Responsible environmental management and equitable justice collide in the perfect small town story
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Roughly 15 minutes from the heart of the city of Syracuse lies the town of Manlius. It is an unremarkable, relatively affluent suburb whose biggest claim to fame is probably its high school’s nationally dominant cross-country program.
For reasons no one understands, towns in New York can contain villages, which are legally distinct entities yet wholly subsumed by their towns. The most meaningful consequence of this inane division happens when your neighborhood falls on the town/village line and one municipality’s Department of Public Works is more efficient than the other, leading to varying degrees of snow plowing all within a single suburban neighborhood.
The town of Manlius is composed in part of three villages — Minoa, Fayetteville, and Manlius — with the second, more Manlius-y Manlius centered around a village park known as the Swan Pond. As is belied by the name, the Swan Pond hosts a pair of mute swans. As mute swans mate for life, Manlius residents look forward to new descendants of the village’s royal couple each spring.
Animal aficionados and zealous bureaucrats may have raised an eyebrow at that last paragraph. The mute swan is native to Eurasia, not North America, and has spread in such significant numbers over the years that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) classifies the mute swan as a prohibited invasive species.
As justification for the statewide prohibition, the DEC cites several examples of swans behaving badly, including “aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation.”
Despite their status as aviary royalty, Manny and Faye, as the Swan Pond swans are called, did not escape the long arm of the law. In 2014, as the DEC worked with the public to finalize its Swan Management Plan, the agency proposed a complete culling of the species by 2025.
Village residents were outraged. As the DEC made progress on its mute swan plan, it assured Manlius residents that the village would be allowed to keep its swans as long as the village applied for an invasive species permit. However, the DEC refused to make an exception when it came to Manny and Faye contributing to the swan count, confirming in 2015 that their regulations would no longer allow for the pair to breed.
The swan lobby flew into action. Spurred by the group Friends of Animals, state legislators presented Governor Andrew Cuomo with a bill that essentially froze efforts by the DEC to cull the state’s mute swan population. Despite vetoing similar bills in 2014 and 2015, not even the governor himself is immune to Big Swan, and the bill became law in December 2016. Manny, Faye, and their many cygnets were safe for at least two years thanks to state legislature.
Or were they?
In 2012, a 23-year-old man named Ross Leone was drinking at the bar Buffoon’s, which sits about a block away from the Swan Pond’s front entrance. As the night wore on, the conversation inevitably turned to the village’s famous swans. Since it was late April at that point, Faye had already laid her eggs for the year. Leone, possibly full of liquid confidence, hopped the fence that surrounds the pond and grabbed as many eggs as he could carry.
Unfortunately for both Leone and the swans, his eyes were bigger than his hands. When the village awoke on Sunday, Fanny’s eggs were missing and, in a suspicious coincidence, the entrance to Buffoon’s and the road out front were coated in eggshells.
Thanks to a diligent investigation by the Manlius Police Department, who managed to find time to handle the egg theft in between pulling over Pete Davidson and sending the SWAT team to bust a high school party, Leone was arrested a few days later and eventually convicted for his heinous crimes.
Despite the open and shut nature of the case, villagers were unnerved. Their sense of security shattered, Manlius residents banded together to form the all-volunteer Swan Patrol. Local businesses donated funding for a surveillance system to be installed at the Swan Pond while the village government worked to create a floating platform where the swans could nest, far from the reach of buffoons from Buffoon’s.
The Swan Patrol carried on well-into the summer, but eventually the Swan Pond renovations were complete, and the vigilantes were once again able to sleep peacefully knowing their beloved swans could nest in peace. However, as any comic book fan knows, a superhero is never at rest for long.
This past Memorial Day, I awoke to a deluge of texts from family and friends who still lived in the Manlius area. Some of the swans, I was told, were missing. And while the cygnets were swiftly recovered, news soon broke that Faye, the village matriarch, was dead, allegedly killed and eaten by the suspects accused of stealing her.
