Water Quality Gone to the Dogs


Water quality at Big Creek Lake State Park has gone to the dogs… to a five-year old black Labrador Retriever named Limit, in particular. Limit and his owner, Jon Zunkel, visit the lake near Polk City every day year-round to patrol the geese on the beach.

Zunkel is working to help keep the geese off the beach, but Limit doesn’t see it that way. “This actually becomes a game for him,” says Jon. “All he’s got to do is make his loop and the geese fly off and squawk. He comes back and we’re done.”

The geese population on Big Creek Lake was high before Limit showed up. The gaggles that use the beach during migration and the resident birds vary in number from 40 to 200 and more. They like the beach for the same reasons that humans do: easy in and out of the water, a broad view of the lake and few predators. Keeping the geese off the beach takes constant effort.

The primary effort is to control the amount of feces that get into the water that make it unsafe for humans. According to the Big Creek Lake Watershed Management Plan, geese fecal samples “contain an average concentration of 15,300 bacterial organisms per gram. One Canada goose typically produces around 33 grams of dry fecal material daily.” When the math is done it adds up to a lot of bacteria!

To beach-goers, the visit is more enjoyable with less geese feces on the beach and in the water. To the businesses in the area, a closed beach equals no patrons and no income. There are many people counting on Limit to do his job.

Limit is trained for competition and responds to a whistle. He is not allowed to catch, or even touch a goose, which goes against a retriever’s natural instinct. Zunkel says that Limit is a compliant, softhearted dog—traits that make for a trainable animal. He and Limit are together 24 hours a day, which helps too. Zunkel also runs Tri-County Boarding Kennel east of Madrid.


There are other dogs working at this type of job as well, but their goal is different. Ian Tibboel runs an animal removal business and works at corporate sites in the Des Moines area. His standard customer wants the geese off urban ponds because of their nuisance. The feces clean up from the sidewalks is a large expense as well as the geese chasing people going in and out of the businesses. The ponds’ water quality is not the main issue. Tibboel has sub-contracted with Zunkel to work at Big Creek Lake because of Jon’s experience with dogs and that he lives just a few miles up the road from Big Creek.

Tibboel says that there aren’t a lot of options other than a dog for this job at Big Creek Lake. It seems to be working. The goose population has reduced and the water quality has improved since Limit began working.

Zunkel says that the birds they are dealing with are the birds that come from Des Moines and its suburbs and the resident birds that nest on the lake each year. The migrating birds are basically irrelevant. “We are down to five nests this year,” says Zunkel. “But we have a total of 42 birds out of those five nests. They add up in a hurry. It doesn't take long for 40 geese to really mess up the beach area.”

Zunkel and Limit come to the lake at different times every day to keep the element of surprise. “The birds pick up on what you are doing and they will be back on site 10 minutes after you leave,” says Tibboel. “So you have to vary your approach of them.”

Limit doesn’t care what time he comes to the lake. He just wants to do his job!