By ANDREW HIGGINS
Jun 15, 2015
WIJK BIJ DUURSTEDE, Netherlands
The hiss of gas, released by a red lever turned by Arie den Hertog in the
back of his white van, signaled the start of the massacre. The victims, crammed
into a sealed, coffinlike wooden case, squawked as they struggled to breathe.
Then, after barely two minutes, they fell silent.
Glancing at the timer on his cellphone, Den Hertog, declared the deed done. "Now
it is all over," he said proudly of his gruesomely efficient handiwork, on a
gloriously sunny day beneath a row of poplar trees on the banks of the Lower
Reviled as a Nazi by animal rights activists but hailed as a hero by Dutch
farmers, Den Hertog, 40, is the Netherlands' peerless expert in the theory and
practice of killing large numbers of wild geese.
On his recent outing to Wijk bij Duurstede, a village in the Utrecht region
southeast of Amsterdam, he killed 570 graylag geese in his portable gas chamber,
fitted with two big canisters of carbon dioxide. That brought his death toll to
more than 7,000 for the week. "It is not fun, but it has to be done," he said of
The Dutch authorities insist it must be done, too. They pay Den Hertog to keep a
ballooning geese population from devouring the grass of cow pastures and flying
into planes taking off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a major hub in Europe.
He is the unpleasant answer to what has become a problem on a grand scale for
Geese populations here have skyrocketed, buoyed by a 1999 ban on hunting them;
farmers' increasing use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which geese apparently
love; and the expansion of protected nature areas. That combination, plus an
abundance of rivers and canals, has made the country a "goose El Dorado," said
Julia Stahl, head of research at Sovon, a group that monitors wild bird
populations in the Netherlands.
Birds that used to return to the Russian Arctic and elsewhere in the summer are
increasingly staying put. Stahl estimates that the graylag goose, which seemed
to be dying out in the Netherlands in the 1970s, now accounts for three-quarters
of the goose population, which can reach 800,000 in the summer and double that
in the winter.
As long as animal rights activists do not interrupt the gassings, Den Hertog
said, passengers flying to and from Schiphol Airport do not need to worry
whether their pilots have the same skills and sangfroid as Chesley B.
Sullenberger III, the US Airways captain who managed to land in the Hudson River
in 2009 after geese knocked out his plane's engines.
"If I can do my job, pilots don't need to worry about doing theirs," Den Hertog
Fears that geese pose a threat to airline safety secured Den Hertog his first
big break, in 2008, a year before the Hudson River landing, when he won a
government contract to deploy his homemade gas chamber. Until then, his family's
pest control company had focused on more conventional tasks, like ridding homes
and schools of pigeons, moles, foxes and other pests.
While a big boost for business, the airport contract also put Den Hertog in the
sights of animal rights groups, which accused him of reviving Nazi methods of
slaughter and began a series of court cases to stop him.
Activists from the Animal Liberation Front broke into his company offices,
setting fire to a back room and scrawling abusive graffiti on the walls. No
arrests were made.
With his offices and adjacent home since fitted with security cameras and a
fence to keep out intruders, Den Hertog hopes that the worst is over, but still
worries about hate mail.
"You are like the Nazis in the war," a recent, unsigned, email read. "I hope you
get a deadly disease and die slowly."
The abuse, he said, got him down but was compensated for by "all the happy
farmers who like what I am doing."
"I have been called every name in the book," Den Hertog said, rifling through a
black folder filled with abusive messages. "I get called a Nazi nearly every
Bart Krol, a vice governor of the Utrecht region responsible for geese policy,
said he, too, received hate mail because of his role as the region's "minister
of geese." He said he did "not enjoy giving permission to kill geese, but I have
the task of implementing what our democracy has decided is the policy for
dealing with this problem."
Stahl, the bird researcher, said she did not oppose reducing the number of
geese, but doubted whether gassing really worked as a form of population
The comparisons to Nazi actions packed such an emotional punch that government
officials for a time backed off from supporting Den Hertog's methods.
But work has picked up sharply since a June 1 decision by the European Chemicals
Agency to formally approve the use of carbon dioxide as a biocide, a ruling that
lifted a cloud of uncertainty about the legality of Den Hertog's approach.
"A lot of people are too emotional about animals," Den Hertog said, scoffing at
what he dismissed as sentimental attitudes shaped by modern urban living. "They
give them names and think they are humans. But nature itself is very hard. When
a bird gets sick, a fox will see it and kill it immediately. But if humans see
it, they want to take it to a hospital."
Since he started in 2008, he estimates that he has killed more than 25,000 geese
around Schiphol Airport, and 50,000 to 60,000 in all. All are donated to a
butcher in Amsterdam who specializes in game.
After the initial uproar over his methods, Den Hertog was barred from using
carbon dioxide and had to resort to other methods, like shooting, or, in a few
instances, bludgeoning them with a hammer.
"It was very ugly, with blood everywhere," said Hugo Spitzen, a conservation
area ranger here who watched an earlier gas-free slaughter.
The use of gas, Spitzen said, posed a public relations problem because "the link
with World War II is pretty difficult," but was "much better because there is no
blood and no panic and only takes a minute or so."