Hoot and bothered: Wildlife advocates demand end to fishing in P’Park after owl caught in line dies

Caught dead: Wildlife rescuer Bobby Horvath couldn’t save this great horned owl that had become ensnared by fishing line in Prospect Park.
Photo by Bobby Horvath

They’re reel-y outraged.

Bird lovers are calling for an end to fishing in Prospect Park after a great horned owl ensnared by line in the meadow died hours following its arrival at a wildlife rescue on April 27.

“Why they allow fishing in this park is beyond me,” said Ann Feldman, a member of the Brooklyn Bird Club. “Everything gets caught in the lines — swans, ducks, herons. This is the first owl, but it’s a stupid policy.”

Park rangers last week tracked the owl for days after noticing it was snared by the line, but couldn’t get their hands on the creature until its injury rendered it unable to fly, according to the rescuer unable to save the ailing bird.

“It was so lethargic and weak that they were able to catch it, and that’s a bad sign,” said Bobby Horvath, who runs Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation out on faraway Long Island. “Whenever you can catch a bird of prey, it absolutely needs help.”

The owl suffered from starvation and a horrific leg wound that exposed its raw flesh, according to Horvath, who said the raptor was beyond saving by the time he received it, and that it perished within hours of arriving at his facility.

“It was in such critical condition — wet, ice cold, pale,” he said. “We gave it heat, pain medication, and fluids for shock, but within three hours, it passed away.”

Great horned owls are rarely spotted within city limits, according to Feldman, who said that until someone spied a nest in the park about four years ago, more than a century had passed without a passerby eyeing one of the nocturnal creatures above Brooklyn’s Backyard.

Feldman said she previously kept watch of this particular owl, a male who left a mate and chick behind, and his nest for the Department of Parks and Recreation — which is currently mapping birds’ of prey nesting spots in order to flag areas where exterminators shouldn’t place deadly rodenticide after a red-tailed hawk ingested the poison in Prospect Park and died in Horvath’s care last December, according to a rep.

And now that the patriarch is dead, its surviving family faces an uncertain future, Feldman said.

“The father is the one that does the hunting, so his death is pretty serious,” she said. “Birds really do need two parents.”

The great horned owl is far from the first bird in the park to suffer at the hands of careless fishermen, who notoriously snare waterfowl and other winged creatures with their lines.

Last year, a swan entangled by fishing line died shortly after being rescued by a local wildlife advocate, who said she watched a robin and a seagull perish after encounters with lines in 2016.

Meadow caretakers at the Prospect Park Alliance installed special receptacles in which to discard fishing supplies back in 2015, and the Parks Department can slap anglers with fines up to $75 for failing to comply with the agency’s regulations, which include the proper disposal of equipment, according to a spokeswoman, who lamented the recent feathered fatality.

“Failure to remove fishing line fragments and hooks from Parks’ land and waters is a violation of our rules, and puts animals in danger,” said Maeri Ferguson. “This is an extremely unfortunate situation and serves as a reminder to New Yorkers to fish responsibly.”

But fishing protocol in city parks follows state laws on the sport — which do not explicitly forbid tossing paraphernalia into the water, according to the leader of another wildlife organization, who demanded Albany crack down on negligent anglers and said her group is raising money to install receptacles for unwanted lines and hooks at all city fishing spots.

“In New York State, they ask not to discard it, but it’s not a law,” said Rita McMahon, a director at the Manhattan-based Wild Bird Fund. “Fishing line hurts a lot of animals, not just water fowl, but turkeys, turtles, and the owls, as you see.”

And although bird lovers may balk at the hobby, catch-and-release fishing is a beloved tradition in Brooklyn’s Backyard that dates back decades — in 2011, meadow stewards ended the park’s long-running Macy’s Fishing Contest that drew youngsters to Prospect Park lake for 63 years before budget cuts rendered it impractical, the New York Daily news reported at the time. Caretakers at the alliance, however, still host summer angling workshops sponsored by the retailer, as well as seasonal fishing events such as the safe-casting class held in the park as part of its Earth Day celebration earlier this month.

Horvath said he doesn’t expect the state to ban fishing in Prospect Park any time soon, arguing line-casters are a generally responsible bunch spoiled by a few bad apples.

“It’s more of an ethical thing, people need to clean up after themselves,” he said. “If you’re intentionally leaving debris behind that can cause damage to an animal, that’s irresponsible.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

More from Around New York