This part of the park was just recently choked with vines so dense you couldn’t see sunlight between the trees. Now light blasts through the electric fence into an area so bare, it’s like a bomb went off. Thousands of pounds of greenery just disappeared, but only up to the exact height the goats can reach. The foliage starts again about six feet up, at a line of demarcation as eerily straight and consistent as the flood line that marked blocks and blocks of houses after Hurricane Katrina.
“I told you!” was all Morgana said as we disassembled the portable fence and moved her goats to tackle a new green mess.
Though we don’t live on a farm, goats have taken over our lives. Nine months ago, my wife Morgana teamed up with ten of them to found Y’Herd Me Property Maintenance, a goat-powered landscaping firm with which she hopes to clear some of the overgrown spaces that have blighted New Orleans since Katrina.
With more than 40,000 blighted properties measured in 2010, New Orleans is one of the top three most blighted American cities. Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims to have made some progress, but not everyone sees it. “When I look at the Lower Ninth Ward,” NAACP branch president Danatus King told The Advocate, “the weeds are higher than the rooftops. To me, that’s blight. When we talk about…a reduction in blight, to me, I don’t see it.”
As bankrupt Detroit faces its own blight problem, it has turned to goats. When California and Texas needed help with their wildfire issues, they brought in goats to clear dry brush. Even Brad Pitt’s famous Lower Ninth Ward housing charity, Make It Right, built a large trailer called the “Slow Mow” to transport goats around to what is charitably called “green space”: vast tracts of land where neighborhoods once stood. Make It Right didn’t follow through. Still, “New Orleans needs goats,” Morgana tells as many people as her quiet demeanor allows.
We adopted our very first pygmy goat, Chauncey Gardner, a dozen years ago. Morgana seemed to softly will him into existence, much as she would later conjure up Y’Herd Me? It started with: “I want a dog.”
“We don’t enjoy the responsibilities we have,” I vetoed. “You want more?”
Days later she responded, “Then how about a goat?”
Having known Morgana for thirteen years, I see how she shares the quiet, calm nature of goats. She also longs for a more bucolic life to offset the substantial office job she’s maintained for over a decade— a job she dislikes dressing up for, a job that rarely compels her to wear makeup. Given the choice, she’d rather wear overalls and work in the sun. Still, she’s good at the indoor day job because she’s outwardly sweet and patient and she makes things happen. She can talk you into things without much talking. “You know we’ll never mow the lawn ourselves,” she kidded me. “We wouldn’t even have to feed a goat! Let’s go see the farm, just for fun.”
Suddenly, we were in rural Louisiana, watching Chauncey’s birth. “Oh my god!” Morgana exclaimed over Chauncey’s mama screaming. “She’s still trying to eat!” Indeed, between contractions, mama goat continued nibbling at the hay around her. When she was finished, she committed the only carnivorous act we’ve ever witnessed from any goat: She consumed every bite of her afterbirth. Goats never stop eating, but they’re pickier than advertised; Chauncey will consume anything made of paper (birth certificates, $20 bills, rare vinyl record sleeves) and has a weakness for discarded cigarette butts (which the veterinarian said helps to kill internal parasites), and I did once see him swallow a bottle cap (no problem for the “ruminant” species, with its “four stomachs”), but otherwise he is a food snob, preferring only the best fresh greens.
We paid $75 for the infant goat, and Chauncey’s been our amiable silent partner ever since. He even evacuated Hurricane Katrina with us in 2005, riding quietly in our back seat as we traversed America in search of goat-friendly places to stay while we were locked out of our city. We ended up taking refuge for more than a month on an urban farm in Houston, with oblivious sheep and chickens that made the resident goats look smart by comparison. He went on to also survive our daughter’s toddler years, when she would pull his fur and he’d gently knock her down.
More recently, we moved out of the Ninth Ward to a double lot across the river from the French Quarter, the site of a former citrus farm, where Morgana finally had room to hatch Y’Herd Me.
