Weeds Beware: Goats, Llamas, Burros, Sheep Unleashed at O'Hare

By Heather Cherone on August 13, 2013 11:53am | Updated on August 13, 2013 4:42pm

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 Fourteen goats, six sheep, three burros and two llamas have been working for three weeks at O'Hare.
Weeds Beware: Goats, Llamas, Burros, Sheep Unleashed at O'Hare
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O'HARE — Meet Baby Boy, Taffy, Carmel, Crystal, Victoria, Precious and Sweetie Pie — members of the newest maintenance crew at O'Hare International Airport.

Despite the roar of airplanes soaring into the clouds and a gaggle of reporters and photographers getting their first look at the rookie part-time employees, the 14 goats, three burros, six sheep and two llamas stayed focused on their work Tuesday afternoon — munching through knee-high weeds in a remote corner of the airport.

A herd of goats owned by Al Sternweiler, the chef at the Butcher & the Burger restaurant, and his business partner Joseph Arnold, were turned loose three weeks ago on an all-you-can-eat buffet of waist-high buckthorn, garlic mustard, thistles, poison ivy and ragweed around the airport.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino said the newest city workers would reduce unwanted vegetation around O'Hare in the rocky, steep areas that are difficult for two-legged crews to maintain.

"This is a step toward becoming a more sustainable city," Andolino said.

Sternweiler and Arnold's company will be paid $19,500, the lowest of the 11 bids the city received in October for the two-year contract.

The firm partnered with Settler's Pond Shelter, a Beecher, Ill.-based non-profit group that rescues abandoned farm and exotic animals, to expand the four-legged work crew to include burros, llamas and sheep. Arnold said his firm was making a $75 donation per animal per season to Settler's Pond.

The work crew grew by one Tuesday morning. Precious, a 3-year-old sheep, gave birth to a bouncing baby boy lamb naturally named O’Hare. As the reporters and photographers watched, the white lamb suckled and took his first steps.

“I ran out to check on them as soon as I got here this morning, and I was so relieved that both mom and baby are doing well,” said Pinky Janota, the founder of Settler's Pond. “It is pretty exciting.”

The bigger animals, especially the burros and the llamas, will protect the herd from predatory animals like coyotes and red-tailed hawks, while eating the grass and other weeds the goats don't enjoy, Janota said.

“Everyone is getting along well,” Janota said.

Janota said her biggest concern was the animals' reaction to the airport noise, which was so loud at times that it drowned out the speakers at the news conference.

"As soon as we got here, they took off running and began eating right away," Janota said, who added that her contract allows her to take her animals home if she feels they are being harmed. "None of them even flinch when the planes go by."

The animals will be kept in fenced areas away from the runways and terminals, which will continue to be maintained by the airport's regular maintenance crews, Andolino said.

The four-legged maintenance crew is part of a pilot program that could be expanded to other city property if successful, airport spokeswoman Karen Pride said.

While the herd of goats may not be cash cows, Arnold said he's hoping the publicity about their part-time job at O'Hare will draw diners to his Lincoln Park restaurant, which offers do-it-yourself burgers with locally sourced and organic ingredients.

"Doing this is definitely out of the box, but it is not that far from of what we do every day at the restaurant," Arnold said.

O'Hare's newest workers don't have to worry about ending up on the menu at the Butcher & the Burger if they fall down on the job. There are no plans to add goat burgers to the Lincoln Park's restaurant's menu, although milk and cheese from the goats could make an appearance soon.

The goats, accompanied by their caretaker Gregg Woodward, will be expected to clear about 250 acres a day at the airport, focusing on steep areas along creeks and streams. When the goats are off duty, they rest in a wooden shelter.

"The animals seem very happy," Woodward said. "They could care less where they are as long as they've got good chow.”

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