Because of potential problems, goat teams need to research native plant cycles, ground-nesting birds’ reproductive patterns and endangered habitats before bringing the animals in. David Pimental, professor emeritus of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, used to keep goats. He says that “they can compete with some native animal species for food, water and shelter, and may be pests, if not managed carefully.” In order to mitigate ecological catastrophes, the goats need containment and close supervision.Goat-team owners often safeguard protected areas with portable electric fences. Thanks to containment and close supervision, the Berkeley goats have actually become an environmental asset—and part of an historical legacy. When humans began domesticating goats (Capra hircus) in the Near East 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, they switched from being hunter-gathers to tillers of the soil and herders of animals. When the first farmers moved into Europe about 7,500 years ago, goats went with them. In short, it is impossible to imagine the rise of the “Neolithic revolution” without crediting goat input.
But goats need to be contained to prevent ecological damage, and for their own protection. On May 22, 2007, 15 goat kids, owned by the Oyarzun family, the proprieters of the Goats R Us company, were gunned down inside a portable corral in Oakland’s King Estates Recreation Area. The shooter was not found, despite a more than $20,000 reward offered by animal welfare groups. 101-year-old Berkeley Hills resident Helen Miller (known to everyone as “Moo”) remembers how a decade ago, goats were safe from snipers. Miller was 91 when she first called Goats R Us to create a firebreak.
“Each goat has its own personality,” she says. “I could watch them all day. And they are very well taken care of; the owners don’t eat or kill the old ones. They keep them at home and allow them to graze freely, and when they die they give them a proper burial.”
Today, the Bay Area goats are at the forefront of another fundamental lifestyle change: They are showing residents it is possible to stem the tide of some environmental and ecological disasters without pesticides or petroleum. With forest fires blackening landscapes in the northwestern United States and drought conditions taking over in California and Nevada, and the United States Department of Agriculture categorizing parts of Texas and New Mexico in the “extreme” fire danger class, there may be even greater investment to come in professionally controlled goat power.
Portions of this article appeared in American Forests and Small Farmer’s Journal.