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Illustration by Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

Urban grazing is becoming an increasingly popular way for cities to landscape large areas.

City seeks to rent ruminants

Oct 24, 2012


Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

A goat poses for a photo earlier this week at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

little goat map

Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

A map of urban grazing across America


Goats hold a dramatic role in Chicago history. The infamous “Billy Goat” curse, placed on the Cubs by Billy Goat Tavern founder Billy Sianis after he and his goat got ejected from Wrigley Field in 1945, has supposedly prevented the team from winning a world championship. Goats have been embedded in the lore of the city ever since—The Billy Goat Tavern inspired the famous “Olympia Restaurant” skit on Saturday Night Liv,e and more recently, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s West Loop restaurant, Girl and the Goat, has received national attention for its rustic, innovative dishes. So far, though, nothing has lifted Billy Goat curse.

It is too soon to tell if the O’Hare goats will reverse the Cubs’ bad luck.
On a recent episode of the hit NBC show Parks and Recreation, frazzled Deputy Parks Director Leslie Knope, played by Second City alum Amy Poehler, brainstorms ideas for balancing the Pawnee, Ind., parks budget. “Budget solution number 28: Use grazing sheep to mow grass in parks!” she breathlessly barks into a tape recorder. (Pause) “Tired sheep could be used to make food or sweaters.”

The scene was made to snag a laugh, but urban grazing has proved to be a growing trend across America. Following other cities like Cleveland and San Francisco’s lead, the Chicago Department of Aviation has been fielding bids to enlist a herd of goats to manage weeds and brush at O’Hare International Airport (what the request from the Department of Procurement Services calls “sustainable vegetation management grazing services”).

Once the herd is chosen (the honor will go to the lowest bidder), the Aviation Department hopes to put the goats to work before the end of the year. According to Karen Pride, department spokeswoman, utilizing the animals is a “sustainable and cost-effective way to control brush and remove weeds on non-secure airport property.”

According to Brendan Trevella, development coordinator at Urban Grazing, which leases and sells grazing sheep to landowners in Cleveland, goats are ideal mowing tools when it comes to hard-to-manage areas. Unlike human-powered tractors and lawn mowers, goats can easily traverse steep cliffs and rocky terrain, getting into places machines can’t reach.

O’Hare isn’t the first airport to harness the landscaping power of animals.  As far back as 2009, Google brought in a herd of goats to mow their lawns at its Mountain View, CA headquarters. San Francisco International Airport has dispatched the critters to manage acreage without harming native endangered species. Cleveland uses flocks of sheep to graze vacant properties within the city.

Urban grazing may be especially attractive to airports, which have large amounts of land and a need to appeal to an increasingly environmentally conscious market.

“Airports are under a lot of pressure,” said David Gavrich, owner of City Grazing in San Francisco. According to Gavrich, the low-emissions, pesticide-free practice counts for “good, green P.R.”

Indeed, the C.D.A has spent the last decade marketing itself as a leader in sustainability, installing vegetated roofs and beehives at O’Hare and developing the Sustainable Airport Manual, meant to serve as a guide for other airports implementing green initiatives.

Trevella said that in downtown Cleveland, the sheep have become something of a tourist attraction, with crowds of people showing up to catch a glimpse of the flock as the munch grass along the freeway. He was was surprised at how many city-dwellers had never seen a sheep before. City dwellers have also become a huge fan of the flock’s “guardian llama”, which deters predators and keeps the sheep in line.

“We love our llama,” Trevella said. “He is the most photographed llama in the state of Ohio.”

Price explains at this time, the Department of Aviation is “not aware whether the successful applicant will utilize a ‘guardian llama’”.

Trevella and Gavrich both say mowing with goats and sheep additionally offers savings on landscaping costs.

“As for consumer overhead, it's about 15-30 percent [savings] for larger jobs below conventional landscapers,” said Gavrich, noting goats aren’t required to earn a living wage.

“Our workers aren’t unionized, even though they sometimes lie down on the job,” he jokes.

Local labor leaders aren’t terribly concerned about four-legged scabs, though. When reached for a comment, Illinois Landscape Contractor’s Union Executive Director Scott Grams said, “I never thought we would have to take an official stance on goat grazing, but here we are,” noting urban grazing is more “a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke than something we’re actually taking seriously as an organization.”

Grams said that while urban grazing offers great boosts in visibility and public opinion for clients, especially in “more crunchy granola areas” like Northern California, he’s never seen a human worker displaced by a goat or sheep. He also notes that while grazing animals might get the job done, “You’re not going to get the aesthetic appeal” you receive when using traditional contractors. He also noted clients would have to deal with the transport, upkeep and “fecal matter” of animals, issues (hopefully) not associated with human workers.

O’Hare will most likely return its rented goats to their owner during the cold winter months.

Even more than transport and upkeep, the main expense for urban grazing usually comes from building fences to enclose the animals,” said Travella. Thus, sites that are already enclosed have a distinct cost advantage.

“Depending on the site, it would be cost-effective, especially for an airport, because it’s fenced in already,” he said.

Gavrich added that unless it’s terribly hot out, his goats don’t need anything other than grass to live comfortably. During heat waves, he sometimes puts out buckets of water.

He also noted grazing animals will indeed breed when left to their own devices, saying goats tend to procreate “like rabbits.” Last year, a single male in an otherwise all-female herd produced 32 baby goats. Its herd expanded to its desired size, City Grazing removed the male from the fray.

Trevella said the decision to use sheep or goats isn’t merely a matter of taste. As noted before, goats are more nimble and less picky about what they eat.

“Goats are more agile, depending on terrain,” he said. “They will eat more different kinds of plants like brambles.”

Goats can also be stubborn escape artists, which makes them more tricky to use in smaller, fenced-in areas. For more enclosed, grassy, flat areas, sheep are preferred, he explains.

Either way, urban grazing is a trendy way to manage lawns and garner some great publicity in the process.

“They mowed the white house lawn with sheep,” said Trevella, mentioning you can find pictures of sheep grazing in front of the Capitol as if it were a rolling country meadow. “We’ve moved so far away from that in our mentality, but now we’re seeing a resurgence.” He laughs.

“Sheep are hot again!”