening as Greenport residents gathered last week for a public hearing at a zoning board of appeals meeting regarding the "definition of a household pet."
According to WordReference.com, the definition of a pet is "a domesticated animal kept for companionship or amusement."
But, residents living in close proximity in a one-square mile village have learned that a definition is not as straightforward as printed words on a page. When it comes to the issue of household pets, there are many shades of gray, and of black, white, orange, brown, gray, and even green. And one fact is abundantly clear: One person's pet is another's poison.
The hearing was held at the request of Greenport Village Administrator Dave Abatelli, who has received complaints regarding the early-morning honking of two geese owned by Fifth Street residents Michael and Isabelle Osinski.
The village code states that residents are permitted three "customary household pets."
Abatelli requested the hearing because he is seeking interpretation of the code and a clearer definition of a household pet.
Area municipalities, he said, have variations of their codes, but only the village of Sag Harbor's code specifically states that it is not lawful to keep flocks of chicken, geese, ducks, or other water fowl. In other villages such as Westhampton Beach, there are variations of the code, but waterfowl are not specifically mentioned.
Many municipalities have set procedures for dealing with code violations, with a formal complaint process, which Greenport does not have.
The two emden geese that sparked the flurry of ruffled feathers are named Thanksgiving and Christmas, so dubbed because, when purchased, "we planned to eat them," said Michael Osinski.
Soon, however, the couple and their two children warmed to the winged waterfowl. Although he admitted, "I'm not going to tell you that geese are common household pets," Osinski maintained that the geese have become beloved family members, following him even on the most frigid days as he toils on his oyster farm.
ZBA president Mary Bess Phillips, who works in the seafood industry, reminded Osinski about sanitary requirements for harvesting his oyster crop. Osinski said the geese are fenced off while he is loading the van and on the boat; the Department of Environmental Conservation, he said, have assured he is not in violation of sanitary codes.
Osinski, who grew up in Florida, said the goose is an important symbol to his wife, whose family used it as a symbol for their business in China. The geese, he said, remain on his three-acre property. He also owns five underwater acres. And, he said, while they do honk, the geese honk "much less."
Geese, he continued, are not that unusual in American culture. "We've all learned to read and taught our children to read, from Mother Goose."
Many residents stood up to defend their furry friends. Robert Jarosak said he wakes up pleasantly hearing a chorus of roosters. "I can't imagine living on the water and being angry about hearing a goose," he said.
Margaret Richards, who owns geese, agreed. "The village is too quaint to enforce safety and fire codes but we're too uptown to have geese?" she demanded.
Resident Harvey Strange expressed concerns that geese are wild, and once they are fed, they will attract seagulls. "Once you start with seagulls, that's it." Chickens, he said, bring rats and mice.
Resident David Nyce said a household pet "is any animal kept for non-commercial gain."
Other residents stood up in support of pet diversity, and said limiting the number is a concern. "This scares me because I believe I'm in violation," said resident James Smith. "I have three goldfish in a bowl and a dog," as well as 20 fish in a pond outside that he considers pets because he has trained them to surface for feeding. "If you interact with it, care for it, and provide it with veterinary care, that's a pet." Even spider monkeys are trained to help the handicapped, he pointed out.
Smith and others said that feral cats are a different story, urinating on private property and detracting from area businesses.
Cutchogue resident Benja Schwartz found the issue compelling. "You should be free to have different kinds of animals," he said. "That's what makes life worthwhile. There's barking, and then there's barking. If a dog is barking while playing with the kids, that's part of the joy of living."
Should the ZBA decide to move ahead with a code change, the next step would be to bring the issue before the village board. The public hearing was kept open for future discussion.