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We’re Not Kid-ding: Goats Graze Historic Capitol Hill Graveyard

August 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Washington is known for its donkeys and elephants, but with Congress on recess, a new herd has taken over the Hill. Goats have been hired as a clean-up crew at the historic but overgrown Congressional Cemetery, feasting on an all-you-can-eat buffet of poison ivy and kudzu. Kwame Holman reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: an unusual way to weed a cemetery.

Kwame Holman is back with the story.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s a part of Washington where only one barnyard beast is most often invoked.

MAN: Pork.

MAN: Pork.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Pork-barrelers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s pork.

KWAME HOLMAN: In a city filled with animal mascots and icons, from the Democrats’ donkey, to the Republican elephant and the RINO, or Republican in name only.

This week, with Congress well and gone from its Hill during these dog days of summer, it was the goats’ town for the taking. A trailer-full was loosed on a once-neglected quarter of Capitol Hill, the 200-plus-year-old historic congressional cemetery.

PAUL WILLIAMS, Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery: We have a lot of English ivy, poison ivy, kudzu, and the goats were the solution to take care of that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Paul Williams is president of the association that safeguards the cemetery. It is not affiliated with the U.S. Congress, except in name.

PAUL WILLIAMS: About 20 years ago, the cemetery was all but abandoned. It was pretty — horrible conditions. It had lots of weeds and trees and lots of toppled headstones.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even though it’s been cleaned up since, the large trees bordering the cemetery were so overgrown, they were in danger of falling on graves.

So, instead of gallons of herbicide and roaring chain saws, they opted for a green alternative from a farm near Annapolis, Maryland

BRIAN KNOX, Sustainable Resource Management: They should be here for about six to seven calendar days. We’re figuring — it’s 12 grazing days, using two herds.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brian Knox runs Sustainable Resource Management. He’s the goat’s shepherd and this week, with outsized media attention, their quasi-agent.

BRIAN KNOX: It’s hard not to get this much press and not get calls. Usually, any time there’s an article, there’s a whole flurry of activity.

KWAME HOLMAN: The goats aren’t here in the cemetery proper, but there are some 200 memorials to members of Congress, including a herd of bold-faced names from two centuries of Washington life.

We asked NewsHour regular and presidential historian Richard Norton Smith to join us at the cemetery. He said the ground-clearing goats were not in fact trailblazers.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Back in World War I, the White House put a flock of sheep on the front lawn for the same…

KWAME HOLMAN: An iconic photograph.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Same purpose. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, who was dubbed Little Bo Peep in the press. Then, as now, the presidency involved a good deal of theater.

KWAME HOLMAN: He also acquainted us with some of the once-leading lights laid to rest here.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, of course, I guess the stars include J. Edgar Hoover, who was buried here after his death in 1972.

John Philip Sousa is not only buried here, but is regularly serenaded. There’s a whole host of quasi-historical celebrities who are here, Belva Lockwood, who is the first woman the run for president back in 1884. She couldn’t vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ran for president when women couldn’t vote.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: She got 4,000 votes from sympathetic men.

There’s a man named Preston Brooks, who was a congressman from South Carolina, who caned Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the Senate. We think Congress is contentious today. At least so far, they have left the canes at home.

KWAME HOLMAN: Beyond that, Richard said this quiet place recalls a timeless majesty now all but lost.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: There are no red states and no blue states here. It doesn’t matter if you have season tickets to the Redskins games. It doesn’t matter who is on your wall. It all winds up here in what is the ultimate form of democracy.

KWAME HOLMAN: The goats are above partisan rancor. When we arrived, the goats were on their break.

PAUL WILLIAMS: They are not union goats. They cost — we have 58 goats here today. They will be grazing for about six days on a 1.6-acre parcel. And the cost is about $4,000.

KWAME HOLMAN: And in bottom-line-conscious Washington, these billies come in under budget.

PAUL WILLIAMS: If you break it down, it’s about 25 cents a goat per hour, below minimum wage, but it’s all you can eat.

KWAME HOLMAN: There was Millie and 007 and the pygmy goat called Weird Al. He’s a bit of a loner, says Knox.

BRIAN KNOX: Oh, sure. Every goat’s got its own personality. The analogy of high school actually is great for goats, because, within a herd, you have got these little subgroups that are very, very clique-like.

KWAME HOLMAN: One local resident brought her dog for a walk and was glad to see the cemetery get its due.

PATTIE CINELLI: The cemetery is often said to be one the best-kept secrets in Washington. However, with the publicity we’re getting from the eco-goats here, people are saying, wow, what a neat place and coming to visit. And that was the whole purpose.

KWAME HOLMAN: Retired surgeon Massimo Righini has lived in Washington for 50 years. And some visitors asked about cleaning up the cemetery’s namesake institution.

MASSIMO RIGHINI: I don’t think there are any goats in the world that could clean up Congress right now.

(LAUGHTER)

MASSIMO RIGHINI: It’s probably undigestible.

(LAUGHTER)

KWAME HOLMAN: Be that as it may, the herd has four more days to work its wonders on at least this part of Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: See, progress is being made here in Washington.