Homosassa, Florida -- When members of the homeowners association at The Meadows subdivision in Homosassa decided to hire a trapper to remove more than 50 Muscovy ducks that live on the property, they probably never knew the firestorm they were creating.
Two residents who live in the community started asking questions and they, along with a few others, spent hours researching what really happens to the ducks once they're trapped.
Adam Gipson is a trapper who runs Adam Gipson Critters in Crystal River, Florida. He says he no longer removes Muscovy ducks, "It's a challenge. There's really no humane way that I know of to deal with them."
Lisa Cocuzza lives in the community and said she cried when she learned the ducks are often euthanized. She's no stranger to making her feelings known either. In high school she says she went to the school board and asked for permission to leave her biology class whenever, frogs and pigs were being dissected. She says, "I thought text book knowledge was enough so I did not have to attend class on those days."
Several decades after that experience she and her neighbor Susan Hayden are now focused on saving the special breed of ducks.
Video: Duck controversy hits Homosassa neighborhood
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) say's Muscovy ducks are an invasive species. To make matters worse, the ducks reproduce very quickly when they're not controlled.
The health department in Lee County says, "They have been here for over 100 years since being imported from South America where they have long been known as good eating. Larger than most domestic ducks, Muscovies have substantially larger amounts of breast meat. In fact, in many parts of the world and even elsewhere in the United States, they are considered an epicurean delight. If you Google "Muscovy duck," you would come back with over 80,000 responses-and a good portion of those would be recipes!"
According to research conducted at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural and Sciences Extension, the ducks are in all 67 Florida counties, especially around parks, lakes, ponds and streams. Researchers say the ducks typically stick around because people feed them. The ducks eat vegetation in and around water, seeds and acorns but can become aggressive once they get accustomed to humans feeding them.
UF researchers also found that the ducks generate a massive amount of droppings that can contaminate water, and the ducks can spread disease to native ducks.
At The Meadows subdivision some love the stocky birds with the red markings on their faces while others despise them.
See also: Ducks keeping neighbors up at night
Rose Davey lives in the community and wants the ducks to stay. She's even created a website to educate the community and the public about them. She says the animals are friendly and make wonderful pets. Davey says, "Just like an excited puppy they wag their tails with a warm greeting when they see a familiar person. They keep the insect and critter population under control." She says they're more efficient that insecticide and a lot safer for the environment.
But those who dislike the ducks reiterate what researchers say they already know.
So many people in Cocuzza's community are unhappy about the ducks that on August 8, the Meadows of Citrus County Homeowners' Association decided to hire a trapper and pay him $1,600.00 to get rid of them.
Some complained the ducks were ripping the shingles off a homeowner's roof and getting into neighbors' garbage.
No timeline was set so Cocuzza and her neighbor Susan Hayden set out to figure out a way to coexist with the ducks, hoping to make everyone happy in the process. But it hasn't been easy and they're not the first to try. Hayden says the stress has taken its toll on both of them. She says, "She's losing sleep over this, and I can't eat."
In fact to say Cocuzza has worried sick about the ducks is an understatement.
She adds, "I really crashed after trying so hard to get people to listen, having heard of the vote to remove the ducks, knowing the fate was killing them just crushed me. When I heard I called my Mom sobbing. I just crashed - couldn't sleep for days - went to the doctor the day you called and he said I should let the duck fate go and step away. I could not."
Cocuzza has been a vegetarian since she was 9 years old and says, "I will probably die trying to remove a stray animal, turtle, or cow from crossing traffic." She once saved a stray cow from oncoming traffic while she was barefooted and dressed in her pajamas.
She lives on one end of Pelican Lane. Hayden lives on the opposite end but they come together in hopes they can do something to keep the ducks from being killed.
For Hayden it's a labor of love. She spends time just about every day patrolling one of the four ponds spread across their community. She pulls plastic bags from the pond closest to her home to protect the wildlife. She's so well known for caring for the ducks in her community that a driver on a delivery truck recently stopped by her home frantic for help after he hit one of the ducks.
Hayden grew up in the big city of Chicago and thought for sure she died and gone to heaven when she moved to Homosassa with a population of a little more than 2,000. Of all the wildlife that surrounds her she says the Muscovy ducks are the one thing that makes her neighborhood unique. She says she regularly watches people outside their community bring their children to the pond to feed them.
Her kitchen happens to overlook one of the ponds and she routinely peers out to see the Muscovy ducks along with Egrets, Bald Eagles, Hawks and Sandhill Cranes. She's taken several photos of the animals and just can't understand how anyone can find anything negative about them.
It's one of the reasons why she's spent so much time clearing debris from the pond and pulling fishing hooks out of the ducks webbed feet from time to time. But she doesn't do it any longer. She and Cocuzza feel time could be running out for the ducks so they've been spending all their spare time learning all they can about a risky plan to disturb the ducks eggs so they don't hatch.
UF researchers have found that's one solution that can keep the Muscovy duck population from growing. By disrupting the ducks' nesting you can limit the amount of new ducks that are born. They say the eggs should not be removed though, because the female will just lay more. They suggest the eggs be shaken so they don't hatch and then returned to the nest or replaced with plastic eggs.
The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) says the most humane way to cut down on the populations is by removing newly-laid eggs. They admit, however, that doing so can be a real challenge.
While Hayden says she can't believe it's come down to this she says they have been working with ARFF to learn as much as possible about the process. She says the Muscovy ducks reproduce like rabbits during the summer.
She's noticed that the female ducks do leave their nests for an hour a day to eat and bathe. She adds, "If you find a nest with eggs, you shake the eggs and put them back.
