They started out as a 431-pound man and 13 baby geese walking down the sidewalk in Missouri Valley, Iowa.

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Now, six years later, Paul Messerschmidt is down to 241 pounds, and his 11 geese are trained with voice commands and hand signals to follow him through the crowds at the Nebraska State Fair.

In 2003, Messerschmidt’s doctor told him he needed to start walking for his health.

His kids, who were 15 and 18 at the time, were supposed to help him get his exercise, but they weren’t.

“I had these babies,” Messerschmidt said of the geese. “I took them down the street to embarrass my kids.

“It worked,” he said with a laugh. “Amanda (his daughter) came home one day and said, People are talking about a fat man walking baby geese down the sidewalk.'”

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When he first started walking with the geese, he could only make it about a half-block at a time. The next week, they made it a block, and they kept increasing the distance.

“It keeps me out of the hospital,” Messerschmidt said of all the walking. He said he suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic pneumonia.

That first year, Messerschmidt took the geese in a parade, just to see if he could win some prize money. He actually planned on having goose meat at the end of that year. But people took to them and him.

More and more people started asking him to bring his geese places. He has taken them to nursing homes, day care centers and schools.

Most of his appearances are generated by word of mouth. About three years ago, the poultry division at the Nebraska State Fair hired him to come by in hopes that he could become a main fair attraction. This year, he is walking around the grounds with his geese as one of many strolling acts.

Messerschmidt guides his geese through a series of nine voice commands, telling them to turn right or left, come or stop. They also know five hand commands, including one finger up as a warning if they are being contrary, and two fingers mean the “woodshed.” And, yes, they have gotten “spanked” in public.

“Actually, they obey better than most children,” he said.

He and his geese have walked 711 miles in six years, traveling to 417 towns for fairs, festivals or parades.

At the Nebraska State Fair, they walk about one and a half miles every day, so he figures they will have added 20 miles by the end of the fair.

This year, he will be going to 117 shows, which is less than the 168 last year because he has more multi-day fairs.

Messerschmidt often gets questions about “messes” the geese may make, but he said it is not a problem.

“If you don’t feed them for six hours before, you don’t have to clean up after them,” he said. The geese get fed overnight, then usually don’t go out walking until at least 11 a.m.

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They do get treats during the day and are particularly fond of soda pop. Mountain Dew is their favorite, followed by Pepsi. They don’t like Coke or 7UP.

“They also like Mike’s Hard Lemonade,” Messerschmidt said with a laugh. “But they don’t get drunk on it. It doesn’t affect them.”

The geese also occasionally get treats of Skittles, M&Ms and cotton candy.

It is the same group of geese that he started with. They are 6 years old now. He started with 13 geese but has lost two to illness and accidents.

“They imprinted together,” he said, adding that he couldn’t add in another goose at this point because they would attack it. “Although they have some sibling rivalry, they protect each other.”

Messerschmidt said the protectiveness gets stronger when they are not “on duty.” They seem to know that, when they get their outfits on, it means they are “on.”

The geese are each dressed in a themed outfit, which changes each day. Monday was a baseball theme, but the geese also have outfits for NASCAR, evening gowns and tuxedos, and cowboys.

He saw the movie “Fly Away Home” and saw a scene where the birds were dressed up. Messerschmidt decided that he could do that, too.

The geese were only 6 months old when he started putting the little outfits on them, so they mostly stand still and let him. All except Crybaby, he still protests the clothes occasionally.

Besides Crybaby, there is Wrongway, Flyby, Petey, Little Droops, Mr. Books, George, C.C., Little Frankie, James Dean and Rocks.

For more information on Paul Messerschmidt, visit his website at  http://paulgooseman.tripod.com.

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