Congressional ‘Scape Goats Haunt Cemetery

It’s a dirty job cleaning up after Congress, and these animals are the ones to do it.

National Journal
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Ben Terris
Aug. 8, 2013, 2 a.m.

If you find your­self at Con­gres­sion­al Cemetery at the witch­ing hour and hear shrieks re­ver­ber­at­ing off the tomb­stones, fear not! It’s not the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover or John Philip Sousa. It’s just the bleat­ing of goats.

For the next few days, about 70 live­stock land­scapers will be us­ing their teeth as weed whack­ers to help rid the his­tor­ic cemetery — rest­ing place to one vice pres­id­ent, one Su­preme Court justice, and 90 former mem­bers of Con­gress — of vines, pois­on ivy, and oth­er un­wanted ground cov­er.

“We’ve got a real prob­lem with in­vas­ive plant life, es­pe­cially the vines that are climb­ing our trees and risk top­pling them over onto the his­tor­ic head­stones,” cemetery Pres­id­ent Paul Wil­li­ams said Wed­nes­day while watch­ing four of the goats chomp leaves off of small trees with reck­less aban­don. Be­lieve it or not, the goats — who are go­ing at a rate of $375 per herd per day — were Wil­li­ams’s first choice for the work. 

And not just be­cause they are more eco-friendly than herb­i­cides. These goats are not graz­ing throughout the cemetery; they are work­ing on a very spe­cif­ic plot—a rocky and brush-filled sec­tion at the back.

“They are do­ing work in a tough spot, a lot of land­scapers wouldn’t want to be there, so they are ac­tu­ally a bet­ter deal,” said Bri­an Knox, the su­per­visor for the com­pany Eco-Goats. “And they can be act­ively eat­ing for 16 hours a day.” (Total cost of the goat ser­vice: $4,000 — to be paid by the cemetery’s pre­ser­va­tion as­so­ci­ation.) 

Chil­dren and loc­al tele­vi­sion crews alike seemed ex­cited by the spec­tacle, but the goats (who had just been de­livered mo­ments earli­er), were shy. Cam­era­men traipsed about the wooded area look­ing for a good shot. (“What, are they on their uni­on break?” “Leave it to Chan­nel 4 to scare away all the goats.” “Can you at least get a shot of a kid say­ing something cute?”) Knox ad­mit­ted that at this point only his “B-team” of goats had yet ar­rived.

I asked him how well he knew these goats to make such an as­sess­ment. Did he know all their names?

“The best ana­logy I have is high school,” he said. “If you have real cha­risma, you get a name, if you’re a real pain, you get a name, but if you put your head down and do your job no one will pay at­ten­tion to you at all.” (An­oth­er good ana­logy could be made with mem­bers of Con­gress, many of whom lie an­onym­ously here for etern­ity).

The Con­gres­sion­al Cemetery didn’t al­ways have such a lib­er­al-arts col­lege, eco-friendly feel. Just 20 years ago, it was an open-air drug mar­ket. The site, near the D.C. Ar­mory, was foun­ded in 1807 by mem­ber of Christ Church, which offered a slew of plots for law­makers (the cemetery is not owned or fun­ded by Con­gress). But after the cre­ation of Ar­ling­ton Na­tion­al Cemetery in 1864, the spot lost much of its cache. By the 1970s the church had no money left to fund it. Left to its own devices, the cemetery be­came over­run both by plant life and il­leg­al activ­ity. John Sharpe, a mu­si­cian who grew up down the block from the cemetery, re­mem­bers run­ning through al­most neck-high grass with his friends as a kid.

“It was really spooky around here, and I have to say it was ter­rible that such a his­tor­ic grave site could be so neg­lected,” he said. “I nev­er would have come back this far as a kid, but it’s a lot less scary with these goats around.”

It was ac­tu­ally a dif­fer­ent kind of an­im­al that really helped re­turn the grave­yard to its man­i­cured state: dogs. In the late ‘90s, a group of dog walk­ers star­ted the K9 Corps. This col­lect­ive now has about 600 mem­bers (and more than 100 people on a wait­ing list) pay­ing $250 a year (plus $50 per dog) to use the cemetery as a dog park.

“We’re work­ing to make this more than just a grave­yard, but as a place with his­tor­ic­al and eco­lo­gic­al pro­grams as well,” said Chris Kennedy, a board mem­ber.

Or, as Wil­li­ams put it: “We want it to func­tion kind of like a Vic­tori­an cemetery, a place where people could es­cape to from their nasty, smelly city homes.”