Still she worries about whether they may be creating more harm than good. Hayden adds, "My only fear is of not knowing the stage of the eggs. If you do it too late, the eggs could have partially-developed chicks hatch. I was concerned I couldn't do it alone. We'd have to have clipboards and record keeping. It would take a team effort."
UF researchers say the ducks will dig out shallow nests on the ground and then lay 8 to 16 cream-colored eggs, which they will incubate for about five weeks. In Lee County, Florida the health department says the ducks are year-round breeders that can lay as many as 24 eggs in a single clutch which will hatch in 35 days.
Gipson, a trapper, says you have to be careful when disrupting the nests. Timing is critical and disrupting the nest too late could also put the chicks at risk. He says, "I don't know how effective it is." He says he's heard if you disturb the nest too late the mother may not return. Gipson adds, "You don't want to leave chicks to fend for themselves. She won't be there to protect them."
In the meantime Cocuzza and Hayden stumbled across a different solution which is tied to discouraging people from feeding the ducks. But how do you stop people from doing something that they clearly enjoy and believe is helping the ducks?
University of Florida researchers found that one of the reasons the ducks can become aggressive is because they grow accustomed to being fed and so they stop searching for food in nature. When they're fed by humans the ducks may chase and/or try to bite children. Hayden says the ARFF told them that feeding the ducks even promotes mating. Most humans feed the ducks bread or similar items that have no nutritional value for the ducks too.
Cocuzza spent $80.00 of her own money to buy three signs and she recently donated 2 more to her community that say, "Do Not Feed the Ducks." Tuesday, Oct 1st the homeowners association posted the signs near all of the ponds in the community. Two bulletin boards have also been erected at each entrance to the subdivision to educate people on why they shouldn't feed the ducks.
Cocuzza and Hayden say the signs seem to be working. Hayden says, "It does seem to be getting better."
Hayden is still patrolling the ponds for trash but now she's armed with information to share. She says, "I also look for people feeding the ducks and ask them not to. I talked to a neighbor whose little boy loves to feed the ducks Cheerios." She says when she explained to the mother why they now frown upon the practice and the mother explained it to her son they both seemed to take it in stride.
Hayden says, "That's education at its finest when kids are learning that feeding ducks isn't healthy. I thought the Mom did a great job by then saying, 'We just need to go see them and say hi.'
Cocuzza is encouraged by the signs and says she's already seen a huge difference. The ducks are no longer waddling up to people for food and they seem to have spread themselves out among the four ponds instead of clamoring around one or two ponds where they were being fed. "I don't think people understood what it meant to feed the ducks. This is good. They spend more time in the pond, around the pond and in the wild growth so they are protected from prey."
She says, one of the homeowner's association board members was instrumental in getting the signs and the bulletin boards put up. Cocuzza adds, "The HOA did hear our voice and are working for a better solution. The ducks are now looking for more food by roaming for natural food."
Meanwhile Cocuzza is still trying to protect the Muscovy ducks and other non-native ducks despite her doctor's order.
Researchers found that in South Florida some city ordinances ban residents from feeding the ducks. Cocuzza says, "My goal is to get an ordinance passed in all 67 counties." She says plans to fight to have an ordinance passed in Citrus County to not feed wildlife. "So many people don't really know what that will produce and often it can become a nuisance so you have to understand the ducks and that there are ways to control the population humanely."
The Meadows of Citrus County Homeowners' Association's next meeting is in February. Hayden says even if a trapper is hired, the association has explained that it's likely they won't be able to remove all the ducks and the problem will most likely continue.
Hayden says killing the ducks shouldn't even be up for debate. She says they're protected under Florida Statute 828.12 which states in part:
1) A person who unnecessarily overloads, overdrives, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance or shelter, or unnecessarily mutilates, or kills any animal, or causes the same to be done, or carries in or upon any vehicle, or otherwise, any animal in a cruel or inhumane manner, commits animal cruelty, a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or both.
2) A person who intentionally commits an act to any animal, or a person who owns or has the custody or control of any animal and fails to act, which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, commits aggravated animal cruelty, a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or by a fine of not more than $10,000, or both.
The Lee County Health Department says the ducks are not protected by state wildlife laws or by laws set forth by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act but Hayden says the law is clear that the ducks are still animals and they shouldn't be killed.
Paul Gadke is the secretary for the Meadows of Citrus County Homeowners' Association. When asked if the duck situation in the community where he also lives was getting any better. He says, "I have not been out there."
When asked if the trappers were still being hired to remove the ducks he says, "Nothing has been decided." He says he doesn't know if the homeowners association will release a statement about what they plan to do next. He says, "It's not up to me to make that decision."
Hayden doesn't feel that they're completely out of the woods even though the ducks situation is improving. She says she wants something in writing confirming that the homeowner's association is going to reverse its earlier decision to trap the ducks. She and Cocuzza plan to stay on top of the issue by keeping an eye on the ducks and how they're treated.
Cocuzza says she was asked to go door to door to ask residents not to feed the ducks. Hayden says she saw a man at the pond today that she hadn't seen in weeks and he was feeding the ducks despite the signs. She says he looked like he was enjoying himself. "I didn't have the heart to run out there and ask him to stop."
You may also like...
INVESTIGATORS: Memo warns of terrorist "dry-runs" on airplanes
Obstacles overcome: Deaf varsity football player helps team to 7-0
Pest Invasion: Southeast braces for 'crazy' ants
POLL: Clear majority of Americans want marijuana legalized
Good Samaritan: Convicted felon helps police nab accused shoplifter
PHOTOS: Tornados, waterspouts within the Tampa Bay area
10 News talker: Mysterious smoke ring sighting in Pinellas sky...
Bush League? Autograph exhibit fails authenticity test
Oldie But Ghoulie: Parking cop tickets witch's broom
Tammie Fields, 10 News