In Highland, at the northern tip of Utah County, beneath the towering peaks of Mount Timpanogos, a toddler in pigtails tosses frozen peas into the Highland Glen pond. In an instant, a multitude of ducks descend on the shoreline, jockeying and dabbling for a snack.
The pond is home to a teeming population of ducks — Pekins, khakis, mallards and any number of hybrids — with velvety green heads and long orange bills. Though they’re an enjoyment for bird feeders, increasingly these creatures are in competition with human recreation and public health, as the fowls’ expanding numbers have accelerated the spread of waterborne pathogens.
Crumbs from a bread-based diet and a whole lot of duck poop have created a perfect environment for E. coli, botulism and other hazardous bacteria. The bacterial spread is compounded by the state’s ongoing drought, which increases stagnation at Highland Glen, a human-made water catchment that’s designed to manage flood risk but is also indispensable to migratory birds.
The problem is the birds don’t migrate.
“These ducks cannot fly and they don’t belong in the wild. They are domestic ducks, because people don’t know that the ducks you pick up from supply stores are not meant to be out here,” said Amy Needham, animal activist and founder of Puddle Ducks Rescue.
The massive waterfowl population at Highland Glen is the product of a phenomenon known as “duck dumping.”
Dumping has increased in recent years as more Utahns buy ducklings for romantic gestures, Easter Day gifts and viral-ready social media gimmicks — which is all quite predictable considering those tiny yellow fuzzballs are, well, irresistibly adorable.
But ducklings become ducks.
As the excitement wears off and the responsibility ramps up, the all-too-common outcome is that many duck owners decide to set the birds “free” into public waterways — but rather than freedom, for most domestic waterfowl this is the beginning of the end.
“Once they’re not cute anymore, people are going to release them, and most will die.” Needham said. “The babies will die within a day or two. And if they’re an adult they’ll last a couple of months — if the city doesn’t (cull them) predators will.”
Unlike wild ducks, the common Pekin ducklings and other breeds for sale at Utah farm stores are selectively bred to be incapable of flight: with heavier bodies and shorter wings, seasonal migration is impossible — the epitome of the proverbial “sitting duck.” And without survival training from a mother, they never learn to forage.
Yet with a little luck and enough food from humans, many will survive. And due to the sheer volume of dumped ducks, domestic populations are swelling across Utah. In order to keep waterborne pathogens at bay, cities around the valley are now resorting to euthanasia.
“Because the ducks can’t leave the pond, they just continue to breed. The number of ducks that live at the pond has gotten so large that if we want to have any control over the situation to keep our E. coli levels down, then we’ve got to do a culling program now,” said Erin Wells, public information officer for Highland.
Bacteria levels climb with the temperatures, and for the last few summers the city has had to post signage warning swimmers, canoers and paddle boarders to “swim at your own risk.”
Highland officials contracted with U.S. Fish and Game to cull the ducks. A culling operation happens in the course of a single day, where the fowl are rounded up and euthanized. Numerous operations have taken place at Highland Glen, and the city anticipates another cull this spring.
Additional known culls have taken place at Fairmont Park in Salt Lake City, Parowan Pond, Spring Lake in Payson, Oquirrh Lake in Daybreak and Jensen Nature Park in Syracuse.
“This happens all over Utah, but Highland Glen is the pinnacle of the problem because of how many ducks get dumped here,” said Needham.
Along with water quality concerns, the issue raises an ethical dilemma with no clear root of responsibility.
Does the problem begin with the farm stores that sell $5 waterfowl as loss leaders? Or is it driven by teens who deploy ducklings in social media trends? Is it a state legislature that’s failed to take action? And should the solution be left to government bodies who manage natural resources and carry out exterminations?
Duck rescuers say much of the problem is that domestic waterfowl are easy to obtain. Farm stores like IFA, C-A-L Ranch and Tractor Supply sell them as “loss leaders,” a pricing strategy where products are sold at below real value in order to stimulate the sale of more profitable goods.
The idea is that if customers buy a duckling for next to nothing, they’ll be on the hook to purchase additional supplies on a recurring basis — food, coops, straw for bedding, caging, fencing and venting. The problem is that rather than returning for supplies, some customers release the birds instead.
Tiffany Young, animal activist and founder of the blog Ducks and Clucks, has picked bones with farm stores in Utah over waterfowl policy, and urged them to modify the way they sell domestic birds — albeit to no avail.
“At first I asked them ‘Can you please not sell ducks at all, because they just get dumped and it’s worse every year.’ Of course, they wouldn’t do that. So now I’m trying to get them to make ducks special order only, which will stop the impulse buying when people see cute animals at Easter,” said Young, who has rescued waterfowl for 17 years. “But we can’t even get them to do that.”
Young has seen waterfowl marked down as low as $1.50, and says the loss leader logic isn’t sound.
“They can’t make money on dumped animals, so you’d think they’d only want to sell to people who are serious and understand animal husbandry. But that’s not what they do,” said Young.
Young believes the agricultural sector has too much power in the Utah Legislature, and she feels like her recent lobbying efforts are dead on arrival at Capitol Hill.
