Physical Plant workers to ducklings’ rescue

A close-up of a saved duckling before being reunited with its mother. Photo by Tom Innis.
Dan in the narrow drain. Photo by Tom Innis.

The streets that run through the heart of campus are nothing if not busy and humming with energy. Countless cars buzz through the weaving roads of University Ave. and Johnson St. in the heat of rush hour. While drivers pay attention to other cars, as well as pedestrians waiting to cross, one particular driver took his attentiveness to passersby a step further.

Madison resident Tom Innis was driving on Johnson Street in May when he spotted a mother duck and her trail of ducklings trying to cross the intersection of Johnson and Lake St. Quickly, Tom moved in to give the ducks a clear path across the street.

“As I tried to herd the ducks to safety, unfortunately five of the eight ducklings jumped into a stormwater grate at the Northeast corner of Lake & Johnson while the mother duck and three ducklings stood nervously and noisily in a nearby planting bed,” Tom said.

Two ducklings shown in the net once retrieved from the storm drain. Photo by Tom Innis.

It became clear that the ducklings needed help, and FP&M workers Doug Disch, Jay Stets-Stephensky and Dan Ward came to save the day.

Tom asked Doug, who was working nearby, for help. Doug then called Jay and Dan, who arrived with equipment to remove the drain covers, including Bobcat machinery and a bucket to scoop up the ducklings.

From there, it was a challenging process to safely rescue all of the ducklings. When Dan managed to climb down into the narrow storm drain, a few of the ducklings scurried away down the tiny path of the drain just beneath the street.

three people in high-visiblity yellow safety and casual work clothes stand looking at camera in front of brick building
FP&M Physical Plant staff after they took part in the impromptu, dramatic rescue efforts: Jay Stets-Stephensky (left), Stormwater Inspector, Grounds unit; Doug Disch (middle), Refuse Collector, Services unit; and Dan Ward (right), Street Maintenance Tech III, Grounds unit. Photo by Tom Innis.

Dan crawled more than 100 feet through the cramped space to catch up to the runaway ducklings. Waiting at the next storm drain entrance, Jay stood ready with a bucket to retrieve the ducklings from Dan below the surface and bring them back up into fresh air.

Once all eight ducklings were reunited with their mother, Jay and Dan continued their heroic actions and took the ducklings to Lake Mendota instead of the bustling streets.

“I felt good knowing that I helped some animals,” Dan said.

Dan thought the mother had built her nest somewhere over by Engineering Hall, and they were “just traversing the city back to the lake.”

person with baseball cap crouched in sewer with back turned from an aerial view
It’s quite the reach into the narrow storm drain.
person with baseball cap crouched in sewer, looking up and smiling and pointing, as seen from an aerial view
Dan looks up while working on getting the ducklings to safety. Photos by Tom Innis.

It’s not often that faith in humanity is restored, but these gentlemen should be recognized for their heroic efforts and expert handling of a very difficult situation,” Tom said. “They were professional, efficient, compassionate and kind, and went to great lengths to save the lives of these creatures.”

Luckily, thanks to the courageous and quick teamwork efforts between these FP&M staff members, Mother Duck got to spend another day with her flock and this time around, it won’t be in a cramped storm drain.

“That’s the kind of thing that puts a smile on your face,” Jay said.

Read more from Tom in the July 1, 2024 Shout-Outs!