By Emily Torem
Taking refuge from the summer heat wave, Big G and Elenor, both LaMancha goats sporting the breed’s signature tiny ears, stand beneath the cool shade of a tree canopy in Riverside Park near 122nd Street.
Couples taking an afternoon stroll, joggers, and a group with kids stop to laugh, wave, and take pictures of the park’s summertime goat residents, who have been brought in to clean up the landscape by chowing down on poison ivy and other invasive species for the third year running by the Riverside Park Conservancy.
Further down, a deep-russet-colored Saanen goat, Cheech, with large curved horns, mirrors the sitting position of his best friend, Skittles, a cream-colored goat with a splash of black fur across his spine and bisecting his muzzle. The goat-occupied section of the park is fenced off with stakes and chicken wire.
A frequent visitor of the goats, Michele Baker, a Harlem resident and location manager, greets Big G happily. Meanwhile, Elenor tries to angle a lone stick just right to satisfy an itch on her flank.
“I don’t think I have a favorite, but I will say that Big G has been the most reliable as far as being up near the fence,” says Baker. “So, he gets some extra credit!”
“I live about 30 blocks north of Riverside Park and The Park has been part of my walk for years,” Baker says. “I love those goats! They are my animal friends. There is something therapeutic about their presence here in Manhattan. And leave it to Mother Nature to have such lovely creatures that can eat the invasive plants.”
Everyone has a goat story
“In every park, a community forms around the goats,” says Annlilita Cihanek, a farmer from Guyana and co-founder of Green Goats, which she and her husband Larry Cihanek started 17 years ago. WSR spoke to her by phone. The Rhinebeck-based farm and sanctuary has provided the goats to Riverside Park since the program was started in 2019.
“I overhear conversations of people who have lived in the vicinity of each other and have almost [never] introduced themselves,” says Cihanek. “Everyone has a goat story.”
Baker corroborates the sense of community that the goats bring.
“I find that in this city, we are all so zoned into our own worlds, that conversation with ‘strangers’ is rather uncommon and almost a lost art,” says Baker. “But in the presence of these goats, I almost always strike up a conversation with other people there.”
Dubbed “Goatham” by the Riverside Park Conservancy, the highly successful program kicks off each year with a ceremonial “Running of the Goats,” a play on the legendary running of the bulls in Pamploma, Spain, wherein a 20-30 strong herd are released into the park to the excitement of onlookers. According to a Riverside Park Conservancy spokesperson, hundreds of attendees were present for the event this year.
Only a handful of goats will go on to take up residency for the summer season in Riverside Park, where they are looked after by volunteers who lead them into a covered enclosure each night, refill their supply of water, and ensure they are safe and well. According to Cihanek the available volunteers far exceeds needed slots, a testament to the goat’s popularity.
When the goats come in, they’re all pets
People who haven’t spent a lot of time around goats may not realize how social they are, Cihanek explains, emphasizing that goats are similar to dogs in that they come when called, love to be petted, and they need a certain amount of activity and stimuli to stay healthy and happy.
The majority of them thrive on social interaction, except for the ones with social anxiety. The former make great candidates for programs like the one in Riverside Park, where spending a few months meeting the gaze of excited humans is part of the role.
The latter are permitted to live out their days quietly in the barn, away from the hubbub of the city. The entertainment from a summer of activity at Riverside can keep the goats well-satisfied during the winter months, says Cihanek.
The Cihanek’s farm is currently home to 200 goats, each with their own personality and backstory. Part of the farm’s mission, besides providing an ecologically-friendly alternative to landscaping, is to care for as many goats as they reasonably can by providing them with exactly what they need.
“The commitment from us when a goat is donated is that they will forever work, and when they’re not able to work, they will forever stay home,” says Cihanek.
The herd is comprised of a mix of retired dairy farm goats, pandemic pets that outgrew their owner’s expectations, and male goats (over half the goats at Green Goats are male) who are often unneeded on a farm. Green Goats gives these goats a purpose and a comfortable busy life whereas they might otherwise be auctioned off for consumption.
Green Goats will often get a call about taking a goat that is being destructive, but the Cihaneks know from their years in business that, just like dogs or cats, these impulses are often a product of boredom or loneliness, or being in an environment that isn’t well-suited to them. Ornery behavior is not necessarily indicative of intractable behavioral problems. Goats do better in pairs, and in fact, are rarely donated alone.
The invasive species are choking the landscapes
The job of clearing land like that of Riverside Park is particularly suited to a goat — and not a human — because it involves difficult-to-navigate, sloped terrain and plants that can be severely irritating to human skin.
As to why goats are able to consume something like poison ivy without batting an eye, goat farmer James Taylor, who has been raising goats since he was 10 years old on Sunny Acres Farm in Athens, NY, explained that they are not allergic to it the way humans are.
Furthermore, goats are ruminants, with a similar four-chambered stomach to cows, Taylor says. They eat a large variety of plants but most prefer “browse,” or the leafy portions of brush, along with different kinds of forbs (flowering, herbaceous plants).
Due to the structure of their mouths, they can put away poison ivy with ease, cutting off the plant’s source of energy, and eventually killing it.
Taylor explains that his own goats have likewise cleared areas that couldn’t be worked on by equipment or humans, munching on poison ivy, sumac, dogbane, multiflora rose and weed across his farm, which has been in his family since 1897.
“They did a great job,” he says. “In fact, they are working on an area of our farm as we speak to remove buckthorn and other brush so we can work on a drainage project.”
There’s a high demand for their services
Green Goats got its start when Fort Wadsworth, a former military-ground-turned park in Staten Island was plagued with trees forcing their way through the stones. Sheep used to graze at the fort, so Cornell Cooperative Extension, a resource that connects Cornell University’s research with New York communities, got the idea to bring in a herd of goats to deal with the overgrowth.
Goat owners all over the state were contacted, but Cihanek and her husband were the only ones who said yes. Their first two beloved goat employees—since deceased—were named Curry and Stew.
Since that first job nearly two decades ago, Green Goats has brought industrious herds to 32 locations in six states, as far away as West Virginia. Cihanek says their farm’s continued success is due to the high demand for services to restore landscapes ecologically considerate ways.
Still, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of job. For a herd of goats to work properly on a landscaping project, the park needs to be two acres or more, and staff must be available to oversee the goats, deliver them water, and lead them into their enclosed housing (Cihanek calls it the “Gotel”) for the night and during intense storms or other inclement weather.
If these conditions are met, it’s beneficial for the goats and the local ecosystem. If the goats didn’t take on clearing a section of Prospect Park that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, for instance, machinery would have been brought in, which negatively affects the seeds stored in the soil. Other methods of controlling invasive species might harm wildlife; herbicides and machinery might drive out local birds and other sensitive creatures.
For those eager to see the goats in other parts of New York City, while no immediate plans for expansion have been confirmed, the future looks bright for herd-grazed parks and pastures. In 2021, a trio of goats were brought in to work on Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and currently sheep are being deployed to clear Governor’s Island.
One thing is for sure, the appreciation for the goats draws an influx of visitors to the park, and has many supporters. “We see how much attention these fantastic animals bring to our green spaces,” a spokesperson from the Riverside Park Conservancy said. It’s clear that support goes both ways. “Our business is when parks call us,” says Cihanek. “I love what I do. It’s overwhelming to think that people care about what these goats do and think.”