“We tried to get legislators to just add three words to include specifically ‘domestic fowl’ and ‘ducks’ to the existing (animal protection) law. And the feedback was: ‘That’s going to be way too difficult,’” said Young. “My experience is that the lobbyists for ranchers and farmers in Utah is so strong that any animal with a business value is not going to be protected.”
Erin Wells, of Highland, agrees that farm stores bear responsibility. Although she thinks the bulk of moral duty lies with consumers.
“I think stores could absolutely do more. Either post signage or get educational materials out that help people understand what they really are getting into,” Wells said.
“But I think a majority of the problem lies with the individuals who purchase these animals. They need to know that cute little ducklings grow up — they’re loud, they poop and they require special care. Individuals need to understand what they’re committing to when they buy an animal,” said Wells.
Many of the individuals buying the animals are minors, and their purchases have been stoked by social media. In addition to fueling impulse buying, activists worry that platforms like TikTok may spur the maltreatment of ducks.
One example comes from Saratoga Springs, where in 2021 three teenage girls posted TikTok videos of baby ducklings in various situations before disowning them, according to Amy Needham, who obtained the videos and spoke with city officials during a follow up investigation.
In one video, the children pushed the ducklings down playground slides. After the ducklings’ media purpose was served, the girls abandoned the animals on a nearby doorstep.
“Too many people are showcasing animals on social media without consideration of their well-being. They restrain the animals. They make them do unnatural behaviors against their will. The animals are dressed up and (forced into) unsafe activities. They’re putting them in dangerous situations, and it’s all for clicks and likes and shares,” said Young.
Young has documented multiple cases of social media related mistreatment, including ducks being placed in college dorm rooms as a prank, and a newly popular trend of using them as a mode of asking dates to high school prom.
“If you’re not prepared to keep an animal for the full extent of their life, you have no business sharing cute videos of ducklings on social media,” said Young.
Animal abandonment, including duck dumping at local ponds, is illegal in the state of Utah. However, the act is rarely enforced, and in some cases law officers are insufficiently trained to deal with the issue, according to the multiple activists who spoke to the Deseret News.
Following last year’s TikTok incident, the homeowner tracked down the girls’ social accounts and reported the case to local police. Amy Needham followed up with Saratoga Springs law enforcement and discovered that the officers themselves were unclear about laws pertaining to duck treatment.
“I wanted the (officers) to make sure the kids understood the gravity of their actions. But the cops weren’t interested in doing that. The officer said, ‘Kids are going to be kids. I don’t think a crime was committed here.’”
Needham brought the pertaining legal code to the attention of the officers, but said they continued to dismiss her concerns.
Needham says the Saratoga Springs incident is an example of a wider phenomenon of animal disrespect. At Highland Glen, she witnessed visitors throw rocks at ducks, and knows of an adolescent boy at Highland Glen shooting them with a bow and arrows.
“It’s a little disturbing to see kids without that level of empathy. And on social media we see it across the country, mostly with the Gen Z crowd, who buy ducks, make videos, and then abandon them,” Needham said.
In many ways ducklings are predestined for social media, ready-made for its prevailing milieu of monetized cuteness. And though Needham agrees that social media can help dignify creatures like ducks, its harsher components need to be understood and confronted in order to improve circumstances for the wider populations of waterfowl.
In lieu of statewide regulations on the sale of waterfowl, classified as “livestock” under Utah law, activists say solutions will be slow coming.
But the success of a recent campaign at Brigham Young University’s Botany Pond has provided a roadmap for how to begin at the community level.
Adison Smith, co-founder of the animal rescue organization Wasatch Wanderers, worked with BYU students to place signage around the pond to educate the public about animal abandonment.
“Since putting up the signs at the BYU duck pond, they have not had a single duck dumped. And before they were getting them almost weekly. We will know this spring time how big of a difference these signs make overall. But so far they’ve done wonders,” said Smith.
Now others are hoping they can replicate the success seen at the Botany Pond.
Highland resident Jaxson Davidson grew up visiting Highland Glen, where he feels a deep sense of place and importance.
“My family has been coming here every year that I can remember. We have family reunions here. We do adventure races here — hike, bike, swim. We spend a lot of time out on the lake,” said Davidson.
Davidson, a cross-country athlete at Lone Peak High School, decided to work on improving the lake’s declining hygiene as an Eagle Scout project. He intends to mobilize 500 hours worth of service to improve Highland Glen — and he’s starting by teaming up with Puddle Ducks Rescue to tackle duck dumping beginning with the installation of signage.
Though his project is driven by concern for the lake, it’s possible that Davidson will come away with new affinities.
According to Young, of Ducks and Clucks, it doesn’t take long to find a soft spot.
“Ducks are like puppies. People have a hard time getting to know these birds because they seem standoffish, but that’s because they are a prey species and they’ve been harassed,” said Young. “But truthfully they are smart and emotionally intelligent and friendly. Of course as soon as you start talking like that it's too late: You’re bird people by then.”