San Diego The old Le Meridien Hotel appealed so much to Roger Perez as the reception locale for his 1993 wedding to wife Renee that one day on his lunch hour last summer he went back to make reservations for their tenth-anniversary dinner. While on the grounds of what is now Coronado Island Marriott Resort, he strolled back to the harborside site of that reception for a little nostalgia. There he noticed a large tent that the Marriott uses for a variety of events today.
"We had to get our own tent and bring it in," says Perez, who also remembers being asked to pose for photos near one of the swans the Meridien kept. The bird's hissing made him nervous at the time. "But at least we have a nice picture of the two of us there, romantically, with this big black swan," he says. "The hotel had two elegant, large white swans and two fancy black ones. I'm sure their wings were clipped. Who would want those to fly away?"
Today the Marriott Resort keeps only two black swans (perhaps the same ones in Perez's picture) in the pond (which contains a small island) at the head of its semicircular driveway in front of the hotel. The swans share the space with 11 pink flamingos and a small brown duck.
Perez continues, "Since we visited quite often ahead of time to get dimensions for the tent, we saw lots of ducks and ducklings around the grounds too. Kids at the hotel loved the little duckies."
On his return visit last summer, however, Perez saw something upsetting happening to a mother duck and her four brown and yellow fuzzy ducklings. "As I was walking along the hotel's south side toward the tent," he says, "a gentleman came along with a dog on a leash, stopped and reached down, undid the leash, and pointed his hand out. I thought I heard him say something, and the dog took off. My first impression was that he found this dog, corralled it, brought it out, and was now letting it run to someone it belonged to."
But the dog jumped into a long pond running parallel to the sidewalk and started swimming in the direction of the ducklings. As it approached them, says Perez, "Their mother would swim close to the dog to divert it. So the dog started after the mother duck, but when it got near her, she flew up and landed a ways away. Then the dog turned his attention right back to the little ducks. It got to the point where the dog was chasing two of them, and he got so close to one that it dove under the water. So the dog dove after it. And I was holding my breath, because I thought that dog was going to come up with the duckling in its mouth."
In the meantime, the man who had released the dog was yelling at it to come back. Then Perez noticed that a woman nearby had started to respond to the situation. She shouted something to the man that Perez could not make out. He is certain that she was not an employee, because "she had sandals on, she had a tank top that was floral, her hair was done up, and she had jewelry on. So she didn't look like she was working."
Nevertheless, the woman removed the shorts she had on over her bathing suit and waded into the pool, where eventually she cornered the dog, a black and white border collie, grabbed him by the collar, and led him onto the grass. There she seemed to hold the dog for the man still calling after it. The man moved in her direction, bringing him also closer to Perez, who now suspected from the word "Engineering" embroidered on his shirt that he was a hotel employee.
"The other thing I had noticed," says Perez, "is that when the dog was chasing the ducklings, the man who released it was laughing. It appeared that there was some kind of enjoyment for him in the situation. As he came by, I stopped him and said, 'What would you do if the dog caught a duckling?' He looked at me blankly, and I said, 'You know, I think there are laws against what you are doing. You're harassing these animals, and those babies, they can't even fly.' I asked him, 'Do you work here?' And he said yes."
So Perez went back into the hotel and told a woman who earlier had assisted him that he found what he witnessed outside "very distressing." She apologized profusely, "handling the matter well," he says. But after going home and talking it over with his wife, who was looking forward to their anniversary evening at the Marriott, he called back and canceled their dinner reservations.
Roger and Renee Perez have spent time as volunteers for San Diego's Project Wildlife, an organization that helps wild animals in the urban environment. Perez says his specialty was possums. One of the many bites he suffered from possums was on a knuckle, which caused a severe infection. His doctor told Perez, who has been in remission from Hodgkin's lymphoma for four and a half years, that another bite like that could overwhelm his weakened immune system and kill him. So he stopped his work with Project Wildlife, but he and Renee are still animal lovers, a fact that in his own case, he says, goes back to a college interest in the natural sciences. Today, he works as an accountant.
The work of the border collie, whose name is Tweed, receives much more appreciation from its owner, the Coronado Island Marriott Resort, than it does from Roger Perez. The hotel purchased Tweed a year ago from Goosedog.com, a company in Barstow that trains border collies to herd waterfowl away from golf courses and other recreational areas without hurting them.
The Marriott, according to assistant manager Patti Fletcher, likes to have wildlife around the hotel, because its patrons enjoy the animals. But those same patrons complain when the sidewalks on the grounds become dirty from the ducks' droppings. So the resort has chosen to use Tweed as a humane way to control them.
The problem first started several years ago, says Marriott's director of engineering, Tony Del Rios, when "we had a big influx of coots [a common type of black waterfowl, smaller than most ducks] that migrated in at night and were eating all the grass, turning the grassy areas to mud." Tweed does keep the fowl under some control and their numbers low, Del Rios says. Contradicting the story told by Perez, however, Del Rios insists that when the ducks' young are present, Tweed is not allowed off his leash to run free.
Employees around the Marriott say that once ducks are born on hotel property, they tend to make it their permanent home. A stroll around the grounds reveals about a dozen ducks, most of which seem to be mallards, in and around five or six ponds. Last summer the four ducklings Roger Perez saw were the only young ones in sight. He thinks that during nesting a female duck sits on more eggs than 4, a fact confirmed by a mallard website that puts the number at between 5 and 13. He also remembers seeing many more ducks during the short time he spent at the Meridien ten years ago and wonders how the Marriott now keeps their numbers down. But one Marriott employee said he thinks the Meridien used to give people bread to feed the ducks.
There is another duck at the Marriott that is nearly identical to the female Perez saw with her ducklings. Both of the mature ducks are black with white patches at the base of their necks, which resemble a bib. That makes it less likely that they are mallards, though the shapes of their bodies make them look similar. A breed called "black duck" shows that it isn't as dark as the Marriott's black-colored ducks. Also, black ducks are native to the eastern seaboard of the United States and are not found in the west.
After getting out her bird book, Ann Wright, a bird watcher and volunteer at the Audubon Society, addresses the black ducks' mysterious identity. "Mallards interbreed a lot," she says, "and that produces all sorts of unusual results." She thinks that the black color of two ducks at the Marriott probably has come from a number of generations of mallards staying and interbreeding there. "Those ducks," she continues, "are not migrating here now. The migrating season is over."
Is it legal for the Marriott to chase ducks off with a dog? A spokesman at the California Department of Fish and Game sees no problem with it. California law permits owners to protect their property from nuisance animals by herding them away (a border collie avocation), especially where they cause "depredation." On the other hand, the 1918 federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to harass ducks, especially when they are nesting or caring for their young. But if some ducks have grown up at the resort instead of migrating in, then perhaps the Marriott is justified in pursuing its current policy.
Roger Perez, meanwhile, says that he's not done with the issue. "I have been considering contacting some of the people that we knew at Project Wildlife," he says, "to find out whether they would intervene. They rescue injured or trapped animals. And these animals are definitely in danger. The most disturbing thing is that these are ducklings, and they can't fend for themselves."