As soon as you meet Jim Cornwell, the adoration he has for his border collies is readily apparent. The baseball cap he wears is decorated by a lively looking border collie, while his denim shirt bears the insignia of Tash and Tama, the names of his two dogs.
A bumper sticker on his Ford Caravan reads "My border collie is smarter than your honor student," and when he speaks of his two canine companions, you can detect a twinkle in his eye.
"Next to my wife and our Heavenly Father, I love my dogs the best," he said proudly.
And although Mr. Cornwell has enjoyed a unique and loving bond with Tash and Tama - short for Tashmoo and Katama - there is also a dynamic to their relationship that more closely resembles that of an employer and employee than of owner and pet.
Every day, Tash and Tama take the field as professional geese chasers, and Mr. Cornwell suddenly becomes their coach, giving them signals much the way a baseball manager would give signs to a hitter or base runner during a game.
For the past few years, the trio of trackers has visited the Farm Neck Golf Club and Martha's Vineyard Regional High School at least once a day to chase away the Canada geese. Just recently, the town Oak Bluffs hired Mr. Cornwell and his pair of aces to patrol Ocean Park.
Over the past few years, Canada geese have invaded the sprawling greens and parks on the Island, leaving their mess behind.
Playing fields at the high school, greens and fairways at Farm Neck and the vast expanse of emerald grass at Ocean Park are a haven for the birds. The geese are largely oblivious to humans and refuse to take flight, even with golf balls whizzing by their heads and tourists inching close to get their picture.
Residents and officials have tried everything to get rid of the birds, including noisemakers and plastic scarecrows, and at least one group of neighbors has hired a professional to spray a special chemical that gives the geese indigestion. The use of the chemical, called anthraquinone, has raised health and environmental concerns with some residents and officials, and conservation officials advocate for more natural ways to mediate the goose problem.
The natural solution is perfectly embodied in Tash and Tama and the stubborn birds have clearly met their match in these amazingly agile, intelligent and tenacious animals. Indeed, in a world where people use chemicals or devices to solve just about any problem imaginable, it is comforting to know that something so natural as a dog chasing a bird can solve such a large problem. The concept is so logical and obvious that it is revolutionary.
"And the dogs love doing it. The border collie is very loyal and smart, but they need a lot of attention and have a lot of energy. They always need something to do, so chasing the geese is perfect," Mr. Cornwell said, adding:
"For them, it's the greatest thing. It's like a bonus."
While Tash and Tama are clearly gaga about tracking geese, they only display their exuberance at Mr. Cornwell's command. When this reporter arrived at Ocean Park to witness the animals in action, the two dogs - both females who weigh no more than 45 pounds and measure in around 20 inches high - sat quietly in the shade, both sets of eyes firmly planted on their owner.
As soon as Mr. Cornwell gave them a whistle command, they shifted into another gear and seemed to transform. The docile look in their eyes disappeared, replaced with the look of a predator following the scent of wounded prey.
Tash, the younger of the two animals at seven years of age, ran forward at breakneck speed, eagerly scanning the horizon for the sight of a large, fat goose. Tama, the veteran 11-year-old tracker, followed close behind, veering slightly to the right and then taking a different tack. Mr. Cornwell gave the command for neutral and both dogs stopped on a dime. Tash sat facing her owner, craving another command, while Tama sat with her back to him, frequently turning her head to watch for any new commands.
There are several whistle and voice commands in Mr. Cornwell's arsenal, including walk-on, which prompts the dogs to move forward, away-to-me, which causes them to flank the birds to the right, and come-by, which sends them along the left flank.
Mr. Cornwell emphasized that the dogs are never given the command to actually catch and possibly harm the birds. If they come too close to their mark, he gives them orders to pull back. Their mission is to only chase away the birds, not harm them.
Border collies were originally bred in Scotland to herd sheep, and are still used in that capacity around the world. A properly trained collie can sell for as much as $3,000.
Both of Mr. Cornwell's dogs were born in northern Georgia and were trained at a special herding clinic in Atlanta. After Mr. Cornwell retired from his job in South Carolina and moved to the Island in 2001, he approached officials at Farm Neck and offered the services of his dogs.
Although the dogs now work at the high school and at Ocean Park, Farm Neck still seems to be their favorite hunting ground.
"As soon as I take that turn into the course, they start going crazy. They know where they are. They know what they have to do," Mr. Cornwell said.
Mr. Cornwell takes the dogs to the course several times a week, often two times a day. The routine is familiar: the three pile into a golf cart and make their way around the course. The expedition does not stop at every hole, because by now, Mr. Cornwell knows where the birds hang out and can point the dogs in the right direction.
As they cruise along the path, Mr. Cornwell may give a signal prompting Tash or Tama to jump off the cart and run alongside the trail. The command is not necessarily for chasing geese, but for giving the animals a workout when there are no birds to be found. Recently, there have been more and more fruitless trips to the golf course. Like canine versions of the old Maytag repairman, the two have done such a good job they have essentially put themselves out work.
"But we'll keep coming. If the geese realize the dogs aren't coming around anymore, they will come right back," Mr. Cornwell said.
While the lack of geese may be heartbreaking to Tash and Tama, it is good news to golfers, visitors and students who frequent the birds' former stomping grounds.
And even goose-free visits have some value for the dogs, who get a chance to run and burn off some of their boundless energy and also to make new friends with the humans who frequent their job sites.
During a recent visit to Farm Neck, the sight of two border collies posing for shots on a golf cart with their owner drew the attention of one curious golfer. The tall, well-dressed man amiably approached the dogs, patted their heads and asked to hear their story.
A closer look revealed that the animal lover was Jimmy Fallon, the popular former cast member of Saturday Night Live and hit movie Fever Pitch. Tash and Tama were unfazed by his celebrity status, their attention clearly somewhere else as they scanned the horizon over Sengekontacket Pond and Nantucket Sound - perhaps imagining the sudden arrival of a gigantic gaggle of geese.
Pictures by Peter Simon