Columnist: Goats grazing the graveyard, a Washington 'first'

It's likely the first land clearing project of its kind to occur in the nation's capital -- a city afflicted by extreme partisan rhetoric and high congressional roadblocks.

But forget politics for a moment and consider activity currently underway at the famed Congressional Cemetery. It's a model of efficient, round-the-clock work -- animal-driven -- in the national interest.

As you read these lines, a herd of about 100 goats is actively munching away, consuming an extraordinarily thick tangle of vines, poison ivy and other invasive plant species that have infested a two-acre perimeter area of the famed burial ground.

The goats began applying their voracious appetites at the cemetery on Wednesday (Aug. 7). It's expected they'll finish their work on Monday or soon thereafter. In the meantime the public has been invited to visit the site and see the animals at work. And the visitors are flooding in.

But just to watch goats? Aren't these creatures considered symbols of stubbornness? Maybe so. But raise and handle them well, and then herd them into an area with succulent leaves inviting their attention, and they're docile, hardworking and uncomplaining, says Brian Knox, founder-leader of the Maryland-based firm "Eco-Goats" that's supplied the goats for the Congressional Cemetery project.

Agile and light on their feet, goats are gentler than machinery when working on sensitive or historical sites. They have special enzymes in their guts that allow them to eat plants poisonous to other animals. They're natural climbers, not daunted by thick vines, perching their front hooves on tree trunks to reach the broad-leafed material they love to munch on.

Goats' powerful triangular mouths destroy the seeds of invasive plants they're consuming -- which means their droppings (unlike those of birds) fertilize the soil but don't re-seed it. That creates ecological space for the return and growth of native grasses and plants.

Plus, goats obviate the use of harsh herbicides -- a key reason, Lauren Malloy of the Congressional Cemetery staff explains, not just to put the "adorable" goats to work on the problem site but to prevent harmful runoff into the nearby Anacostia River.

The goats aren't, of course, set free to graze the cemetery -- rather they're confined to the overgrown area on the cemetery's perimeter by the installation of a temporary electrified fence.

That means there's no danger to the cemetery's 5,000 grave sites, including the headstones of such American notables as Vice President (and signer of the Declaration of Independence) Elbridge Gerry, composer John Philip Sousa, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The eight-foot high fence around the goats' work area also means, Knox explains, that the animals -- all seasoned professionals of other clean-up jobs -- aren't being disturbed by such urban environmental perils as "teenagers and dogs."

Knox, who runs a natural resources firm, got into goat raising almost accidentally -- on a friend's suggestion, to sell the meat -- five years ago. But as soon as he started giving the animals names, meat selling lost its allure. He undertook research that showed goats were already being used widely in the Western U.S. for preventing brush fires and suppressing kudzu infestation, with herds commissioned by federal agencies, corporate campuses of Google and Yahoo, and cities including Seattle. A decade-old goat enterprise named "Healing Hooves" operates out of Edwall, Wash., near Spokane.

Today goat farming is expanding in the East and Midwest , with herds at work on grown-over, hard-to-clear rural properties plus in such cities as Chicago, New York's Staten Island and Philadelphia.

Wherever locations are accessible, curious crowds -- as at the Congressional Cemetery -- assemble to watch the appealing, busy animals.

Knox sounds downright fatherly as he notes: "We just had a number of kids. And some of our grazers are out on maternity leave right now." One's left wondering: Can a parallel "family feeling" ever return to American politics?

Likely not soon. The very phrase "Eco-Goats" may appeal to liberals and Democrats who see a new "Earth Day-like" solution in goats replacing herbicides and massive ground-clearing machinery. Conversely, just using a word reminiscent of "ecology" is unlikely to win favor with Republican officeholders who viscerally favor corporate-created, "free enterprise" answers.

But let any politico, ideologically left or right or middle, go see the goats doing man's work. And then not smile.