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The great squab squabble

April 6, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

One summer about 25 years ago, after a night of tossing and turning due to a combination of the aging process, ancient regrets and a midnight snack of chile con carne, I was wide awake long before dawn. Since I can't go back to sleep after I wake up, I decided to explore the ville on my bike.

Down Route 3, down Ampersand Avenue up Park Avenue, onto Pine Street, and up the back side of Helen Hill I pedaled. Just before I crested the hill, the street turned weird on me. I couldn't place it at first. Dawn was about to break, but things seemed strangely dark, quiet, gothic.

I stopped and looked around. The neighborhood looked like well, a neighborhood. Nothing more, nothing less until I looked up. And then - Wowie Zowie! Holy Cramolie! Thunderin' Lord Jesus!

The telephone wires - all of them, as far as the eye could see - were loaded with pigeons. They were wing-to-wing, not a sliver of space between them - hundreds if not thousands of them!

As I stood there, dumbfounded, a man appeared atop the hill, on my left, dragging a huge bag. The birds started shifting and cooing, but stayed where they were.

The man stood for a long moment, looked up, and then extended his arms skyward in a V. He looked less like a guy from Saranac Lake than some freaky figure from the Old Testament. Suddenly the birds descended en masse.

The man was Harry Passino and he was doing what he always did - feeding "his" pigeons.


Feed for thought

I knew who Harry was, but not much else. He was a demon car salesman who always had a smile on his face and a cigar in his hand. He was also a hopeless animal lover.

When we hear "animal lover," I think most of us think of the lovee as either a dog or cat. Or maybe a bunny or even a bird, like a budgie, lovebird or a cockatoo. But pigeons? Uh-uh.

Generally, pigeons are lumped in the category of "varmints" -- in fact, they're often called "flying rats." But if you'd been with me that morning you'd've known the FR label was never used by Harry Passino.

He fed the pigeons from a feeding station on the roof of his underground garage. When we think of a bird feeding station, we think of a little plastic number with a cute red faux roof swinging gently from the front yard crab apple tree. But Harry's was the Godzilla of feeding stations. It was wooden, at least 8 feet long, 3 feet high, and 2 feet wide. So if there weren't 1,000 pigeons dining al fresco Chez Harry every morning, it was because they hadn't been invited, not because the menu had been 86ed.

And this was only half of Operation Pigeon Feed: Harry also fed the pigeons in the village parking lot behind Main Street with the help of his partner in crime - John Swentusky. On both Helen Hill and in the village lot, meals were served twice a day.

If you want to know the enormity of this enterprise, dig this: Each week, thanks to Harry's generosity, My Home Town's fine feathered friends gobbled up 500 pounds of corn! And that's no typo - the zeros are in the right places.

The Avian Brotherhood had been feeding the pigeons for 15 years when in fall 1989 the corn hit the fan: Various citizens lodged complaints against Harry and John with the village. The complaints weren't about the feeding, per se, but about its end-product, which was the fecalizing of people's roofs, lawns and everything else on Helen Hill and Main Street.

A state statute prohibited feeding animals on the ground in an unenclosed container, so the complainants had legal precedent. Unfortunately, they had no compliance from Mssrs. Passino and Swentusky. In fact, they were met with nothing but defiance.

Inevitably, the issue became the business of our village officials, and as such was duly reported in the Enterprise. And after that, just as inevitably, it became the business of darn near everyone in My Home Town.

I've no idea how many people knew about The Great Pigeon Feed, but I can say that everyone who knew about it had a strong opinion. This wasn't like one of those national polls with 39 percent of the people are strongly for, 41 percent are strongly against, and 20 percent are undecided. Everyone was either fer or agin'.

Harry, never one to back down on a confrontation, hired a former New York State Supreme Court judge as his lawyer. John, far feistier than Harry, refused to even consider getting a lawyer - he'd duke it out mano a mano if he had to. As it turned out, he didn't have to.


Testing the letter and spirit of the law

In early January 1990, there was a public hearing with the village board. Neither John nor Harry deigned to attend, but there was plenty of local color anyway. The people whose buildings were being decorated by Harry and John's wards repeated their complaints and stressed H & J's feedings were illegal.

These charges weren't exactly refuted by the 15 members of the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club who'd shown up, but they were somewhat moderated by them, since the fish and game club, had built a 4-foot-by-8-foot feeding platform for the birds. Actually, the F & G club wasn't all that interested in the pigeons - they were doing it for the ducks, who they said had become dependent on the feed and couldn't survive the winter without help from their Homo sapiens homies.

Bob Brown, a F & G Club stalwart and strong advocate of the feedings, said, "The village at best has been ambivalent in terms of wildlife." I won't say Bob's also being a Ducks Unlimited stalwart had anything to do with his stance. Then again, I won't say it didn't.

A respected Native voice was heard when Ray Fadden, the curator of the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota weighed in on the issue. saying about the Fish and Game guys: "I think those men deserve a medal."

And so it went, back and forth.

Eventually, the issue got resolved due to two things.

First, the spirit of compromise prevailed and some agreement was reached where Harry quit feeding the birds on Helen Hil, but continued to feed them downtown, in the little park in back of Little Italy. This seemed to mollify the opposition.

Second, The Inevitable prevailed: First John departed this Vale of Sorrow; some years later Harry followed him.

Like many people, both men lived long, full lives. However, unlike many people, we can state unequivocally that after they were gone, both were missed by thousands.

When people die, it's standard clich to say they will be missed by thousands.

In Harry and John's case, this was undeniably true.



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