Visiting goats feast on poison ivy in North Hempstead

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Larry and Annlilita Cihanek visited Ziggy, one of their four goats grazing the shore of Manhasset Bay last Tuesday. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)

Peeking through the tall grass and dense weeds along the shores of Manhasset Bay, a herd of hungry farm animals can be seen peacefully chomping on the ground’s thick poison ivy.

Traveling everywhere from New Haven, Conn., to Thurmond, West Va., the Green Goats of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, N.Y., have become famous in the world of environmentally eradicating invasive vegetation. Now at the unanimous request of council members, they’ve brought their big appetite to the Town of North Hempstead.

North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth met the goats upon their arrival and in a press release explained how the program works toward the town’s resiliency and sustainability.

“It is so important to protect and preserve our environment,” Bosworth said. “By eating poison ivy, these goats will provide us with a simple, innovative, and environmentally friendly alternative to the use of pesticides and herbicides.”

Dubbed an invasive plant on the town’s shoreline property, poison ivy is an allergen for some and typically causes an intensely itchy skin rash. Luckily, it’s a favorite meal of the goats.

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“Goats will eat practically any undesirable weed,” said Larry Cihanek, who owns Green Goats along with his wife Ann. “If you have a choice of 50 things, they’d eat poison ivy first or second choice.”

For that reason, Cihanek recommends not scaling the temporary fencing to pet the town’s visitors.

“If you want to scratch their cute little faces, this is not your dog that brushed against poison ivy; they dove into it face first,” Cihanek said. “So they have plenty of poison ivy on their faces.”

Feeding the goats is also not recommended since their digestive systems, which work 24 hours a day, don’t have the enzymes to consume food they’re not accustomed to.

But for the four-legged ruminants, they’re living the quintessential retired life. Many of the Green Goats of Rhinebeck are retired from dairy farms, and though hard at work chomping on ivy, they might not have been offered the chance at a second life if it weren’t for Cihanek.

“They’re as friendly as dogs,” Cihanek said. “Just because it doesn’t bark anymore, you’re not going to send it off to the meat market. But if the goat isn’t productive, that’s the only choice.”

Fortunately, LuLu, Jersey, Heidi Clume and Ziggy, the four goats working along Manhasset Bay, embarked on a career change. “They eat for a living,” Cihanek said.

The goats aren’t the only ones with a past life. Before operating Green Goats of Rhinebeck, Cihanek worked in the advertising industry.

“All I did was get somebody to use the American Express card as opposed to a Visa card,” Cihanek said. “It’s nice to do something that everybody likes and you’re not screwing up the world.”

Typically, it takes at least two seasons of grazing to completely remove an invasive plant species. If successful, town employees will continue the rest of the removal, then evaluate plans to hire the goats to clean up another portion of land in the same area.

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