Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Herding Goats in San Francisco

Goats are big business. It started with Goats 'R' Us in San Diego in the '80s. Brilliant idea: instead of using gasoline-powered, air- and noise-polluting machines to clear fields of weeds or paying labor costs for humans to do it by hand, use herds of goats who'd like nothing better than to graze fresh pastures all day. Since then, goat herding companies have been popping up all over California to rent their flocks to those who'd like their eco-friendly and economical services. I used to work for a friend and his mother who'd been managing goats for four years. They had just gotten a contract with the San Francisco Port Authority and so I did my training in the city on Pier 96 by Hunters Point.

Pier 96 is the last of the piers going down the bay side of the city. It's an industrial zone, hardly the bucolic setting which one might normally imagine to be appropriate to the herding of goats. The inland side of the pier is a railyard with a few dozen boxcars. On the southeast corner is a parking lot for postal trucks and police cars and a course for training emergency vehicle drivers. There's a port where ships come from somewhere on the Pacific to unload their cargo. On the northeast corner is a factory that smells like rancid cat food. I was told it's a plant where animal remains are melted down for industrial purposes. On the southwest corner, next to the main entrance, four or five men spend their days packing toxic, contaminated dirt into barrels for shipment to a storage facility in Utah. In the middle of the pier was a pile of rubble from highways and bridges. Wrapping around the dusty pile was a 22-acre field of weeds. Hidden among the weeds were a few homeless encampments. There were broad views of the skyline downtown, the Twin Peaks and fog rolling over them each afternoon, the Bay Bridge, and Oakland and Berkeley across the bay.

We brought in two herds totaling 1,020 goats. They cleared about an acre a day. My job consisted mainly of setting up and taking down rolls of electric fence. I'd clear a foot-wide path of weeds with a mower, roll out the fence in 100-foot segments, hook it up to a car battery and a solar panel, and check the voltage. Otherwise, I just had to make sure the goats had sufficient water, mineral salt licks, and tubs of molasses.

We had an Australian shepherd dog named Hemp. Hemp was severely abused and traumatized by a previous owner. He ran away with his tail between his legs from every human he saw except my friend who rescued and trained him and the shepherd who worked with him. Hemp was about as phychologically disturbed as a dog could be.

A word about goat-dog relations: the goats are afraid of the dog. The dog enjoys tormenting the goats and feels a tingling from his predator roots somewhere in the back of his brain. The shepherd puts the dog behind the goats, which makes them run away from the dog and toward wherever the shepherd wants them to go.

One day Hemp quit his job. The goats were being moved from one enclosure to another. It was a hot afternoon and Hemp just didn't feel like running around. He wanted to be back in his cage where there was water, shade, and security. So he lay down and ignored all commands to stay behind the goats. The goats escaped and started wandering all over Pier 96. Three humans couldn't contain the goats the way one dog can, and after several hours of chasing the beasts, they called in someone from another company to bring another dog. When the dog finally arrived, the goats were all herded into the pen in about 10 minutes.

One day when I wasn't working the goats cleared a patch near the rubble pile and uncovered a dead body. The guy was apparently dead for a long time. All that was left was a clothed skeleton wrapped in a blanket. The cops came and took the body but we never found out what happened. On my last day at the site all that was left was the yellow police tape.

From Pier 96 the goats were moved to their next assignment: a beautiful, idyllic winery hidden in the hills near Petaluma.

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