This weekend in Echo Park, residents are celebrating the end of a very, very long two years. Since the summer of 2011, Echo Park Lake has been undergoing a drastic restoration. The lake was drained entirely and rebuilt from the lakebed up. Now the boats are back, the joggers are back and even the lotus flowers are back.
City officials say we can expect everything we loved about the lake to return to Echo Park, except for one friendly, feathered resident. Contrary to reports at the time, Maria the goose, star of TV screens and newspapers all over L.A., will spend the rest of her days at the Los Angeles Zoo. Off-Ramp Producer Kevin Ferguson has the story.
Back in February of 2011, Angelenos couldn't turn on a radio, open a newspaper or watch TV without hearing about a goose named Maria.
Eyewitness News, The L.A. Times, Animal Planet, The Wall Street Journal, CBS all profiled retired investor Dominic Ehrler and his best friend, Maria, a gray toulouse goose he'd met on his walks around Echo Park Lake. The two would spend every morning together: Dominic on his scooter running around the lake, and Maria flying alongside:
The two were fixtures at Echo Park Lake until the park was completely overhauled and the ducks, coots and geese living in the lake found themselves homeless. While this wasn't a big problem for the wild waterfowl of Echo Park, finding a home for the human-imprinted Maria proved more complicated.
"We were asked by Councilman [Eric] Garcetti's office and the Department of Recreation and Parks to assist in relocating this domestic goose," said Susie Kasielke, curator of birds for the Los Angeles Zoo.
Maria arrived at the zoo in February 2011 and immediately went under quarantine. In that time, a lot changed for Maria, including her daily routine, her diet, even her gender. Zoo staff quickly discovered Maria was actually a male. Perhaps Mario might be a more appropriate name.
"Now, please, let's understand," said Dominic Ehler, Mario's human companion. "Sometimes I'll say Maria, sometimes I'll say Mario. It's kind of a long story, but I sorta say when he's good he's Maria, when he's bad he's Mario"
In the last two years Dominic has visited Maria almost every day, following the exact same routine. He drives up in his orange scooter at 10 a.m. — right as the zoo opens — and makes a beeline for Maria's pen in the children's zoo.
On a Wednesday morning at the zoo, Ehler approaches the fence. He and the goose greet one another. "Mario! Mario! You're awfully quiet. Aren't you glad to see me?"
Mario honks in reply.
Dominic opens the gate and walks inside. Other than zoo employees, he's the only person allowed in Maria's pen. Once inside he grabs a handful of lettuce; it's breakfast time.
"This is just standard procedure," says Ehrler. "The zoo provides me a little bit of romaine lettuce, sometimes kale, and I just put it in her little water trough."
Dominic's routine lasts about an hour as he relaxes with Maria and interacts with visitors. They're both approachable, friendly, and Mario's especially curious — he tried to take a bite out of my microphone twice.
The zoo is Maria's permanent home now. Among the goats, prairie dogs and more, he greets not just Dominic but everyone at the zoo with a friendly honk.
Susie Kasielke, the bird curator, says the decision to keep Maria at the zoo was an easy one to make. First, he can steer clear from things like unfriendly animals, cars and potentially goose-nappers. Second: He's a lot of fun to have around.
"The staff absolutely adores him," said Kasielke. "And I kind of consider it to be a little bit of a goose resort. He has all of his needs met, he has a full time staff, and a full time veterinary staff and everything that he could possibly need."
And what about Dominic?
"Now the lake is reopening, and the big issue is whether or not Maria or Mario's going back," said Ehrler. "And the thing of it is, is, he's safe at the zoo. He's safe here. We gotta keep in mind that he's a domestic animal. He's not a wild bird, so there is a big difference. And as long as he has interaction with people, I think the L.A. Zoo is probably the best place in the world for him. If he was in Echo Park, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night thinking, 'Is he going to be there the next morning?'"
You can also visit Maria, or Mario. He's at the Winnick Family Children Zoo section of the Los Angeles Zoo every day it's open. And if you show up early enough, you can talk with Dominic, too.