O'HARE — O'Hare International Airport's newest maintenance crew — including Butch, Amelia and Whiskey — will be back on the job in the spring to tackle the waist-high buckthorn, garlic mustard, thistles, poison ivy and ragweed now frozen solid and buried under nearly a foot of snow, city officials said.
Thirty-seven llamas, goats, burros and even a couple of camels successfully reduced unwanted vegetation around O'Hare in the rocky and steep areas that are difficult for two-legged crews to maintain, including the long, narrow and hilly banks of the Willow-Higgins Creek, city officials said last week, declaring the pilot program a success.
"It looked like a nuclear bomb went off anywhere they went," said Joe Arnold, who oversaw the herd of part-time city workers. "They took it all down to nothing. It was a tremendous success."
From July to mid-November, the menagerie munched on approximately 120 acres around the airport, city officials said. The animals were kept in fenced areas away from the runways and terminals, which were mowed by the airport's regular maintenance crews.
"The use of a grazing herd provides economic, environmental and operational benefits for the airport and the community," said Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino in a statement.
The herd helped eliminate hazardous habitat for birds and other wildlife, city officials said.
Arnold and his business partner Al Sternweiler, the chef at the Butcher & the Burger restaurant, bid $19,500 for the contract to supply four-legged weed eaters to the airport. City officials said Arnold's company would be paid no more than $100,000 for the two-year contract.
The publicity about the animals' part-time job at O'Hare was a boon to his Lincoln Park restaurant, which offers do-it-yourself burgers with locally sourced and organic ingredients, Arnold said.
"We got a lot of interested people stopping in," Arnold said, adding that the eatery offered diners a chance to name some of the animals and to volunteer at the airport.
The restaurant, which keeps two dozen goats and other animals at a farm northwest of the city to produce food for the restaurant, partnered with Settler's Pond Shelter to add burros, llamas and sheep to the crew. Arnold said his firm would make a $75 donation per animal per season to Settler's Pond, a Beecher-based nonprofit group that rescues abandoned farm and exotic animals.
Pinky Janota, the founder of Settler's Pond, said she was relieved that none of the animals got sick or were hurt while at the airport. The noise of the jets taking off and landing didn't faze them, either, Janota said.
"I'm really looking forward to the spring" when the animals will return to the airport, Janota said. "I was really pleased at how it turned out."
It took a week to bring all of the animals — including Arnold and Sternweiler's goats, which are now part of the Settler's Pond menagerie and were never destined for the restaurant's menu — back to southern Illinois, where many starred in Nativity plays during the Christmas season.
Not having to feed the animals all summer — in addition to the donations from Arnold's firm — helped the shelter, which is now discussing a plan with officials from Argonne National Laboratory to keep the weeds around their property near Lemont in check, Janota said.
"It really lightened the load on us," Janota said.
Janota also praised the city employees she worked with at the airport, citing their care and concern for the animals.
The animals will cover a lot more ground near the airport this year, Arnold said.
"I'm hoping the number of bird strikes at the airport goes down significantly," Arnold said. "That would be a real accomplishment."
Meetings with airport officials to plan for animals to return in the spring will begin this week, Arnold said.
"It seems very far away, but we're excited," Arnold said.