September 22, 2000

Researcher Discusses Problems With Goose Feces

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Dr. Monica Lee Tischler of Benedictine University enlightened Cornellians on the microbacteria carried in the excretory system of wild geese yesterday in Riley Robb Hall.

A few years ago, Dr. Tischler was approached by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which was looking for some information on a problem it was having–with goose feces.

Specifically, the State of Illinois was concerned with the amount of feces that Canadian geese Branta Canadensis were leaving on the playgrounds of the state, and were curious to know if these piles of excrement were affecting the health of local children.

Formerly, Canadian geese migrated in the colder months from Canada to the southern plains of the United States. As man has impeded upon their natural habitats, the geese have begun to migrate smaller distances, until at this point they migrate almost no where at all.

The geese have chosen to settle on the plains of Illinois, with a large proportion setting up their homes in the suburbs of Chicago.

The result was that these geese began to populate Chicago area playgrounds, littering the areas with feathers and feces.

“Every playground in the area was completely covered with goose feces,” Tischler reported.

When a sudden outbreak of diarrhea struck children that played on the playground, Illinois officials became concerned that the geese were causing the problem.

Tischler and her colleagues stepped in and began the difficult process of collecting geese feces for experimentation.

“We weren’t allowed to physically touch the geese,” Tischler commented on her problems with collecting fresh samples.

When Tischler began running the experiments, she came across some interesting results. She found a variety of bacteria, but couldn’t identify any as human pathogens.

“[What we found] was not a match for anything anyone had known. But I felt that if these were infectious, they were not horrendously infectious,” Tischler commented.

“If you were to take any fecal sample, you would probably find some type of pathogen — but that’s just a guess,” she said. “We did not find very many human pathogens and we had trouble identifying many of our bacteria.”

The Center for Disease Control didn’t have a much easier time identifying the bacteria, and also couldn’t comment on whether they were human pathogens.

All in all, Tischler’s group found over 250 different types of bacteria but believed none of them to be harmful to humans.

Where the real story began was after the research was wrapped up. Tischler had little to report to the state up to that point.

“It’s nice to get negative results because it means the geese aren’t a problem, but it’s frustrating because it doesn’t leave you much to report,” Tischler said.

Once the bacteria had been categorized and the case seemingly closed, a friend of Tischler’s suggested she test the samples for antibiotic resistance. The results were fairly remarkable.

“Anything above 20 percent resistance to an antibiotic is a cause for alarm,” Tischler said as she showed a slide with large resistance numbers scattered all over the place. “As you can see, there is a fair amount of antibiotic resistance among the geese.”

This finding was so groundbreaking that it earned Tischler an article in The Science News.

Of particular importance is whether or not the waterways around Chicago carry antibiotic resistance, a question that as of now stands unanswered.

If this resistance is being carried in the waterways, the ramifications for the population could be enormous in the future.

In the mean time, the news is good. The feces, while unsightly and annoying, has no suspected effect on the health of children.

Whether that means the children are safe from bacteria however, remains to be seen.

Archived article by Charles Persons