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Opinion >  Column

Doug Clark: Paul Baker’s civil disobedience comes in a bread bag

Paul Baker  tosses bread to waiting ducks at Cannon Hill Park in Spokane on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Baker tosses bread to waiting ducks at Cannon Hill Park in Spokane on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Exactly as billed, Paul Baker crested the snowy knoll and was immediately given a hero’s greeting by the gang at Spokane’s Cannon Hill Park.

First one. Then three. Then five more of his fans flocked to the 55-year-old real estate appraiser who always shows up bearing bags of bread.

“That’s what happens,” said Baker. “One of them starts talking to the others and pretty soon they all know I’m here.”

For weeks now, Baker has made it his near-daily mission to feed the hungry ducks hanging out at the South Hill park’s small pond that is kept from freezing over by a continuously flowing water spigot.

Baker’s friend, Kim Meulink, sent me an email with snapshots in hopes I’d write about it.

“It’s so heart-warming to read human interest stories when there is so much news of sadness and disaster,” she wrote.

So one morning last week I drove to the park and watched this good Samaritan at work.

“What’s going on? Are you hungry? Want some?”

Baker chatted to the ducks as he doled out small chunks of Western Family wheat bread (“Delicious and Wholesome,” according to the package) to 23 muttering mallards.

All that was missing was one of those sappy movie soundtracks, like “Born Freeeee, as free as the wind blowzzzz …”

After a few minutes I broke the mood by asking Baker if he’d, um, checked on whether it was OK to be out here feeding the fowl.

Baker told me he plans to stop once the weather warms up and ducks have “other food sources.” Besides, he added, “I didn’t see any signs.”

I sauntered maybe 25 feet to his left where a skinny metal pole jutted out of the ground. I started laughing. “You mean like this one?”

Baker asked what the sign said.

“Don’t feed the ducks,” I answered, still laughing.

This all started about a month ago when Baker bought a couple of Arby’s sandwiches and decided to go eat them at the park.

Forgoing the buns, he shared some pieces with the ducks, which went after them like the unfed urchins in “Oliver Twist.”

“These guys were hungry,” Baker said. “They acted like they were starving.”

Wanting to help the birds survive the cold, cruel winter, the tenderhearted man drove to a nearby Rosauers store and came back with a couple of loaves of bread.

When that routine proved costly, Baker started buying slightly stale bread at an outlet store for 10 bucks per shopping-cart load.

“I didn’t even look for a sign,” Baker conceded. “I just saw that they were hungry and I was going to feed them.”

Make that signs. I found two on the south side of the pond and the wording is much more detailed than just don’t feed the ducks.

They read, “Please …

Do not feed the ducks. Human feeding can cause:

Poor nutrition.

Spread of disease.

Inability to escape predators.

Water pollution.

Overcrowding.

Delayed migration.

“Ducks on this Pond are wild, please help us keep them that way. For more information please contact: Spokane Parks and Recreation (509) 625-6200 or www.spokaneparks.org.”

Baker struck me as a great guy with noble intentions.

A Spokane old-timer like me, we grew up in an era when feeding the ducks was simply part of the culture.

I remember my mom saving bags of dry bread pieces that we’d haul to the parks for duck-feeding fun and frolic.

But that was back in the unenlightened Stone Age, of course.

Later, I called the number on the sign to find out what sort of high crimes Baker was committing.

After a brief time on hold, I reached Steve Nittolo, horticulture supervisor for Manito Park and the Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens.

“We’re trying to educate people rather than punish them,” he said, adding that mallards are federally protected birds that are able to fly to the river to get all the grub they need.

Nittolo described bread as “empty nutrients.”

Unauthorized feeding of wildlife, he said, is mentioned under an “annoying or teasing animals” section of Spokane municipal code that actually carries penalties of fines and even jail time.

Not that this would ever happen.

Parks officials have never called the law on anyone for feeding the ducks, explained Nittolo.

“People mean well,” he added. And they “don’t look at signs very much.” Parks protocol is to give duck feeders a brochure that will hopefully educate them.

“We don’t even ask them to stop,” Nittolo said. “We try to be sensitive.”

Will this have any impact on Baker’s bread redistribution efforts?

Apparently not.

He thinks he’s making a difference in the lives of his feathered friends.

Or as Baker quipped during my time with him at Cannon Hill Park: “Pay no attention to the man behind the ‘Do Not Feed the Ducks’ sign.”

Quack!

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.

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