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Farms staffers remember the late, great border collie Kate

Goose-herding dog became ambassador for the Farms, Pier Park

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 16, 2015

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Twelve years might not seem like a long term of employment, but for one of the city’s most lovable employees, it was literally a lifetime.


Kate, the sweet-natured border collie who captured the hearts of young and old alike while clearing out the Canada geese and seagulls at Pier Park, had to be euthanized Aug. 10 after a veterinarian determined that she was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer. She had just turned 14 on July 2.


With goose droppings coating nearly every square inch of Pier Park, Farms city leaders realized that they needed to do something to protect the health and welfare of the residents and guests who visited the park. When they learned that border collies were being employed on some golf courses to discourage geese from congregating there, the city decided to purchase one in 2003 for the park; Kate underwent about two years of training before coming to the Farms.


Border collies, which are bred to be herding dogs and can be taught to herd birds as easily as sheep, don’t hurt the birds, but the act of trying to round up the geese annoys and sometimes frightens the birds, and they eventually seek other places to nest and munch grass. Ken Rowell, a maintenance worker for the Farms, became Kate’s handler, taking her on her rounds through the park and bringing her to his home in Casco Township when his shift was over. With goats, chickens, dogs and other animals already living on the 3-acre parcel, Kate felt right at home, herding the goats as enthusiastically as she “herded” geese.


“She was beloved by Ken as a handler and by all of the (park) staff and people in general,” City Manager Shane Reeside said. “She will be missed.”


Reeside noted that Kate’s death has been particularly tough on Rowell.


“It’s hard for him,” Reeside said. “He was very attached. They worked together and played together. … She was a working dog, but she was also a companion.”


Rowell concurred, saying that Kate was “more than just a goose-chaser.”


“Everybody looked forward to her,” he continued. “She developed a lot of relationships.”


Kate was especially fond of children, he said.


“She loved to see them,” Rowell said. “She was a goodwill ambassador for the park.”


Before Kate, he said there used to be as many as 75-100 geese on the Pier Park beach alone at times. In addition, he said the seagulls had gotten more aggressive with park visitors, even snatching food off picnic tables and slices of pizza out of the hands of small children. Kate kept the seagulls at bay as well as the geese.


Rowell retired from the Farms in March 2012 but continued to work part time, bringing Kate with him.


“I have a 45-minute drive (to work), and it would just be us in the car,” said Rowell, recounting how he’d talk to Kate during the long commute, and how attentively she’d listen.


People would come up to Rowell because they wanted to pet Kate, and both Rowell and Kate made new friends as a result.


“She taught me a lot,” Rowell said of his constant companion. “I got to meet a lot of nice people because of Kate. She gave me that gift.”


Richard “Dick” Graves, a Farms resident who operates the Pier Park concession stand and runs the annual Grosse Pointe Farms-City Family Fishing Rodeo, was one of the people who became close to Kate. Graves said Kate would stop by the stand when she was in the park, and he’d give her a hot dog, breaking it into pieces. She never entered the stand — it was as if she knew she’d be violating local health codes by doing so — but Graves said he and other concession stand staffers would see her poke her head inside. He even taught her to balance chunks of hot dog on her nose until he gave her a command to eat the tasty morsel.


“She was a very bright dog, very intelligent,” Graves said. “She picked that (trick) up pretty quick.”


Like many workers at the park, Graves said that when he was near the maintenance building, he’d walk in and give Kate a pat on the head if she was there.


“We already miss Kate,” he said of his four-legged buddy. “You can sort of feel it — something’s not there.”


Rowell recalled how excited Kate would get when she spotted Graves.


“He’d say, ‘My baby,’ and her tail would be going like a helicopter,” Rowell said.


Graves wasn’t the only person who shared treats with Kate. Rowell said many park visitors would save a hamburger from their family cookout for her.


Kate slowed down a bit after she developed arthritis a couple of years ago, but Rowell said she never complained and she continued to do her work.


“She was a very hard worker,” Graves recalled. “I think she was the hardest working Grosse Pointe Farms employee there ever was. She enjoyed her work … even when she started slowing down and getting older.”


But in the days before her death, she wasn’t eating and her breathing was strained, and Rowell said he knew something was seriously wrong.


“The last few days (of her life), she’d look at me like, ‘I can’t do it,’” Rowell said. When she gave him that weary, pained gaze, he promptly called her back to his side, knowing better than to force her to continue her rounds.


Rowell had taken Kate to a veterinarian the week before she died, but he brought her home that weekend. On Monday, her condition appeared to have worsened, and he took her to a Grosse Pointe veterinarian after work on Aug. 10. That’s when Rowell learned that Kate was terminally ill. He stayed by her side as the doctor administered the shot that ended her suffering.


“She was never alone,” he said. “I was with her the whole time. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”


Kate had a dog bed in Rowell’s office where she would take breaks during the day. The bed is no longer there — it was too painful a reminder of the absence of its former occupant.


“What’s really hard is walking out the door (from home to go to work) and not having Kate with me,” Rowell said. “Not only was she a pet, she was somebody I worked with.”


Kate had “so much personality,” he said.


Rowell’s wife, Diana Rowell, echoed her husband’s sense of loss.


“To Ken and I, she was so much more than just the dog that kept the geese out of the park,” she said by email. “She was our family dog, our constant friend, our hearts. Our home is so empty without her.”


Diana Rowell said Kate “loved to round up our goats,” and that this was when she “was most alive.”


At press time, Reeside said the city was still considering its options with regard to goose control. While it’s possible that the Farms could purchase another trained border collie or a similar breed, he said the city is looking into the possibility of training resident volunteers with dogs, sharing the services of the border collie that patrols the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House grounds, or contracting with a company that provides these services.


In the meantime, Reeside said, the city has been spraying a nontoxic substance on the grass that geese don’t like the taste of, to discourage them from returning to Pier Park.


Ken Rowell hopes that Kate can be memorialized in some way at the park, although nothing had been decided at press time in that regard.


“She gave 12 years — her whole life — to this place,” he said.