Her business plan’s first phase involved purchasing a hulking trailer that we call “the goats’ office,” a rolling monstrosity that she painted bright red. Before she could equip it with separate stalls inside, we found out Morgana was pregnant again with our second daughter, and work on Y’Herd Me slowed to a crawl. I started to fear that the eyesore office might anger our new neighbors, who all wash their cars regularly and curate meticulous lawns. “I’m sorry about this y’all,” I’d holler over to where they sat on their porches, watching Morgana work and grow more pregnant. “She says it’ll be gone soon.” They’d laugh and wave me off, seeming to admire my wife’s efforts, and understand her desire for a different sort of life.
The neighbors exhibited equally bemused understanding when Morgana finally began filling our yard with goats she collected for free on Craigslist. I’d expected more pygmies — small, hornless, ball-less replicas of Chauncey. Instead, Morgana brought home Chuck, the realest goat. A neutered male — a ‘wether’ in goat lexicon — Chuck’s about twice Chauncey’s height with horns as long as my forearms. He looks like a mountain ram. He’s very sweet to people, but bullies other goats out of their food. With Chuck came his smaller girlfriend, Caldonia, named for the famous jump-blues song: “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?” Chuck follows Caldonia everywhere like a lovesick puppy dog — but then he rams her and takes her food.
I let a Facebook friend pawn Willie off on us because Willie was tiny and adorable. I was told he was a baby goat, but a week after bringing him home we realized he is actually a full-grown miniature pygmy — doubly small. I carry him under my arm like a Thanksgiving turkey. His testicles though, are as big as his head — like a human heart encased in leather.
Because unneutered males can ejaculate roughly fifty times a day, just one buck is needed for every two-dozen females. Each herd’s single buck is usually quarantined in a back pen where he can piss into his beard and mouth in private — a habit that gives billy goats the signature musky odor that makes female goats swoon. Little Willie pees on himself a little but is too tiny to mount our other goats — though he does try to hump Chauncey. To dampen his hypersexuality, Willie must be neutered. Regular cat and dog anesthesia will kill a goat, and alternative medical procedures are very expensive, so most goat farmers use a process called “elastration,” where a rubber band is wrapped around the testicles and left there for a week or so until they fall off. In the meantime there is a lot of crying. We do not have the heart to do this. So for now, the nuts remain.
Chuck, Caldonia and Willie stayed temporarily penned up in Chauncey’s big West Bank yard while Morgana slowly negotiated her herd’s first property maintenance gig at a local park that had fallen into disrepair since Katrina. Our large yard is perfect for Chauncey, but after the three new goats trimmed our grass low, they grew tired of their limited job and proceeded to kill our plum tree by stripping off its bark.
“When are you getting them out of here?” I prodded Morgana almost daily. “Please make it happen before they notice the grape tree. That thing’s been there for like fifteen years.”
“I’m moving them to the park this weekend,” Morgana said several weekends in a row. Meanwhile, they killed the grape tree. Between the goats’ ugly office out front and their destruction out back, I was already beginning to hate them a little. Having lived alone his entire long life, Chauncey was anxious to see them go as well.
Then Morgana procured six more goats all at once. A retiree in the suburbs who’d just had a heart attack could no longer handle the responsibility, and so sold us all six goats for $600 — a bargain price. “Will you come with me to pick them up, in case I need help?” my pregnant wife “asked” me.
These goats were not domesticated like our other goats, so I was tasked with chasing, catching and wrestling each animal to the ground, then dragging them into Morgana’s old Dodge truck in the intense Louisiana heat. Between the heart attack survivor and the pregnant woman, I would find little help. I scooped up the two baby Nubians easily, to my wife’s applause, and the cream-colored pygmy was big but sweet, and easy to grab by the long handles on her head. The black-and-white-spotted Nubian was heavier and put up a harder fight. With three more to go, I was already soaked and red in the face.
“Take it easy, man,” the retiree warned, looking worried. “Don’t you have a heart attack too.”
