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NEWS An Avenging Angel on the Trail of the
Pigeon Poisoner


EW YORK -- As sympathetic victims, common urban pigeons -- even those murdered by the elusive poison-wielding serial killer who has been stalking them in Manhattan for the past two years -- are a tough sell.

Mark MacDonald, a detective for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who has become the guardian angel of all living local pigeons and an avenging angel for the deceased, accepts that the 8 million or so pigeons that use New York as their personal coop-and-poop receptacle will never be mistaken for man's best friend.

The ancient Egyptians and Romans found pigeons most useful when cooked; Venice recently dealt with its pigeon overpopulation problem by gassing 20,000 birds. In New York, exterminators can use avitrol, a legal poison, to eliminate nuisance birds who befoul the terraces, windows and canopies of the city's luxury abodes. MacDonald bemoans but accepts that, too.

"For every 50 pigeons killed today, there's 50 more born tomorrow," he says. But propagation isn't the point. What MacDonald doesn't accept is mean-spirited murder, especially murder with a domino effect that has also killed hawks, peregrines, sparrows, bluejays and a pair of Central Park mallards: "This Mr. Evil is never going to make pigeons an endangered species," asserts the gray-muzzled MacDonald, who slicks his hair back Eddie Munster-style and whose investigative mode is equal parts DeNiro, Columbo and Dumbo (he says it helps to play dumb when you're about to confiscate an illegal or battered pet or to collar the ringleaders and patrons at pit-bull and cock fights).

Against the pigeon killer, though, MacDonald is trying to play it smart. He has to: "He's going to make my life miserable until he makes a mistake and we catch him, and God forbid the poison does trickle down to a child or a domestic pet before we get him."

With or without public sympathy, but with the support of "National Geographic Explorer," which ran a special about his efforts last Sunday on CNBC (it will be rebroadcast on Saturday), MacDonald is staying his course. There's a killer on the loose, and he intends to find him, cuff him and charge him with animal cruelty, now a felony that commands a four-year jail term and $2,500 fine.

It's an unsolved metropolitan mystery where the trail has turned cold after more than a thousand deaths. The detective has nightmares about the elusive bird-hater who continues to toss an illegal and terribly toxic poison, carbofuran, into city streets and parks where pigeons congregate. Accustomed to achieving closure in his cases, MacDonald has become obsessed by his inability to do so with this one, now in its third year.

"It's one of the very few cases in my career where I've done what I swore I wouldn't do: Take the case home with me," he says while rough-housing with Richie, a canine resident awaiting adoption at the ASPCA's East 92nd Street headquarters. "When I get into the car, when I get home, when I'm with my kids, it's there. I may be out on the lake fishing," says the detective, who practices the catch-and-release method, "but my brain is back on Fifth Avenue, trying to figure out if there's some little detail I missed."

From the start, the case of the pigeon perp was assigned to MacDonald, an investigator for Humane Law Enforcement, a pistol-wielding 13-person team that each year handles 4,500 complaints and makes 200 arrests.

MacDonald, a 27-year veteran of the ASPCA, where he started out cleaning kennels at 18 (and met his wife, who worked there 14 years), has a generous respect for all animals. Who else would feel comfortable sharing office space with an impressively fanged quartet of tarantulas (the biggest one is named Conan), a pair of hissing cockroaches (one of his three children christened them Jack and Jill), and a nasty-looking electric eel (call it Anonymous) that packs an 1,100-volt charge. His Eeepy Creepy Day, which stars confiscated animals, is always a big hit when he performs a show-and-tell at city schools.

He landed in the hospital with dog bites twice in the pre-1995 era when his squad, not the Center for Animal Control, was responsible for rounding up strays, but MacDonald didn't hold it against the biters. The Rottweiler who mauled his ribs was defending his home, a junked car; the German shepherd who sank his teeth through MacDonald's right hand was protecting a female. The day he removed a pet bobcat from a Queens apartment, he "felt like a heel. They were taking wonderful care of it."

But it was MacDonald's fondness for pigeons, a relatively rare trait in humans, that made him such a natural to pursue the case when birds began convulsing, and dying, in droves two summers ago on the Upper East Side. Aha! MacDonald's father once raised racing pigeons, Canadian High Fliers and tiplets, back when he and his five siblings were growing up in a Norwalk, Conn., household/menagerie that also contained dogs, cats, canaries, fish and a monkey named Pete.

He developed an appreciation for the birds, even the nonpedigreed city pigeons. When MacDonald was 12, his father, an engineer with Armstrong Rubber, was transferred and the family moved to a tenement in Flatbush, Brooklyn. And that meant no more rooftop coop.

"Losing those pigeons kind of broke my father's heart," he says.

Like father, like son.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
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