The model boat pond in Central Park is often the scene of fierce competition, but on a recent sunny afternoon I witnessed a real life-or-death struggle. A yellow retriever named Sam bounded away from his owners and plunged into the water to chase the pond’s resident ducks. At first only a few passersby noticed what was going on, but the incident soon expanded into a full-blown New York commotion.
Sam’s owners, an Upper East Sider with thatched blond hair and her two small, blond children, did their best to call their pet out of the water. The kids tried to tempt Sam with a sprinkling of Cheerios, but the dog just paddled harder. The older birds proved capable of flying away from the retriever, but the dog closed in on one of their more helpless offspring, a little brown duckling. Onlookers gasped. But the bird managed to flap its wings just enough to propel itself a few feet farther away.
The morbid prospect of a real Wild Kingdom moment began drawing more spectators to the pond. In true Big Apple fashion, they were not shy about tendering opinions and advice.
“Have you tried offering the dog a sandwich?” a wizened little man in a Members Only jacket asked Sam’s increasingly distraught owner.
An elderly woman in a curly black wig, shockingly false eyelashes, and garish lipstick materialized and lectured the owner about city leash laws. Then a stout woman with a pair of birdwatcher’s binoculars slung around her neck pushed through the swelling crowd: “You need to get that dog out of there NOW!”
“I’m trying,” the owner wailed. She scooted around the rim of the pond, urging Sam to give up and come home, but the dog ignored her, targeting the duck like a radio-controlled submarine.
A Parks worker drove up in a motorized cart. A man in an expensive cashmere sweater turned to him. “Aren’t you going to do something? Shouldn’t you go in there and get him?”
The Parks worker responded with a pained but patient smile. “Eventually, the dog will get tired.” He said.»
Sweater-Man reached into the cart and grabbed a broom. “I’ll use this to grab his leash as he swims by!”
The Parks worker’s patience frayed. “That’s a twenty-dollar broom, sir.”
Like the crowd at a Mets game, the spectators showed that they were not impartial. Most rooted for the duck, but a few placed their bets on the dog, most notably an angelic-looking ten-year-old boy who gave a ghoulish hurrah every time the beast lunged closer.
A man in acid-washed blue jeans offered a harsh solution. “They should shoot the dog with a sniper rifle—take Sam right out—and then get the frogmen to fish him out of the water.”
Sweater-Man turned to a teenage spectator. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you go in and get him.”
The boy shook his head, unimpressed.
A man in gray sweatpants cackled as he put his two cents in. “They’re gonna give that lady a ticket as soon as the dog comes out—no hunting in the park, ma’am.”
A round man in a yellow Falun Gong t-shirt looked on tranquilly, hands resting behind his back. A Park Police vehicle showed up, followed by an NYPD squad car. Urgent conferences followed. By this time the chase had gone on for half an hour and the crowd had swelled close to the hundred mark. Who would tire first, we wondered, dog or duck? Only one thing was certain: no human, neither officials nor kibbitzers, wanted to get their own feet wet.
Finally, a small woman with a little white poodle of her own followed Sam around to the far end of the pool. After removing a pair of dainty black gloves, she leaned out over the water, grabbed the dog’s collar, and hauled him in to shore. A cheer went up from the assembled throng. Sam, leash safely clutched by his relieved owner, went off to watch his two littlest masters climb the Alice in Wonderland statue.
The crowd melted away.
The ducks sailed on.