A year ago, the last two in a line of graceful mute swans at Spokane’s Manito Park duck pond were killed, ending a long love affair between the big birds and the park-going public.
Capucine Zimmerman, a schoolgirl visiting from Mill Creek, Wash., captured what may have been the last photograph of the big birds on April 6, 2006.
“They liked the hamburger buns we gave them,” Capucine said in explaining how she was able to get close enough for her portrait of the imposing birds.
About 12 hours later, one of the swans was found dead along a roadway next to the duck pond, which had been home to a series of swans for 21 years. The other swan was so seriously injured it had to be put down by a veterinarian later the same day.
Officials believe the two were maliciously run over by a motorist.
Capucine and her twin sister, Charlotte, returned to the duck pond with their grandfather, Paul Zimmerman, last Friday.
The swans “were so beautiful,” said Charlotte.
Paul Zimmerman said he would like to see swans reintroduced at the pond.
But that is not likely to happen. State law prohibits importation or possession of mute swans, which were declared to be “deleterious exotic wildlife” in 1991.
Plus, the deaths of the last two swans followed a saga of fatal attacks and harassment of the birds, leaving park caretakers heartsick.
The birds’ size and dominance in the wild may have been their undoing. They were not fearful of humans.
The swan killings last year outraged so many people that a fund drive was started to purchase replacements. The Junior League pledged up to $2,500.
About $400 was raised in donations through the Spokane Parks Foundation, Zimmerman said he was told when he inquired about replacing the birds.
But the effort died when city officials checked with state wildlife agents and found out that state law prohibits the possession or introduction of mute swans to protect native wildlife.
Mute swans (their scientific name is Cygnus olor) were legal when they were introduced with clipped wings to Spokane parks in 1984 and 1985. State wildlife officials apparently allowed the city to keep the swans when the law was changed because the birds couldn’t fly and would stay put.
As beloved as the swans were by the public, they are equally disliked by wildlife agents. Their reputation in the wild couldn’t be further from the image of peaceful white birds with arching necks. When two of them are face to face, their necks form the outline of a heart.
“They are nasty guys,” said Sean Carrell, coordinator of problem wildlife for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia and were brought to North America more than a century ago.
Carrell said that if mute swans were to escape into the wild, they would compete for habitat with native waterfowl, including two other types of migrating swans – tundra and trumpeter swans.
Mute swans also can damage native wetland habitat. And they’ve shown an ability to breed easily in the wild.
“They shouldn’t be possessed, period,” Carrell said.
What’s not commonly known is that Spokane’s experience with mute swans was dotted with a series of unseemly incidents involving the birds’ behavior.
Taylor Bressler, of the city Parks and Recreation Department, cared for the swans when they were brought to Spokane and performed the operation that clipped their wings so they couldn’t fly away. He also had the duty of cleaning up after violence against the birds.
He said a group of nursery school students once witnessed one of the swans drowning a duck right before their eyes.
Another time, one of the swans built a pine-needle nest in a window well of a nearby home and then attacked and broke the window when the nesting swan decided it didn’t like its own reflection.
A swan once dumped over a small sailboat, and in another “drowning,” one of the birds dispatched a small radio-controlled toy boat.
Bressler said that even some people were attacked, but he could not recall any specific injuries caused by swans.
“They look at you like their hearts are evil and cold,” Bressler said, only half-jokingly.
Swans were introduced to Riverfront Park and the Spokane River in 1984, but the birds kept drifting and tumbling over the falls.
A year later, a former Park Board member donated two mute swans – Philip and Helen – to Manito Park, giving flight to the love affair in the admiring eyes of the public.
In 1989, when a baby swan was killed, the donor offered a $1,000 reward for capture of the killer.
Helen and Philip produced three cygnets in 2001. Helen was killed later that year.
One of the offspring was killed in an apparent attack by a driver, who crossed a travel lane to strike the bird, Bressler said.
Another of the three offspring was nabbed in an apparent prank in 2002 and taken to the Spokane River. It later was found swimming near Spokane Community College and returned to Manito.
“It’s a horrible commentary on us as a community,” Nancy Goodspeed, spokeswoman for the city Parks and Recreation Department, said of the violence that befell the swans and ended the city’s tortured love for them.