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Article updated: 8/14/2013 7:43 AM

Llamas, goats love the jet-set life at O'Hare

By Marni Pyke

Oblivious to the roars of Boeing 767s and MD-80s above, a ewe nuzzled her newborn lamb on a hilltop at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday, the latest addition to the city's four-legged lawn mowers.

The grass bleatdown includes an eclectic team of 25 llamas, burros, goats and sheep. The unorthodox mowers prune hard-to-reach grass that can attract dangerous pests and continue a push for a more environmentally friendly airport, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said.

"The very wet summer has made for lush vegetation, and since it's steep, the best way to manage our landscaping is to bring in new employees," Andolino said, as llamas loped in the background.

The animals arrived at O'Hare in late July and quickly acclimatized, making short work of the fescue and other grasses. Many are from a Will County animal rescue center.

"They immediately took off running and exploring. ... Planes were going over, their heads were buried, they were eating," said Pinky Janota of Settler's Pond Animal Shelter in Beecher.

The newborn lamb was named O'Hare and so far has adjusted to a jet-set life. "He's suckling on Mom ... planes are flying overhead. He didn't flinch, Mom didn't move, everybody's content," Janota said.

The city contracted with Central Commissary Holdings, a restaurant company, to provide the herd, which in turn partnered with Settler's Pond. The nonprofit shelter cares for 350 rescues ranging from exotic animals to the burros.

"They're feeding my animals, so it's a win-win situation," Janota said.

Central Commissary has its own herd of goats based at a Barrington farm, which produces goat cheese for the company's Butcher & the Burger restaurant.

"The animals are out doing their civic duty," said Joseph Arnold, a Central Commissary partner.

The two-year contract is for up to $19,500 and covers about 120 acres of dense, scrubby vegetation on four sites, at a distance or separated from the airfield by fencing.

The herd's latest task is a 2-acre site at the northeast end of O'Hare near the airport's 9L-27R runway, which chief herder Gregg Woodward estimates will take three weeks to consume. The animals complement each other with the burros and llamas keeping coyotes away while the goats are game for any weeds the others won't eat, he explained.

With the exception of two anti-social goats, the animals all took an interest in baby O'Hare, peering at the newborn until his mom ended the visit earlier Tuesday.

"They wandered in to take a look," Woodward said. "It was pretty cool."

The project will save money on traditional landscaping costs and cut down on the need for herbicides and disposal of clippings, Andolino said. The herd will stay out through fall as weather permits and return in summer 2014.

"We'll be looking at how we expand this in the future," Andolino said.

Keeping grass trimmed is essential at airports to discourage smaller wildlife that in turn can be prey for large birds, including hawks, that could interfere with air traffic, officials said.

Although it's a first for the Chicago airspace, goats and sheep have been used at other airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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