By Ben Joravsky

On a blazing day in mid-June, Cheri Lassila was walking by the North Pond in Lincoln Park when she saw the duck.

It was dead.

Within a few days she saw several others just like it–that is, dead or dying.

By the end of the month she and others were spreading the news that ducks were dying and the Park District was at least partly to blame. “They could have done more to save the ducks,” says Lassila. “They should have done more. If the media hadn’t done stories I don’t know if they would have done anything.”

The dead ducks are just the latest contretemps of the North Pond rehabilitation project, which, depending on one’s viewpoint, is either a great restoration effort or an ill-conceived mess.

One thing’s certain–the $1 million undertaking is ambitious. The Park District pledges to restore and beautify the pond, located just east of Stockton Drive between Fullerton and Diversey. For the last year or so, workers have been clearing away invasive weeds and trees and using muck dredged from the pond’s depths to fortify the shoreline. They’ve planted flowers and shrubbery and added a gravel walkway along the water’s edge.

Their effort follows months of preparation overseen by a task force of residents and environmentalists. “The Park District’s doing a good job,” says Veronica Cook, a retired schoolteacher who lives near the pond and chairs the task force. “Our purpose is to clean up the pond and beautify the shoreline. It will be a much better habitat for migratory birds and a much quieter, more beautiful place for people to enjoy contemplative recreation.”

Despite the planning, it seems that each phase of the project is greeted with as many jeers as cheers. First there was the matter of the Nature Museum (which the task force had nothing to do with), a slab of concrete and glass that Park District officials insisted on sticking next to the pond.

Then there’s the issue of the carp, which once flourished in the pond. After much debate, the task force agreed that the carp had to be killed no matter how much satisfaction they brought to fishermen. They were bottom feeders that stirred up sediment that muddied the water and killed off the plants that kept the pond from eroding the shoreline. “The murkier the water, the less sun that will get in and the less plants that can grow,” says Cook. “The pond will be stocked with other fish.”

But nothing stirred as much passion as the ducks, which are treated almost like family pets by many pond visitors. Lassila, for instance, spends so much time at the pond she knows most of the ducks by sight. “I feed the ducks, the squirrels, and the pigeons,” says Lassila, who’s an artist. “I love walking by this pond. It’s so peaceful.”

Once she and a homeless man freed a duckling that had been snared in goose netting along the water’s edge. Another time she watched as a familiar resident of the pond–a big white duck known as Daphne–mated with a mallard. The whole duck-watching community was humming after that one; everyone hoped for ducklings. But some crows ate the eggs.

“Daphne wasn’t real protective, which sort of surprised me, since I’ve seen geese go after children who were picking up their goslings,” says Lassila. “But every day at lunchtime I would see the crows pecking at the eggs. They ate them one by one. There’s not much we could do. You see stuff like that all the time. It’s like a little soap opera by the pond.”

With so many regulars around, it’s no surprise that people noticed when the ducks started dying in early June. Some of them actually scooped up dying ducks and brought them to the vet.

“I came in to work on June 14 and someone had brought in a duck,” says Alice Murtas, a pond regular who works at a north-side animal clinic. “I took one look at the duck and said, ‘My God, it’s Daphne.’ Of course I recognized her. I’ve been feeding her for years. She was in really bad shape. She couldn’t hold up her head.”

It turned out that Daphne, like many other North Pond ducks, was infected with avian botulism, a strain of the disease that infects birds but not other animals. It’s an illness that slowly debilitates birds until they can’t lift their necks. Ducks in the water topple over and drown; on shore they thrash about gasping for air.

By the end of June from 40 to 70 ducks had died–the number depends on who’s counting–easily half the pond’s duck population. “It was sort of disgusting,” says Lassila, who like Murtas and other regulars began burying the dead. “Some of the ducks were decomposing and flies were swarming around them. I was concerned that other ducks would eat the insects that fed on the maggots and the botulism would spread. Something had to be done.”

So they spread the word by phone and computer. On July 10 Brenda Warner Rotzoll wrote a story in the Sun-Times and Channel Two carried a feature on the news. On July 12 the Park District started pumping water into the pond in an attempt to stop the botulism from spreading. No more dead ducks have been found in the last few days; apparently this plague’s over.

But the debate hasn’t died. Lassila and Murtas suspect the outbreak was triggered by last spring’s dredging. “Who knows what’s buried in that pond?” says Lassila. “When they put the sediment along the shore they might have caused the outbreak by spreading the [botulism spores] to the ducks through the insects. I’m not saying it happened that way–I’m saying that it might have. At the very least, the Park District didn’t do a very good job of managing the pond.”

She also says the Park District was slow to respond to the outbreak. “They didn’t start pumping in water until Channel Two did its story,” says Lassila. “They were late.”

Park District officials say they’re not to be blamed for the botulism breakout. “There’s no way that we can attribute the death of the ducks to the dredging,” says Julie Gray, director of lakefront operations. “The dredging happened back in March. The ornithologists we’ve talked to say there’s no causal link. We were out there with the first affected animal. We think about 40 ducks died. There’s not much more we could have done.”

Cook also defends the Park District. “All the experts we talked to gave us the same recommendations about dredging,” she says. “You get in there to pull up the solids from the middle of the pond and use that to fill in the shore to prevent erosion. They’re doing the same thing at Washington Park and Humboldt Park and Indian Boundary Park, and they didn’t have botulism there. What caused it here I don’t know–nobody does. The bacteria that cause botulism are present all the time. It’s like the cold germs that are always in the air. Whether you get a cold or not depends on a lot of different things.”

Others wonder, why all the fuss? “For one thing, she [Lassila] shouldn’t be feeding the ducks–they’re supposed to be wild birds,” says a task force member. “For another, these are ducks! Ducks die all the time.”

Perhaps controversy is to be expected. The pond’s located in a high-rent district occupied by highly opinionated residents accustomed to being heard. Indeed, there’s already another controversy brewing over the North Pond project, this one having to do with a wrought iron fence that will follow the shoreline.

“That will be the next big issue–I’m already hearing about it,” says Cook. “People see the stakes that are five or six feet high and they’re freaking out. They think there’s going to be this huge fence blocking their view. In fact they’ll trim away the top portion of those stakes. The fence will only be about 42 inches and it will have vertical bars which you can see through.”

Some happy news did emerge from the duck story. Daphne survived. The vet intravenously fed her fluid that killed the botulism. Murtas did the rest. “She was tube-fed for four days and she came around,” says Murtas. “I tube-fed her myself. Now I feed her dog food. She loves dog food. She’s back at the pond. I can call her and she comes and I feed her. She even swims across the pond for me.”

A few ducks and geese are left at the pond, and Lassila and Murtas hope others will find their way to it. “They’re domesticated birds dependent on handouts, but that’s their life,” says Lassila. “For better or worse, this is their habitat. We have to do a better job of protecting it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.