Yes, officer, those are goats in our backyard

Staff WriterOctober 4, 2008 

I got busted on Aug. 28, 2007.

I was home for lunch on a workday, a very, very rare occurrence (this is true, my bosses!). The doorbell chimed.

A tall woman wearing a polo shirt and carrying a clipboard introduced herself as a Planning and Zoning Enforcement Officer from the county planning department.

Her tone was polite and hesitant, as if she almost didn't believe what she was about to say: We have a complaint of goats.

"Yes, we have goats," I nodded. "Complaint?"

It's against code, she said. Can I see them?

Of course. Come see the goats. Everyone wanted to see the goats, so cute and industrious and playful.

And, I was learning, absolutely illegal.

The goats were clearing the jungle in the back half of our lot, not far from the N.C. School of Science and Math. The back 40 had grown wild for years, and when we moved in last year we started hacking at a tick-infested tangle of honeysuckle, poison ivy, grape vines and scrubby trees. The wisteria was the worst: a tangled web of sinewy ropes, some as thick as my wrist.

It was hard going with a pickaxe and machete. At a neighborhood party on the 4th of July, I met a woman married to a goat farmer and cheesemaker. She was intrigued when I asked if he ever lent out his goats.

Her husband, Dave Artigues of Elodie Farms, was happy to lend out goats. It was the middle of the drought, and he was having a hard time getting enough green matter for them to eat. I checked with my neighbors to see if any objected: All aboard! they said.

Dave brought five young females who hadn't mated yet, and weren't producing milk. We put them out back, behind a temporary fence to keep them from the rose bushes and other dainties we didn't want them eating.

The goats had a discerning but relentless palate. They first devoured all the honeysuckle. Then the poison ivy, which doesn't affect them. Then the English ivy, the grapes, the monkey grass. They worked quietly, with nary a bleat or whine.

The neighbors found them more entertaining than Duke football. The goats butted heads or stood quietly chewing. Our new puppy, Lyra, loved to dart into the back to chase and worry the goats, who retreated and scampered up on a large woodpile. Alexander, a second grader next door, seemed to sit on the fence for hours watching.

A productive month passed and I ran into Dave at the Durham Farmers' Market.

Are they making progress? he asked.

Yes, maybe halfway.

"I'll bring you some pros," he said.

Dave showed up with two 3-year-old goats who weren't milking -- big ones, with big appetites. Lyra tried chasing them, but the biggest one sent her squealing and somersaulting with a sharp butt of the head. They were making serious inroads into the wisteria and blackberries when the doorbell rang.

I showed the goats to the zoning officer, Cynthia Jenkins, and chatted as she snapped photos for the file.

"They're solar-powered lawnmowers," I told her. "They turn poison ivy and wisteria into fertilizer, and I don't have to use pesticides or petrochemicals. And the neighbors love them."

Well, not everyone loved them. Someone had dropped a dime. Ms. Jenkins was sympathetic and intrigued, but the ordinance is the ordinance. If I didn't remove them, I could be fined $500 a day and convicted of a misdemeanor.

But my zoning officer had a soft heart. I had a week after receipt of the letter to remove them. She would write the letter the next day and post it the day after. Then there was the Labor Day weekend, so all told I probably wouldn't have to remove them for two weeks. They could eat a lot in 14 days.

With heavy heart I called Dave and confessed my criminal activity. He picked the goats up a few days later. I started looking in the weed-killer aisle at Home Depot, and asking around for someone with a Bushhog to finish the job.

Joseph Neff is an investigative reporter at The N&O. joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4516

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