Seconds after being netted, the duck was babied in the arms of animal rescuer Cathy Horvath.
The tip of its top bill was missing, exposing its tongue. Something had nibbled its back feathers. It was malnourished, yet unafraid of people.
"It's not stressed," Horvath's husband, Bobby, said during the rescue at Camman's Pond in Merrick earlier this month. "It was somebody's pet, obviously."
Every year about this time, wildlife and animal rescuers field a surge of calls about abandoned pet ducks.
The water fowl are dumped at ponds and parks across Long Island, many cast out by families that made "impulse buys" at Easter. Others had been hatched in schools, as a way to teach youngsters about life cycles, rescuers say.
In the wild, discarded ducks are often the ones following people, begging for food. Most rescues involve white Pekin ducks, which are commonly raised for food.
A continuing problem
By most accounts, duck dumping is a longtime problem that, despite the adoption of criminal sanctions against animal abuse, shows no signs of easing.
Volunteers for Wildlife, based in Locust Valley, gets 50 to 100 calls a year about injured or unwanted ducks and geese. Scores of other appeals go out to independent rescuers, like Douglaston lawyer Caroline Lee.
Many duck owners discard their pets when they turn into "pooping machines" a few months after hatching, she said.
"They think, 'OK, we'll release them in the pond. We'll give them their freedom.' It's like releasing puppies and kittens . . . They're abandoning them to a slow, cruel death."
Releasing them is a crime. Tame ducks aren't savvy to dangers in the wild. They can't fly; in winter they're often stranded on frozen ponds. Some, used to eating from human dishes, don't know how to feed themselves.
They include Ezzy, one of six young Muscovy ducks found last August in Heckscher Park in Huntington. Ezzy had been attacked by a snapping turtle and still limps, rescuers said.
Another duck, a Khaki Campbell named Marvin, was found scared and skinny in a Woodbury yard in January.
At the Double "D" Bar Ranch, a Manorville animal haven, the 100-plus ducks there illustrate a sore point among rescuers: class hatching projects.
As school ends, ducks are unloaded by teachers and parents who regretted letting their children adopt the hatchlings, said ranch owner Gay Devoe, who campaigns against duck hatching for students.
"It teaches them it's OK to bring something into the world and then walk away from it," she said.
Some former classroom ducks live in the haven's "gimpy pen."
Without the right care in the incubator, some end up with twisted legs. Last year, a Pekin with a foot facing backward hobbled in circles and fell repeatedly, injuring its face; it had to be euthanized, Devoe said.
Kindergarten teacher Karin Hipp said she recently dropped off five healthy, 2-week-old ducks -- part of the 20 hatched this spring in the East Islip school district.
Ducks enthralled her students, helping them remember life cycle facts, Hipp said.
But Hipp said she and some colleagues search for options. They're uneasy about the classroom ducks' usual fate -- a trip to an Eastport farm where they are raised as food. "Some of them are fine with it," she said, "and others are like 'I don't even want to think about it.' "
Laws protecting ducks
Lee, the Douglaston lawyer, estimates she's rescued about 1,000 ducks in nine years -- as many as half of them from the Island.
A state law discourages ducks as pets by requiring that at least six ducks be sold per transaction, but Lee said not all stores and online sellers comply.
Anyone who releases pet ducks in the wild can be charged with animal abuse, a misdemeanor, said Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"They're not thinking of harming animals, but it's wrong and it's illegal," he said.
The release of enough ducks in one area can change the environment, experts said.
Ducks bred to be big enough for the dinner table can "out-compete the wild population for the same resources," said Nick Gibbons, a Suffolk County parks biologist.
This spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spotted six Pekin ducks at its Oyster Bay refuge. Monica Williams, an agency biologist based in Shirley, said nonnative ducks could introduce "some kind of disease in the ecosystem that could impact other wildlife."
It may take months to find a new home for the duck from Camman's Pond, the Horvaths said, but it'll stay at their North Massapequa home until then.
Cathy, a veterinarian technician, and Bobby, a New York City firefighter, are licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Among the many animals they've cared for are marmosets, a bobcat and Violet the hawk, featured on a Manhattan webcam last year.
The duck with the light green eyes was docile as Cathy kissed its head after the rescue. People take "the easy way out" by dumping ducks, she said.
"It's not right. You touch it, you're responsible for it."
DuckRescueNetwork.org: Forums; help finding homes for ducks.
New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation Council: lists of state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators. nyswrc.org/rehabbers.html
Pet Ducks R Us: Douglaston-based forum for duck rescues and care. groups.yahoo.com/group/petducksrus
Farm Sanctuary: Watkins Glen, N.Y., rescue-adoption nonprofit: 607-583-2225; farmanimalshelters.org/care_main.htm.