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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Of Reddit And Rescue: The Memes That Helped Save Oakland's Favorite Duck Couple

Lake Merritt Duck Couple
Funky Chicken Rescue
The Lake Merritt duck couple in recovery at their foster home.

Last fall, two ducks at Lake Merritt became a bit of a sensation. Through the worst parts of the pandemic, they inspired a community of Oaklanders to keep their heads up. But it turns out the ducks were in trouble of their own, and they almost didn’t make it.

“I'm like, man, one of these ducks has better hair than like 90% of the people I know.”
Volkan Turgut

Volkan Turgut spends a lot of time at Lake Merritt.

“I work right by it. I live right by it. I go running around Lake Merritt,” Volkan says.

It was on one of these runs around the lake, when Volkan noticed a pair of ducks that looked different. One was black with iridescent streaks of green and purple, and the other was totally white, with a tuft of feathers on its head like a pompadour straight out of the movie "Grease."

“I'm like, man, one of these ducks has better hair than like 90% of the people I know,” Volkan laughs.

The Lake Merritt duck couple when Volkan saw them on his run
Volkan Turgut
The Lake Merritt duck couple when Volkan saw them on his run

He took a photo of the ducks and posted it on Reddit, an online community message board.

“And then the next thing I knew it blew up with upvotes,” Volkan says.

“Seeing the way that they were looking at each other sparked something in me.”
Stacy Wu

Upvotes are the way Redditors — that’s what community members are called — show they like something. And over 500 of them upvoted his post. Clearly he wasn't the only one who had noticed these ducks.

“In the deepest throes of quarantine woes, they were sort of my beacon of light for a bit,” says Ethan Gomes, a Redditor who lives in Oakland. He would walk around the lake expecting to see the "Bernie Sanders duck" and his partner. "And it just always made my day."

“Seeing the way that they were looking at each other sparked something in me,” remarks Stacy Wu, a Redditor who lives in Castro Valley.

An Animation of the ducks
Stacy Wu
Lake Merritt duck couple animation

Leander McNeely, who visited Lake Merritt in hopes of seeing the ducks after finding out about them on Reddit, says that the ducks were usually sitting or swimming together and to him, it felt like a love story. "I don't know if the subreddit or a caretaker named them Ebony and Ivory, but they became in my mind, 'Oakland's favorite mixed couple.'"

As you can hear from the Redditors, people projected a lot of their own feelings onto the ducks. In time, the duck couple grew a community of admirers.

“It was making Oakland feel like a really small place. Everyone’s talking about the ducks like, 'Oh I know about those ducks,'” Stacy Wu says.

And they flocked online to post their observations, swap stories, and even share fan art.

A watercolor of the ducks
Stacy Wu
A watercolor of the ducks

“It started off with my watercolor doodle. There even became t-shirt merchandise of the ducks from a different artist,” Stacy Wu says.

But as time went on, the tone of the Reddit posts began to change. It became apparent that Ebony and Ivory, as some liked to call them, were domesticated ducks that had been abandoned at the lake.

“I remember one day the ducks — I think it was Ivory — came back with a gash in her beak and someone reported that they were looking kind of under the weather,” Leander McNeely says.

Tatiana Trono, who lives close to Lake Merritt, says she noticed a break in Ivory's pompadour’s feathers and was woried something was wrong with the duck's head. That's when she realized: "I care about these ducks. Oh no, I'm invested in them!"

Just a short swim away from where the ducks were is Oakland’s Rotary Nature Center. Decades ago, their staff would care for injured animals, but for a variety of reasons, those days are over. Still, it turns out there is one city agency that could help.

Ann Dunn is the Director for Oakland Animal Services. OAS runs a shelter. It's also responsible for any injured animal in the city — wild or not.

A t-shirt of the duck couple
Artist: Lea Bumbesti
Rancho Compasión
Lake Merritt duck couple t-shirt

In the case of the Lake Merritt ducks, they did not come to our attention. We did not receive a call. So we did not have anything to do with that particular story,” says Ann.

It’s clear from their posts that while the Redditors tried to help the ducks, they didn’t call OAS. Ann Dunn has a theory as to why. “I could imagine someone saying ‘Don’t call OAS. They’re going to kill the ducks.’ There is definitely mistrust and I think people don’t understand the lengths that we go to to help. And that we would have been the appropriate resource and we absolutely would have stepped in and helped those ducks.”

For a moment, it seemed that Oakland's favorite couple might not make it. That is until a mother and daughter got involved.

Kat Despain spotted a picture of the ducks online. She showed it to her mother, Dawn Rogers. Both are long-time volunteers at Rancho Compasión, an animal sanctuary in Marin. Dawn was alarmed by the photo.

“I saw that the white duck was in an unnatural position. She was kind of laying on her side with her neck extended and she looked like she was actually dead. And the black duck was next to her in a protective position. And that's when I made the decision that we were going to go ahead and pick them up. And if Rancho couldn't take them, we'd take them someplace else,” Dawn says.

The culvert at Lake Merritt where the ducks were typically found
Shereen Adel
The culvert at Lake Merritt where the ducks were typically found

The mother and daughter aren't strangers to rescuing animals. In the last four months, Dawn says she rescued a young pig who jumped off the back of a transport truck that she believes was taking it to slaughter. "And then we just recently picked up a couple of lambs in Oregon and brought them in.”

"I was worried that they would be judgmental ... but everyone seemed to be really happy that they were getting care"
Kat Despain

So when Dawn and Kat headed to Lake Merritt, they were prepared for anything, but what happened next surprised them. They found the duck couple in their usual spot, and Kat just simply picked them up and "then we literally just walked away with them."

By then, a small crowd had gathered to watch. Kat says she was worried that the on-lookers would think she was stealing the ducks, "but everyone seemed to be really happy that they were getting care."

Dawn held the black duck all the way back to Marin. “He actually sat in my lap and put his head up against my shoulder and made little cooing noises."

The Ducks At Funky Chicken Rescue
Funky Chicken Rescue
The ducks recovering at Funky Chicken Rescue

The ducks now have a love nest of their own at Rancho Compasión.

Ebony and Ivory are no longer at Lake Merritt, but their fans remember them for one thing in particular: during a time when things could be scary, dull, and downright absurd, the ducks helped Oaklanders see their way through.

“It was comforting knowing that they were going to be there. It was a constant, you know?” Tatiana Trono says.

“Honestly, people are just bored out of their minds and then along comes like these ducks. There's nothing else to talk about other than ducks!" Volkan Turgut muses.

“I think that the ducks leave behind this symbol of community and bringing strangers together. I’ve met a lot of people through these ducks, honestly,” Stacy Wu says.

“I think all of us were just kind of like, 'This is us in 2020.' This is how we feel. We're a little bit out of water ourselves,” Ethan Gomes says.

Thankfully, Ethan Gomes doesn’t live too far away from the ducks' new home at Rancho Compasión. “I will be in my truck driving over when they're welcoming visitors. I love those little ducks,” Ethan says.

And those two lucky ducks will be waiting to greet him.

Thanks to Emily Blaire from The Bold Italic for her assistance with this story. You can read her article, "The Lake Merritt Duck Couple That Stole Oakland’s Heart" here.

Marissa Ortega Welch edited this story and James Rowlands was the sound engineer.

KALW News Crosscurrents
I’ve worked as an arborist, bicycle mechanic, carpenter, zero waste educator, whitewater raft guide, and a freelance reporter for the Potrero View newspaper. My passions include everything outdoors, showing off my favorite spots in San Francisco, and most recently, swimming in the Bay.