The Ups and Downs of Using Goats to Control Fires
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Dawn Starin on

Today, the Bay Area goats are showing residents it is possible to stem the tide of some environmental and ecological disasters without pesticides or petroleum.

The Oakland and Berkeley hills in California are particularly ripe for fires. The combined effects of droughts and a bark beetle infestation have killed off thousands of acres of trees. Add steep slopes, high winds and thousands of homes, and an unchecked fire can wreak havoc. Many residents remember the sweeping fires of 1991, when in one afternoon 3,500 homes burned and 25 people died. Thus, residents and public agencies—and even the San Francisco International Airport and University of California, Berkeley—have called in the local forest fire prevention squad: a team of sure-footed goats.

Grazing goats can help prevent catastrophic fires, but they can also wreak environmental havoc if not properly managed.
© Photo: Roger Polk

The goats are overseen by shepherds on horseback and border collies, and they graze along the hillsides eating unwanted grass and weeds, more cost-efficient and less intrusive than pesticides and mechanical equipment. Places considered impossible to reach by human or mechanical hands are completely cleared, rendering them fireproof. And local residents are treated to bucolic scenes of antic-prone shaggy angoras, squat pygmies, tiny-eared la manchas and stringy alpines grazing, climbing trees and butting one another.

Tom Klatt, the former manager of the Office of Emergency Preparedness at UC Berkeley and the author of UC Berkeley’s 2007 Fire Mitigation Program Annual Report, says, “The goat clearance scheme is one of the key reasons the Bay Area hasn’t had a recurrence of a catastrophic fire in decades.” But there are environmental consequences, too. These agile animals have been known to reduce or eliminate entire populations of native plants and facilitate soil erosion and the establishment of invasive plants. According to Professor Josh Donlan, the director of Advanced Conservation Strategies at Cornell University, “Non-native herbivores, like feral goats, are responsible for widespread ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss on islands around the world.” Introduced goats were directly responsible for the disappearance of 48 species of native plants from California’s Santa Catalina Island, pushed eight native plant species into extinction on the state’s San Clemente Island and eliminated more than 50 endemic plant species on the British territory of St. Helena. In Hawaii, feral goats have degraded habitats, increased erosion, promoted the invasion of alien plants and threatened endangered indigenous plant species like the Haleakala silversword and Mann’s bluegrass. It is not just islands that are at risk. In the mid-1980s in Olympia National Park in Washington State, introduced mountain goats caused erosion along steep hillsides and ate endangered native plants. For decades free-ranging goats have ruined crops, destroyed natural vegetation and helped undermine economic progress in The Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mexico and Brazil, among other places. In northwest China flocks of goats are stripping the land of its protective vegetation, creating a dustbowl on a scale never seen before.

Because of potential problems, goat teams need to research native plant cycles, ground-nesting birds’ reproductive patterns and endangered habitats before bringing the animals in. David Pimental, professor emeritus of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, used to keep goats. He says that “they can compete with some native animal species for food, water and shelter, and may be pests, if not managed carefully.” In order to mitigate ecological catastrophes, the goats need containment and close supervision. Goat-team owners often safeguard protected areas with portable electric fences. Thanks to containment and close supervision, the Berkeley goats have actually become an environmental asset—and part of an historical legacy. When humans began domesticating goats (Capra hircus) in the Near East 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, they switched from being hunter-gathers to tillers of the soil and herders of animals. When the first farmers moved into Europe about 7,500 years ago, goats went with them. In short, it is impossible to imagine the rise of the “Neolithic revolution” without crediting goat input.

But goats need to be contained to prevent ecological damage, and for their own protection. On May 22, 2007, 15 goat kids, owned by the Oyarzun family, the proprieters of the Goats R Us company, were gunned down inside a portable corral in Oakland’s King Estates Recreation Area. The shooter was not found, despite a more than $20,000 reward offered by animal welfare groups. 101-year-old Berkeley Hills resident Helen Miller (known to everyone as “Moo”) remembers how a decade ago, goats were safe from snipers. Miller was 91 when she first called Goats R Us to create a firebreak.

“Each goat has its own personality,” she says. “I could watch them all day. And they are very well taken care of; the owners don’t eat or kill the old ones. They keep them at home and allow them to graze freely, and when they die they give them a proper burial.”

Today, the Bay Area goats are at the forefront of another fundamental lifestyle change: They are showing residents it is possible to stem the tide of some environmental and ecological disasters without pesticides or petroleum. With forest fires blackening landscapes in the northwestern United States and drought conditions taking over in California and Nevada, and the United States Department of Agriculture categorizing parts of Texas and New Mexico in the “extreme” fire danger class, there may be even greater investment to come in professionally controlled goat power.

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