Hobo doesn’t look like your typical bodyguard. With soft brown eyes and a dark chocolate coat, the miniature donkey is quiet, calm and blends in with the herd he protects. That is, until something threatening approaches.
“He’s never actually had to chase off a coyote or anything,” said Doug Placais. “But if a dog or anything comes up to the fence, he’s always ready to protect them. He stands alert.”
Placais is the co-founder of the Steel City Grazers, for which Hobo is the livestock guardian. The 11 goats and, of course, Hobo, have been snacking their way through overgrown areas of Pittsburgh for more than a year now.
During a Peace Corps trip to Zambia in their 20s, Placais and his wife, Carrie Pavlik, were inspired by the country’s agricultural traditions. When they moved to Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, the couple bought chickens and milk goats of their own.
Then, in 2014, Tree Pittsburgh sponsored a pilot program using goat grazing as a means for managing invasive plants. Placais and Pavlik were intrigued.
“It just kind of piqued our interest,” Placais said. “Since we had some experience with goats, we just jumped in both feet first.”
The Steel City Grazers were established in 2015 with a mission to “provide an environmentally-friendly alternative to herbicides and fossil-fueled powered machinery,” according to their website.
Goats are great for landscaping in Pittsburgh, a city with an extremely difficult topography. The region’s steep hillsides and deep ravines make it difficult for humans to reach. Goats, on the other hand, have no problem. Currently they’re clearing the space underneath a set of power lines in Highland Park.
The Grazers’ appetite also aligns well with Pittsburgh’s needs. Placais said the goats eat invasive plants that other native species, such as deer, won’t touch.
“The goats are kind of equal opportunity offenders. They’ll eat everything except for one or two plants in this area,” Placais said. “Some of their favorites are Japanese knotweed, which is all around this property, and the wild grape vine that crawls up the trees and strangles them.”
Pittsburgh City Council passed an urban agriculture zoning law in July 2015 easing restrictions on residents with goats, chickens and bee hives. The law benefits urban farmers, including Placais and Pavlik. To their knowledge, they’re still the only goat landscapers in Pittsburgh and Placais doesn’t anticipate a lot of new competition.
“It’s a lot of work,” Placais said. “Conceptually it seems awesome—you get to spend time with goats and all of that—but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to it. And you take a lot of risk.”
Placais said he feels rewarded by the work. Some of his favorite moments with the Grazers come when he sees the “old” Pittsburgh meet the “new.”
“That juxtaposition was really apparent when they were over wintering in Carrie Furnace. It was just hilarious,” Placais said. “We have a picture of one of the goats in front of the steel mill. Completely organic green methodology contrasted with the very pollution, heavy-duty industry.”
Over the past year, the Grazers have added three new goat “employees,” as Placais called them. They also formed a partnership with Tree Pittsburgh to clear several city parks throughout the summer.
In Highland Park, the goats are chomping down on a quick-growing invasive plant aptly called “mile-a-minute.” Placais said he plans to expand the grazing area soon to encompass Japanese knotweed beyond the electric fence.
Hobo eats many of the same plants as the goats, but sometimes Placais supplements his diet with second-cut hay. When Placais tried to feed just Hobo, the goats quickly surrounded the pair, trying to grab a bite. Hobo angrily responded, stomping his feet and scaring away the herd.
“Goats have an advantage because they’re able to pull as much food into their mouths without chewing any at all and then they store it,” Placais said. “Whereas Hobo, having only one stomach instead of four, has to chew well with his first bite in its way down.”
Livestock guardians are typically dogs, llamas or donkeys. Hobo, who is estimated to be about six years old, wasn’t Placais’ first choice. But after a poor experience with a llama, Placais and Pavlik drove across Pennsylvania to pick up Hobo.
“He was supposed to be a particularly good livestock guardian, a proven livestock guardian,” Placais said. “He’s not really that fierce, but he’s good, he likes people.”