Four-legged landscapers eat on the job. Wait, that IS their job

'Eco-goats' begin clearing land adjacent to the historic Congressional Cemetery, Aug. 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Goats are being used to clear a 1.6-acre plot of land covered with vines, poison ivy and other dense vegetation. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — The bleating of the goats didn’t disturb the residents of Congressional Cemetery, where hundreds of senators, congressmen, a couple of vice presidents and other well-known Washingtonians are buried.

The 70 goats — known as “eco-goats” — are eating the vines, poison ivy, dense vegetation and almost anything else they can reach to clean up a densely vegetated parcel on the cemetery grounds.

The group that cares for the cemetery wants to keep the plants from killing the trees, so they won't fall and break the historic headstones. Paul Williams, the group's president, said they don't want to use chemicals. The cemetery is next to the river and members walk dogs there without a leash.

About 25 percent of the graveyard’s funding comes from local residents who pay a fee to walk their dogs there. Capital personalities such as FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, composer John Philip Sousa and Civil War photographer Mathew Brady sleep for eternity below their pooper scoopers.

Herd Of Another Sort

The floppy-eared brown-and-white goats included Yoda, Buckaroo and Mimi. They were camera-shy environmental pioneers at first, refusing to leave their trailer. Then they emerged, only to run back into the trailer to avoid a throng of news crews.

After the cemetery and humane society officials moved the media herd away, the goats ran into the 1.6-acre enclosed area and started doing what they do best: chomping everything green and leafy in sight. The sight of them chewing vines and their constant bleating delighted about a half-dozen children.

“It’s actually an ancient custom,” said Williams, who’s trying to be innovative and bring new life and activities to the cemetery. “I kind of hope it opens people’s minds to alternatives.”

Hiring the 70 goats was a thrifty move, too. They can reach vines as high as 7 feet, and the bill will be $4,000 for six days of work. Williams said that worked out to be a bargain, at $9.52 per day per goat.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to demonstrate the positive aspects of using goats to help reduce and control problem vegetation,” said Brian Knox, the owner of Eco-Goats in Annapolis, Md.

The city of Paris began using sheep this past spring as eco-mowers. They keep the lawns trim outside the French capital’s municipal buildings.

Goats Among The Headstones

Aside from the dense vegetation, Congressional Cemetery is quite tidy, dotted with small trees among the headstones, obelisks and memorials. A quaint chapel sits in the middle of the grounds. There's also a public vault from 1832, where the bodies of many famous people were stored temporarily, including First Lady Dolley Madison.

Two hundred members of Congress and their families are buried at the cemetery, which is owned by Christ Church. The “congressional” in the name is because of its occupants; there’s no official connection to the U.S. Congress.

Williams is trying to bring back the way people once thought of cemeteries.

“In the Victorian era, cemeteries used to be a regular picnicking spot,” he said, “They were like the first park system.” Well, the goats were certainly picnicking.

Chris Kennedy, a board member of the association that cares for the cementery, lives nearby. He enjoys bringing his dogs to the park-like setting, which he called a “unique and a beautiful thing.” Adding goats, he said, was “a cool thing. It’s historical. It’s ecological.”

Hitting The Mall Next?

Might goats or sheep on the National Mall be not too far off?

“I would not expect that,” said Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman for National Mall and Memorial Parks. “As far as I know, it has never been considered. There could be unintended consequences of resource damage.”

But, she added, “It’s certainly an interesting idea.”

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