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The Ghosts Who Stare at Goats or All-You-Can-Eat at Congressional Cemetery

The caretakers of eternal rest at Congressional Cemetery let loose the goats on Wednesday, unleashing a herd of Eco-Goats to help eradicate the invasive plant species that threaten the historic grounds.

As the goats chomped on poison ivy, pokeweed, Japanese knotweed, mile-a-minute and porcelain berry, a curious crowd of onlookers, moms and kids, journalists and history buffs tried to make sense of the spectacle of a landscaping method as old as the hills, or at least as old as some of the residents of Congressional Cemetery, which opened in 1807.

“We usually get three or four kids, nothing like this,” said Brian Knox, president of Sustainable Resource Management Inc. and the supervising forester for Eco-Goats. Then again, there has never been anything quite like this, at least as far as anyone could remember, as this is Eco-Goats’ first foray into an inside-the-Beltway institution to work their creative destruction. “They were a little intimidated by it,” Knox said of the goats’ reaction to the crowd assembled to watch them at their all-you-can-eat buffet of noxious weeds.

As Paul K. Williams, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, explained to a curious crowd of onlookers and press, with goats grazing in the background, invasive species choke the native trees that surround the cemetery’s perimeter. When the trees fall, they damage the fence and gravestones and other markers of the interment grounds that house the remains of Founding Father Elbridge Gerry, Marine bandleader John Philip Sousa, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and scores of Washington families.

Williams said the association, which is responsible for the operation of the cemetery on behalf of owners Christ Church on Capitol Hill, didn’t like the idea of using herbicides to take out the invasive species, particularly because of the cemetery’s dog-walking program (the proceeds of which fund many basic operations at the cemetery) and its proximity to the Anacostia River, which is mere yards away. Using goats requires no machinery, nor chemicals. The goats can reach more areas than mowers or weed whackers, and the goats’ waste helps to fertilize the surrounding area.

As for the neighbors, Williams said he wasn’t worried about the reaction.

“We’re bordered only by the D.C. jail. They don’t have much of a say about it,” he said.

That’s a bit of an understatement. D.C. public health officials and animal control officers had to sign off on the plan. There is also a residential component to the neighborhood, a growing part of the Hill East section of Capitol Hill. But the goats will largely be out of sight from most of the public. They will be contained in areas with a heavy presence of invasive species. And the grounds themselves will not be “mowed” by any goats.

Indeed, at 8:30 a.m., a couple of hours before the Eco-Goats’ arrival party, the cemetery’s mowing crew was trimming in its normal rounds. No goat will nibble on the cenotaph of John Quincy Adams. Not that there would be a problem with that in the first place, Knox said.

“They pretty well know what they’re doing,” Knox said of the goats, adding, “They’ve got very nimble lips and teeth.” They use those lips and teeth to explore what they want to eat, kind of like young human kids. “They do not eat tin cans,” he said. Of that, there was disagreement among the crowd, including this reporter, who has had buttons off his shirt eaten by goats in a corral while tending to an ailing horse.

At any rate, Williams said the association concluded this was a deal, and environmentally friendly to boot. For $4,000, the cemetery got up to 70 goats noshing away for six days.

The goats will be dining until Aug. 12, and the public is invited to come down and check them out. Just mind where you put your hands. If the electric fence separating the goats from the grounds doesn’t get you, what remains of the poison sumac will.