The Missing Swans of Inwood Hill Park

Way up at the Northern tip of Manhattan, residents of the neighborhood of Inwood are trying to solve what many of them see as a murder mystery. A fuzzy, pearl-white baby swan, or cygnet, has disappeared from the lagoon in Inwood Hill park, leaving its 2 parents, a light gray sibling, and dozens of neighbors distraught. Officials with the Parks Department say there's no conclusive evidence a human is guilty. WNYC's Marianne McCune spoke to residents in Inwood.

N: This tale begins many Springs ago, as told by the neighborhood dog-walkers and bird-watchers and mothers and fathers and children and homeless men and whoever else has been around or heard its history.

Andrew Kelfman: About five years ago --

N: Nine years in fact.

Andrew Kelfman: There had been a pair of swans that for the first time in anyone's memory here built a nest just off of the water.

N: Andrew Kelfman is walking two of the four dogs he's rescued in this park over the years.

Andrew Kelfman: There was one swan that was always in the nest apparently on her eggs and another that was swimming around, it would apparently bring back food. Then one day we came by and there was nothing but feathers and broken eggs and one solitary swan forlornly swimming about.

N: People were crushed, one doting woman in particular. An article in New York Newsday reported she killed herself on the lagoon's banks 3 weeks later. According to her suicide note, the article says, the swan's death was among her torments. Every year since, neighbors have watched returning swans hopefully. Lela Cooper can see the water from the worn wooden benches outside her antique shop.

Lela Cooper: Several times since I've lived here, the eggs have been stolen or broken by people.

N: This year, the swans built an enormous nest near the shore.

Lela Cooper: They did in fact lay six eggs, and their following has been bigger this year than ever. I keep saying I don't know why and I don't know why. Maybe it's because of what's been happening that this thing took on this miracle like quality.

Trish Thompson: Everyone was asking have they hatched yet?! Have they hatched? (GASP)

N: Trish Thompson with her dog Vella, Tom Renner carrying binoculars, Betty Fleming pushing her old dog in a baby carriage.

Trish Thompson: The policemen stopped by, we heard they hatched! They hatched. Oh my god they hatched!
Tom Renner: It's something nice to see that they're able to breed in this area.
Betty Fleming: It was almost as if the community gave birth.

N: Then, Lela Cooper says, neighbors came daily to watch the two cygnets grow.

Lela Cooper: They're adorable. They're like any baby thing. They're just fuzzy and wonderful. And everyday we look and see them it's great it's great it's great, and -- then, there was one.


N: The two grown swans hiss when you come too close, especially to their one surviving baby. Swans are known to be strong and vicious enough to break an aggressor's bones with their wings. But Les Ortega comes to the water's edge equipped with four or five loaves of bread.

Les Ortega: In jail I used to feed the birds in the windows, so then I made a promise that if I got out of jail I was going to come everyday to the park and feed the animals. So I'm doing my wish you know?

N: Ortega is out on bail from Rikers Island.

Les Ortega: Look how beautiful, man. Sometimes I don't even feel like coming cause I like seeing both of them, man, now there's only one baby swan.

N: On the sidewalk, a child has written RIP Baby Swan with chalk. And there are fliers posted across the park with the heading 'Swan killing.'

Les Ortega: Swan killing, hmmm (READING) So they killed him?

N: The fliers say a rock-throwing youngster killed the baby swan. It was the woman who pushes her old dog in a carriage – Betty Fleming – who posted the accusation.

Betty Fleming: And a woman who witnessed it threw a rock at the kid and said how do you like that?

N: But Bette Fleming was not herself a witness. Another neighbor told her about it.

Betty Fleming: I don't think she saw it either, she heard it from someone else.

N: Many park-goers are convinced.

Shannon Torres-Sharon: We see kids throwing rocks at the swans all the time.

Amy Murphy: They throw rocks at the ducks; they throw rocks at the dog run.

Shannon Torres-Sharon: They like to see the swans fly up and make a big old mess.

Les Ortega: I used to do it just for the fun of it to hit them, so I could see them fly away. (laughs).


N: Ted Minos of the Inwood Shakespeare Festival says when he was putting together the set for the Merry Wives of Windsor one evening, there was a big commotion next to the lagoon. People were speaking Spanish he says, and his Spanish is lacking.

Ted Minos: I said, Que Pasa? And someone made a gesture of someone throwing something at the uh -- which I wasn't exactly sure what that meant until I saw placards all over the neighborhood.

N: This is what he knows he saw:

Ted Minos: A signet floating in the water, and the mother paddling it and making that noise they make and the other little baby which was alive that was still alive trying to get on mother's back, very distressed. But I didn't know what happened before that. I could only guess.

N: Then, there are all the OTHER theories and rumors.

Les Ortega: Probably the hawks ate them. Cause there's a hawk who comes and eats birds always.

Hartmut Fichtner: Near the nest, I've seen big fat rats.

N: One person reported seeing assailants with baseball bats approach the lagoon, then footprints leading to the nest. Practicers of the Voodoo like religion Santeria are suspected – many say they've found sacrifices of chickens or dog parts in the park.

Shannon Torres-Sharon: we know a little about Santeria and they don't generally kill swans they certainly don't do it by throwing rocks at them, I… don't see them out there wading in the lake trying to get swans to sacrifice it.

N: But someone COULD have taken it.

Colleen Kramer: We were at the playground one day and there was a young boy and all these children were running after him. And as it turned out he had a duck, and we went out to find out all about that, and he said he got the duck out of the pond and he was charging everyone 50 cents to pet the duck.

Tom Renner: Supposedly, some kids threw some stones and the park ranger interfered and the swan survived and the ranger was able to take him to a veterinarian. That's what I heard. It might not be the fact.

N: One man who lives in the park claims the actress Stephanie Powers now has the swan. There are only a few veterinary hospitals in Manhattan that would accept a hurt swan – none say they've heard of this one. And a leading wildlife rehabilitator in the city says New York State law would prohibit her from returning the swan to a public park even if it did live. Swans are not native, and in fact, they're a menace to indigenous animals because they're territorial and pull up plants by their roots. The Parks Department did build a fence around the nest to stop humans from meddling with the eggs, but a spokesman says it's not responsible for battling the swan's predators. To Andrew Kelfman, Inwood Hill Park is a kind of battleground – between people with clashing attitudes toward animals and wildlife.

Andrew Kelfman: A few years ago I had a child put a firecracker under this old arthritic dog I was walking.

N: Kelfman is the man whose four dogs came from this park.

Andrew Kelfman: You have some people who are rescuing dogs and others who see this as a great place to dump them.


N: This year's missing cygnet has pushed Betty Fleming to her limit. Her flier urges rock-throwers to stay out of the park.

Betty Fleming: The thing is, people say isn't it awful isn't it awful and they don't do anything about it. I put up all these signs in the park -- someone's going to stick a knife in my back cause I said, You're not welcome here, stay home. It's very upsetting, I feel like if we don't speak for them, who will?

N: At her local antique shop, Lela Cooper is collecting donations to offer a reward for information about the swan-killer. If it's a person, she says, she doesn't want him punished – she wants him to get help.

For WNYC, I'm Marianne McCune