Village residents were again shocked. A memorial was hastily constructed, and the swan signal once again beckoned Swan Patrol members to their posts. When the story hit the wires, national outlets like the Associated Press and New York Times descended on the village. Three young people from Syracuse were charged in the swan’s death. Since two are juveniles, their names are concealed, but the third is an 18-year-old named Eman Hussan.
When Leone was sentenced for stealing and breaking the swan eggs, then-Mayor of Manlius Mark-Paul Serafin personally forgave Leone for his transgressions. As quoted by Syracuse.com, Serafin approached Leone outside the courthouse and said, “You can help us protect the next clutch of eggs in the spring. No one wants to see you hurt. Have a clean slate, kiddo, going forward.” Even the judge overseeing his sentencing was kind to Leone, telling him that it was “wonderful” that he had started substance treatment for his issues, dismissing a set of his charges, and opting for probation instead of incarceration.
Hussan’s experience has not been so smooth. Social media commenters questioned his immigration status and called for his execution, while a petition calling for him to receive the maximum possible sentence has more than 9,000 signatures.
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I argue that if you are going to destroy a village mascot, eating it is far more civil than smashing it along the sidewalk. Killing defenseless animals as a child is a widely accepted sign of a burgeoning serial murder. Killing and then eating a defenseless animal is the process behind how most of us get our groceries.
Like the mute swan, the white-tailed deer population in New York has risen to such heights that the DEC has created a species management program. However, since deer are best known as the cause of deadly car crashes instead of as majestic local mascots, there was no last-minute bill from the state legislator forcing the DEC to revamp the deer management plan. In fact, the DEC created a special permit allowing hunters to kill white-tailed deer year-round in certain areas of the state.
The village of Manlius remains full of deer. There is no Deer Patrol guarding the many meadows, baseball fields, and backyards where the white-tailed deer roam. Drivers still slow to a crawl whenever they see one on the side of the road for fear of a deadly crash.
If the allegations against Hassan and his companions are proven true, then he undoubtedly committed a crime. The swans are the property of the village, rendering Hussan’s valid hunting license meaningless. The group hopped the Swan Pond fence in the middle of the night, which seems like textbook trespassing.
Curiously, one of the charges levied against the trio is grand larceny in the third degree, which means that the village considered Faye and her cygnets to be worth between $3,000 and $5,000. Leone was never charged with grand larceny, which is a felony, for smashing the eggs in 2012.
I’m not the first to notice the hypocrisy inherent in the latest swan pond fiasco. Nor am I the first to wonder if the swans should come back at all — in fact, more than twice as many people signed the petition calling for the end of swan confinement in Manlius as did the one calling for Hussan to receive the maximum sentence.
As history has shown, the swans are clearly not safe in Manlius. Two teenagers stabbed the swan Obie in 1994 (this time, villagers did call for the execution of the perpetrators) for which they received misdemeanor convictions and a punishment that included shoveling manure at the local zoo. It was 18 years later when Leone smashed the swan eggs under the cover of darkness, and 11 from then until the current fiasco. And how can we as a community treat one invasive species, the white-tailed deer, with such contempt, while simultaneously welcoming the swan with open wings?
The mascot for Manlius schools is the hornet. Instead of replacing Faye with her incestuous descendants, as Mayor Paul Whorrall hopes, I propose we fill the Swan Pond with swarms of hornets in celebration of the educators and students who call Manlius home. Their nests will go untouched for years to come.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Tiktok’s enshittification | Pluralistic
Life and loss on Methadone Mile | The Boston Globe
Stephen A. Smith’s "TAke a look, y’all" Pic Is Lost to Time | Intelligencer
Exit Interviews Are a Trap | Jacob Kaplan-Moss
Thanks for taking the time to read about the nonsense that goes on in my hometown. If I made you laugh at some point, would you share this with a friend to brighten their day too?
Have a great day!