The call comes in at 4:00 AM. Some waterfowl are in trouble out on the lake in Prospect Park, their webbed feet stuck, frozen to the ice coating the water. In the predawn darkness, Marty Woess slips out of bed and races to the park, where she carefully slides across the dangerous ice to save the creatures.
Woess is the Wildlife and Aquatic Technician for the Prospect Park Alliance. She gets the call when there's a hurt raccoon or a swan that has swallowed a fish hook or a turtle that's gotten itself wedged somewhere.
New York City tends to quiet down in the dead of winter, but the critters inhabiting the city’s parks still manage to keep people like Woess running around. WNYC host Michael Hill spoke with Woess about her job as an unsung hero of the park.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Hill: Could you describe for us what you do?
Woess: Well, I take care of the lake and the watercourse in Prospect Park, and also all the wildlife – domestic and wild, I should say.
How did you get into this work?
I've always had something with animals, an affinity with animals. Right from the beginning, I used to work on my cousin's farm many, many years ago. But I got a chance to work at London Zoo back in the mid-1980s, and animals just took to me. Within a day, I was handling snakes, iguanas and spiders. You name it. I love animals and they seem to like me for some reason.
I've found up to 30 raccoons in a huge trash container.
I love animals too, but I gotta be honest when you start talking about a 12-foot-long snake, that's kind of where I draw the line. You once got a call about a 12-foot snake in the park. Is that right?
Yes, it was an albino python. It had been dumped in the lake, funnily enough, in a trash bag, believe it or not. I got a call from the police, and I shot down there and pulled it out of the water.
How did you pull it out of the water?
I grabbed it! I do a lot of rescues with just my hands. If an animal is not going to give me a severe bite or a dangerous bite, I prefer to touch the animal and have a tactile feel.
They prefer it. They calm down more; using gloves when not necessary can be problematic.
When you grabbed this 12-foot -long snake, how did the snake react?
Well, it was not in good condition. It was in really bad condition, but most animals will react fine. You know, it's very surprising how — when they have the right handling — how quickly animals settle down.
Do you think that they sense that this is a rescue effort rather than something putting them in danger?
Sometimes they do, sometimes they struggle. You got to be prepared for every eventuality. Obviously, if I'm handling raccoons, I use special, highly-rated animal gloves — or if I have to deal with rats or squirrels or something that can really give you a nasty bites. I've handled many, many snakes over the years. You've just got to support the animal in the right way and treat it in the right way.
Marty, how many times have you been bitten?
Actually in the park, only once.
That's pretty good! Now, how many rescues would you say that you do on average?
Last year, I did 251 actual rescues. That's not total animals. Sometimes, I've found up to 30 raccoons in a huge trash container. So, we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of animals just last year.
It sounds like these missions can be pretty dangerous. Not just because the animal might bite or scratch you, but because you also sometimes have to venture out onto an ice-covered lake.
That was only the once. I mean, it was a pair of cygnets [young swans] that had gone out to a small patch of water and just froze to the ice. I've done ice training many times, and I took all precautions. You know, it had to be done. There was no way I was going to let these animals die frozen to the ice. It was a matter of need. I was only out there for a matter of 20 minutes and I'd freed both.
Were you scared?
I don't get scared with an animal. I think it's the adrenaline that kicks in. I'm thinking of the animal, and that's all that matters to me.
I understand a large part of your job is not only rescuing wild animals in distress but also trying to save domestic animals that have been dumped in the park. Tell us about that.
The thing is people seem to think if they don't want an animal anymore, that it will survive in the park. Ninety-five percent of the time that is not the case. The trouble is also the effect it can have on the ecosystem here. Our highest population of turtles are Red-Eared Sliders, and they started off as people dumping pets. They've reproduced; they're hardier than the native turtles. So, they actually have now become the most dominant turtle in the park, in the lake.
Wow. I have a quote here from someone involved in one of your recent rescues — 8-year-old Zella Riesche from Brooklyn. Last August, she spotted a small bird in trouble – high up in a tree.
Riesche: “That bird was hanging from a fishing hook that was connected to a string that was connected to a branch. It seemed like the bird was in very much pain, but it was still alive and it could survive for a bit longer.”
They put out a call for help, and it turns out it was you who arranged that rescue. What should people do if they see an animal in distress?
Okay, well, if you don't know me and you don't have my contact number, then you should be phoning 3-1-1. That would be put through to the rangers.
Marty, any messages to park visitors to help the wildlife stay safe, so we can all just co-exist?
Be responsible. Take your trash out with you. If you're a fisherman, please do it responsibly. You need to clear up your line and your hooks. Make sure you have the right hooks, the legal hooks. It's about taking responsibility for your actions in a park and cleaning up after yourself.