Brutus and Lou
The amazing but true tale of an innocent fish man, a loyal swan, a vindictive queen, and the triumph of true love.
It’s a tale that falls somewhere between a comedy of the absurd worthy of Monty Python, and a fantastical fairy tale worthy of the Grimms. For the hero of the piece, Lou Maieron, it all began with a failed avian romance.
Perhaps better known these days as mayor of the Erin, Maieron is also the long-time owner of Silver Creek Aquaculture, a fish hatchery and pond supply business on the south side of Erin Village.
In the fall of 2005, two mute swans built a nest on the banks of one of Maieron’s 15 fish ponds. When it became clear the birds were sticking around, Maieron and his family gave them names: the smaller of the two they dubbed “Penelope,” the larger they called “Brutus.”
It turned out things weren’t all roses in the Swan household. There were frequent loud fights of the sort the neighbours overhear, and Penelope spent more than a few nights sleeping at the far end of the pond. Eventually, Penelope flew off – presumably to her lawyer’s office – leaving the big guy a lonely bachelor.
Like many spouses who keep the house in a breakup, it seemed Brutus wanted to hang on to his familiar surroundings, and decided he was staying put. Over the next four years, although he occasionally took off for a few days, he always returned. Becoming an ever more crusty and possessive fixture on Maieron’s fish ponds, which remain open year-round due to bubbling springs, Brutus seemed quite content with his self-appointed role as solitary lord and master of the Silver Creek ponds.
But sometime before Penelope left, the hands of fate had been twitching. A provincial Ministry of Natural Resources official, visiting the fish farm on an unrelated matter, had happened to notice the swans. Time passed, he changed jobs, but he remembered Penelope and Brutus. Now working for the federal environment department, he mentioned them to a wildlife officer colleague.
The gates of a farcical hell begin creaking open.
Along came “Officer Bruce,” as Maieron likes to call him. Officer Bruce informed Maieron that having Brutus living on his pond is a contravention of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Though by now Brutus was alone, the first official had witnessed a breeding pair, and this was considered the worst transgression. Beyond that, Maieron had both fed and tended to Brutus, and the inspector explained that in the department’s eyes, that meant the animal was, in effect, a pet. And for that Maieron needed a $10 permit.
As Officer Bruce dutifully expounded on the intricacies of waterfowl law, a heron landed on a nearby pond, stabbing a trout from the water. Maieron pointed out that, even though he didn’t want to, he was feeding that bird too. He asked the officer if he needed a permit for every migratory bird that happened to land on his ponds – often forty a day, the odd one even spending the winter.
Neither that argument, nor Maieron’s repeated exclamations of “But it’s not my bird!” and “It’s free to leave any time it wants!” impressed Officer Bruce. Instead, he flexed some muscle: Maieron could be taken to court. He could be fined $300.
Eventually, Officer Bruce wrote Maieron a ticket for $180, and told him again that he still needed the $10 permit.
Maieron said “I don’t want that either.”
“Too late for that,” said Officer Bruce.
Maieron even offered to let Officer Bruce take the bird, and for a while it looked like that would happen. However, male mute swans, which average 26 pounds and stand over 47 inches tall on land, dwarf a Canada goose in size and they’re notoriously aggressive. They easily can, and often do, injure humans.
True to form, Brutus also has some serious anger management issues, and as Officer Bruce approached, Brutus made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere. Wondering how far it would all go, Maieron reminded Officer Bruce that he was carrying a gun: “Shoot the bastard!” Maieron cried.
Officer Bruce backed down. Instead, he gave Maieron a receipt allowing Brutus to remain where he was legally while the case went to court.
Ironically, Maieron couldn’t get rid of the swan himself either. Putting it in a crate to send away somewhere would have constituted illegal possession.
It is true that Maieron fed and tended to the bird. Brutus is known to chow down on the occasional stray pellet of fish food, and like anybody with a backyard bird feeder, in the depth of winter Maieron has put out corn.
On one occasion, Brutus’s temper got him in trouble. For some reason, he especially hates diesel engines, and attacked a truck making a delivery to the fish farm so savagely that he broke his own leg. Unable to locate a veterinarian with suitable know-how, Maieron, who is a biologist by training, bound the leg himself. This may explain, at least in part, why Maieron is the only human able to get anywhere near the bird.
Not native to North America, mute swans were first imported from Europe and Britain in the late 1800s, their elegant forms serving as living water sculpture in parks and rich estates on the eastern seaboard. Brutus might even be the descendant of one of the several pairs Queen Elizabeth II herself gifted to Ottawa in 1967 in celebration of Canada’s centennial.
Mute swans are known to travel regionally to find open water during winter. However, while they may be listed under the Migratory Bird Act, they don’t migrate: as newcomers to North America, there’s nowhere they’re wired to migrate to.
