A nightly "ballet," hours of chewing cud and a whole lot of eating will be going on in an overgrown area of a Naperville park over the next month as a herd of 45 goats clears the way for an expanded disc golf course.
The animal eating machines will be removing poison ivy and other itch-inducing or invasive species from a 5-acre area of Knoch Knolls in south Naperville as part of an improvement project that will include a staffed nature center set to open next fall.
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"They're searching for the highest-protein leaves," said Kim Hunter, owner of The Green Goats of Browntown Wis., who is renting the herd to the Naperville Park District for roughly $5,000. "They're rebalancing the ecosystem. Something needs to prey on these plants and that's what goats do."
Park district staff had heard about goats, llamas, burros and sheep mowing lawns at O'Hare International Airport and began looking into using a similar four-legged lawn service at Knoch Knolls. The district wanted to save money and avoid the pollution caused by gas-powered landscaping machinery, said Eric Shutes, director of planning.
Using in-house employees to clear the area slated to become the ninth through 18th holes of a disc golf course likely would cost $10,000, and those workers would run a high risk of developing a rash from poison ivy or poison sumac, officials said.
But the same plants that turn humans away are exactly what goats love to eat.
In large quantities. For hours at a time.
When the goats aren't eating, Hunter said they're usually resting to regurgitate the material, chew it better and send it back down to be digested by their multichambered stomachs.
Plus, the goats' eco-friendly nature allows the park district to begin teaching the public about conserving energy and protecting the environment even before the $5.5 million project is complete and the 5,000-square-foot nature center is open to the public.
"It's just a great fit for us because it's linked to our nature center project," Shutes said.
The animals began their work Tuesday afternoon as they hopped out of a trailer and started snacking on the first vegetation in sight, spreading quickly throughout the area bounded by a fence of electrified wire. Working for $3 a day, Spanish goats with names such as Nugget, Bucky and Orca won't be making minimum wage, but their bellies will be full.
"If you're going to pay human wages, use the big brain and the opposable thumb," said Hunter, who has been renting herds of goats for similar weed-clearing work since 2008. "If a goat can do what you do, set your sights a little higher."
Visitors to many parts of the 224-acre park at 336 Knoch Knolls Road can bike, walk, toss Frisbees and relax to their heart's content without noticing the goats. But if people do venture west of the disc golf course and find the herd chewing away, they shouldn't touch the electric fence or let their dogs off leashes.
Hunter's herds often become spectator attractions as people are drawn to the novelty of goats anywhere other than a farm or a zoo. Park district staff members say the goat work zone is not a petting zoo but visitors are welcome to watch, as a couple families did Tuesday afternoon.
"In the evening, if you're lucky, you'll see the goat ballet. It's when they all start dancing around," Hunter said about the group of male goats she brought to Naperville. "Quite often I find lawn chairs and empty wineglasses next to the fence."
If this fall's goat experiment goes well, Shutes said the stars of the weed-eating show may be on hand during the nature center's grand opening ceremony.