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Goats to clean up at Chicago's O'Hare International

Image: Goats
Chicago's O'Hare International will soon host a couple dozen four-legged workers to clean up airport property.Gregg Woodward.

If they had passports, they’d probably eat them.

A herd of about 25 goats will soon arrive at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport and go to work munching weeds and invasive plants on about 120 acres of airport-owned land that is difficult to get to with traditional landscaping equipment.

The goats and their herder could arrive as early as next month, said Gregg Cunningham, spokesman for Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA). They will be providing “sustainable vegetation management grazing services,” as part of a two-year, $100,000 contract awarded to Central Commissary Holdings, LLC, a Chicago-based company that operates restaurants in several cities and keeps a small herd of goats near Chicago.

The goats will be kept away from the airport airfield by security fencing and their munching will be restricted to sites that include hilly areas near creeks and streams and roadway right-of-ways. At night the goats will stay nearby in a transport trailer.

“It might be possible upon approach or take off to see the goats, but unlikely,” said O’Hare spokeswoman Karen Pride. “The goats will be on airport property, not on the airfield.”

And while goats are new to O’Hare Airport, environmentally conscious efforts to operating an aviation facility are not.

“The CDA strives to be the most sustainable airport in the country,” said Pride.

O’Hare already has a soil-free, aeroponic garden in one terminal growing vegetables and herbs that are used by many airport restaurants and sold to travelers at a kiosk. There are also beehives on property and a host of other good-for-the earth initiatives underway.

Adding goats to the mix will help CDA “achieve many economic, operational, environmental and social benefits,” CDA Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said in a statement.

Airport officials say those benefits include decreased landscape maintenance costs -- including fuel, labor, herbicides, and equipment -- and a reduction of available habitat for birds and other wildlife that can be hazardous to airport operations.

O’Hare is not the first airport to employ animals to help with the gardening. In 2008, Seattle-Tacoma International brought in goats to eat unwanted weeds, and last year 100 grazing sheep (plus a few goats) were used as part of a pilot program to eat kudzu and other invasive plants on property belonging to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“The animals cleared out property that was very challenging to access with equipment and we were able to redirect airport personnel to other areas of operations while the sheep grazed on nearby vegetation,” said Chris Davis, assistant director of maintenance at Hartsfield-Jackson. “It’s our plan to bring the sheep back.”

In June, a team of hungry goats will return to San Francisco International for the ninth season of organic weed control on environmentally sensitive land that is home to two endangered species, the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog.

The goats will be managed by a goat herder “and there will be an environmental biologist on the scene to monitor the operation to ensure the endangered species are not impacted,” said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.

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