Over time individual birds escaped or were set free from those private collections, they naturalized and established a wild population. With a suitable environment and few or no natural predators, wild mute swan numbers exploded, colonizing the Great Lakes watershed by the mid-1960s. Southern Ontario’s total current population is estimated at 4,000 to 5,000 individuals, and that total doubles in size every seven to eight years.
They are so successful that the Ministry of Natural Resources identifies mute swans as a Terrestrial Invasive Species, and a threat to biodiversity. The bird’s habit of pulling up aquatic plants – often many more than the six pounds a day they consume – damages natural fish habitat. Their ornery disposition and imposing size mean they routinely drive other waterfowl from nesting and feeding sites. That has negative consequences not only for local birds, but also migratory species passing through.
The inclusion of mute swans in the Migratory Bird Act was originally done so that governments could prohibit people from setting them free, in an attempt to control over-population, which has now been a problem in the United States for decades. In Chesapeake Bay, for example, five birds released in 1962 had become a flock of 4,500 by 2002.
More recently, the burgeoning numbers have prompted the Long Point Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Fund and other conservation groups to recommend that mute swans be removed from the Act, allowing hunters to assist with population control. Similar measures are already in place in several U.S. states.
But of course, in Canada we don’t shoot swans. We take them to court. “The Swan v. The Queen” first landed there in June of 2009, where a justice of the peace dismissed the matter on a technicality.
The Crown appealed and at the next hearing, a judge in Guelph slapped the inches-thick mound of paper pertaining to the case down on his desk and exclaimed, “I was halfway through reading all of this before I discovered it’s over a ten-dollar permit!” He dismissed the case, taking the view that the officer could have used more discretion. He also urged the Crown not to appeal.
Disregarding that advice, the nothing-if-not-tenacious Crown, apparently with a bottomless, publicly-funded budget dedicated to fighting the evil keeper-of-a-mute-swan-without-a-permit scourge, took it to another judge in Toronto. And this time they got their way: leave was granted to appeal the lower court ruling.
Maieron represented himself throughout the ordeal – six court appearances in total – all the while decrying the huge waste of everyone’s time and money. He even received a few cheques in the mail from people sympathetic to his cause. “Not a lot,” he says, “only about $200 in total, but it really made me feel people understood.” He guesstimates the government spent between $50,000 and $100,000 on his prosecution.
Finally, it all came to a head at a Court of Appeal for Ontario hearing in front of a panel of no less than three judges. Maieron says it’s “quite a feeling to find yourself at Osgoode Hall surrounded by all these people in wigs and robes.”
He went armed with a secret weapon that he had saved up, though he never got to use.
Over all the court appearances, the prosecution had made much of Penelope and Brutus as a couple, or to use Officer Bruce’s term, “breeding pair.” They claimed the evidence showed that Maieron had been intentionally breeding mute swans.
However, there was a flaw in that theory. Shortly before Penelope disappeared, Maieron had invited a friend with waterfowl expertise to take a look at the swans. It turns out swans are the only male bird known to have one particular anatomical characteristic. Penelope had a penis.
Whatever the relationship between Penelope and Brutus, one thing was sure: offspring were highly unlikely.
When the national media took an interest is Brutus’s legal woes, it didn’t hurt Maieron’s run for mayor last fall either. He claims that during the campaign, quite a number of voters asked “Are you the fellow who’s fighting the swan issue?” and offered their support in what played out as a David and Goliath battle. At the same time, the prosecution was complaining in court that Maieron was using the swan for political advantage.
Ultimately, as Maieron tells it, the judges found that, while the Crown may have been right to appeal, after so many appearances they understood Maieron’s plight. The appeal was dismissed.
Leaving court, a federal prosecutor stopped Maieron and congratulated him. “For what?” Maieron asked. “You’re 3 and 0,” the man responded. “You’ve won in every court. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
While admitting that it would have been easier and cheaper just to pay the fine, Maieron says it was a point of principal, with a much bigger scope. “Sure it’s a funny story about the swan who won’t fly away,” he says, “but really the whole thing isn’t funny. It’s a serious issue about landowner rights. If this were to stand it would mean that every farmer who has migratory birds land on his property could need a permit for them. It’s ridiculous.”
So Brutus can go on patrolling his domain, blissfully unaware of the ruckus he created. Unless Officer Bruce, or someone like him, decides to write Maieron another ticket. Brutus could live to be twenty, so he may be around for awhile, and Maieron says “I could be charged again.”
The old saying that swans mate for life and pine to death after losing a mate is not always true. Research shows they often move on to several partners in a lifetime, and Brutus is no exception.
As breeding season plays out this year, Brutus is doting on the current object of his misguided affections. “Now he’s bonded with me,” Maieron says. Brutus follows Maieron everywhere around the farm, and he’s a high maintenance paramour: “He bites me if I don’t pay enough attention to him. I seriously think I need to get him a mate.”
Goodness knows what the Queen’s henchmen might make of that.