The fifth goat, a tall, shiny black Nubian, had no horns to grab onto — slippery as a seal. I chased her around and around the small pen until finally she did an impressive standing leap, up and over the four-and-a-half foot fence. “You’ll have to come back for her next weekend,” the fellow said as she ran off into his pasture.
He would only sell his six goats as a set, meaning I also had to wrestle his one black buck named Hugh. (Hugh Masticala, a play on jazz musician Hugh Masekela, who wrote “Grazing In the Grass.”) Hugh was smaller and mellower, thankfully, and he didn’t smell too bad, so he was relatively easy to load into the truck. Five goats stared out at us from the bed as we locked the tailgate and the fellow chuckled to me, “That damned buck — he went and got three of them gals pregnant.”
“Whoa, what?” I asked him, eyeing Morgana. “They’re pregnant? Now?”
“Morgana, you knew this?”
“Sorry,” she said, handing me a bottled water from her truck. “We’re one big pregnant family.”
Back home we led our new herd of nine goats into their office and then hauled them down to their first job at the overgrown local park. (Chauncey stayed home.) Bipeds couldn’t pass through all the cats-claw vine that, if not removed, would eventually suffocate and kill off the overhead tree canopies. Mere machetes wouldn’t efficiently clear that tangled greenery; humans might need dynamite. But to our goats, it’s a heavenly buffet.
We encircled an acre in Morgana’s massive portable electric fence, which runs on a solar panel and a car battery. Staking the sinewy white fence into the ground, I got jolted a couple times and determined it was probably less harsh than a Taser shock. But fence or no, goats rarely yearn for freedom. They desire food and safety and almost nothing more. When a giant tree later fell on Morgana’s electric fence, the goats could have easily walked out, but instead stayed put, a dedicated team.
That being said, after we finally drove out and rounded up the hornless, pregnant, antisocial black goat and returned her to her herd, she immediately hopped over the electric fence and took off into the vast park. Morgana ate her nails silently.
“She will be fine,” I tried.
“She’s pregnant. She gonna have her babies out there, alone?”
“There’s more than enough food and water out there for them all to live forever.”
“I don’t want it to be my fault that there’s a family of feral goats running around the park…”
By the next morning though, the black goat had leapt back into the safety of the electric fence to be with her herd. She still does not let us touch her, but she does keep close to us at all times. She stands on the very top of Morgana’s big red Dodge truck, looking down on us as we herd the other goats in and out of their office at night and in the mornings.
Morgana’s six-month contract with the park pays her $900 a month. She will turn a small profit every month almost from the start since Y’Herd Me Property Maintenance is, going forth, a business with almost no overhead. Unlike your human lawn-mowing crew, Morgana’s herd wastes no gasoline and asks for no hourly wage. The goats live at the park, operating like a virus: The job itself nourishes and sustains them.
Once we finished moving the electric fence to an overgrown area where the goats’ heavenly buffet could begin anew, Morgana walked back to inspect the area her herd had already cleared. The sheer deforestation proved her long-held hypothesis correct. As she stepped through previously impassable land, I’d rarely seen her more content — sweating and itchy with insects, but nowhere near a computer screen. Quiet person though she is, Morgana even seems to enjoy chatting with all those who now come down to the park just to point and laugh at her goats.
“Do you know why these goats are here in the park?” people ask her at first.
“They’re mine,” she answers proudly.
“Oh really? Wow. And you just bring them here for people to look at?”
“No, they’re working. They’re paid to be here!”
“Really? That’s great!” They look down and admire the herder’s big basketball belly and inevitably ask Morgana, “How does someone get that job?”
“I made it up!”
* * *
Michael Patrick Welch is a musician, journalist and author of books including “New Orleans: the Underground Guide” (LSU Press) and his latest collection of interviews and essays, “Famous People I Have Met.” His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Vice, Salon, McSweeney’s and many other venues. Follow him @mpatrickwelch.
Jo Dery is an artist who experiments with storytelling. She makes short films, drawings, prints, and little books.