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As weeds and invasive plants crowd hillsides around Seattle, city workers are out in force in the annual effort to clear them. One unique crew is drawing plenty of attention for the way it really sinks its teeth into the job.
A herd of goats is busy this week chomping away at a steep hillside covered in thick growth alongside I-5 and Ravenna Blvd. near Greenlake. The Seattle Department of Transportation has been renting the goats from Vashon Island-based Rent-A-Ruminant for years to clear the toughest areas deemed too dangerous or inaccessible for humans to work in.
"When we put them out there they can clear it to ground level pretty quickly," says SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan. "So it helps us to get the job done safely but also in a cost effective fashion."
The goats have become an increasingly popular tool in the battle against blackberries, Scotch broom and other invasive vegetation. Rent-A-Ruminant founder Tammy Dunakin started her business in 2004 with only ten goats after burning out on her job in medical trauma care and realizing her small herd was bored just hanging out on her Vashon Island farm. The herd has since grown to over 120 as business has boomed.
"Once I got the goats out they completely marketed themselves. It just takes people seeing them and then the calls start coming in," Dunakin says.
The calls run the gamut from private landowners to government agencies like SDOT, the University of Washington, and the U.S. Navy.
"The best applications for them is where humans and machines can not get to safely or easily," she says. Along with steep slopes, the goats can work in hazardous areas such as under freeway overpasses that are riddled with hypodermic needles from drug users and other waste that could be dangerous to humans, since the goats are immune to human diseases.
The herds make for quite a spectacle, especially alongside busy urban streets. Dunakin works with either 15, 60 or 120 goats at a time surrounded by a temporary chain link fence, depending on the size of the job. She has 60 goats working the job this week in Seattle, which she estimates will take about five days to clear the third-of-an-acre area.
The goats graze around the clock, with Dunakin and her trusty dog camping alongside them in a travel trailer.
"I'm kind of an urban nomad," she laughs. "I take my goats and my little trailer and my herding dog and we just go move into a community until the job's done."
Dunakin charges between $250 to $725 per 24-hour day for the herd, plus a small mobilization fee. It's often far less expensive than hiring humans to do the same job.
"I just did a job in Tacoma that was over a third-of-an-acre, and it was actually three times less expensive to have the goats do it," she says. That's because in addition to making quick work of the difficult terrain, the goats leave little behind to clean up and haul away, making for an environmentally friendly fix to overgrowth.
Dunakin and her goats have gotten plenty of attention in recent years. They've been featured on everything from Nightline to the Colbert Report, and starred in a number of commercials. But the city of Seattle plans to keep them too busy to do any acting for at least the next few months.
"We are very satisfied customers when it comes to utilizing these goat herds," Sheridan laughs. Even better, they don't need lunch breaks.