Media made a big deal about Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport debuting a herd of goats to eat grass and weeds. It seems the airport is following the sustainability lead of Atlanta and San Francisco in replacing lawnmowers with hairy four-legged appetites.
The airport actually let a contract to rent the 25 goats – for a mere $19,500 – but officials say the actual cost more likely will top $100,000. However, they point out the move allows O’Hare to become “more sustainable and eco-friendly.”
This apparently is very important from a symbolic standpoint. Passengers in greenhouse gas-spewing jets can rest easier when they look down and see goats conducting a form of green landscaping by eating anything and everything in their path.
I had to laugh when I read the numerous articles about O’Hare’s herd. There was even debate about whether the goats’ green impact would be offset by methane produced by their belching and flatulence.
More than 30 years ago, goat mowers came to the attention of public officials who sought not to prevent a global warming tipping point or become more sustainable, but to reduce the rising cost of maintenance at parks, civic lots and sewer plants.
Those nasty sewage treatment facilities were typically located in rural areas on the outskirts of towns and cities, where the smell would not offend taxpayers and voters.
This meant tens to hundreds of acres had to be maintained.
In the early 1980s, gasoline prices shot over $1 per gallon for the first time in history. This put a pinch on civic budgets. The sewage plant operator in the town where I worked as newspaper editor came up with the idea of using a goat crew to keep the grass and thickets grazed down.
I got wind of the scheme when a city councilman tipped me off to a new line item in the municipal budget: bells for the goats to wear around their necks. I interviewed the mayor and sewage department supervisor and spent a sweaty afternoon chasing skittish goats for photos.
It was an unusual story but nothing special, I thought, until the phone rang a few days later. “Hey!” the caller said. “You the guy who wrote the goat story?”
“Who’s speaking?” I asked.
“Lewis Grizzard at the Atlanta Journal.”
For those too young to remember, Grizzard was among the most popular newspaper columnists to practice the trade during the 1980s and ‘90s. A southern humorist who appealed to folks across the U.S., he also wrote books with quirky titles, such as “Elvis is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself” and “Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.”
He died young, at the age of 47, while his fame was still growing. Dave Barry wishes he could be a good as Grizzard, but he is not in my humble opinion.
“I want to do a column about those sewer plant goats,” Grizzard explained. “Can I borrow from your story?”
What small town newspaper editor could refuse such a request? I said yes; he took the article and turned it into a column with his byline; and it went out to millions of readers in syndication -- with no credit given to me or my newspaper.
I realized his almost verbatim use of the copy saved him doing the legwork and several hours of fact checking. But I can’t complain about being ripped off. It was, after all, Lewis Grizzard, and I had authorized him to “borrow.”
Thanks to his column, the entire nation learned about our municipal goat crew. The calls came fast and furious to the newspaper office and city hall from readers wanting to know more.
Not a single inquiry mentioned climate change or sustainability, nor was anyone worried about the fate of the planet. They were upset about gas prices, but not carbon emissions. I wonder what Lewis Grizzard would think about the current preoccupation with global warming theory and what he would write about it? I bet it would be good.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.