San Francisco airport puts 400 goats on its payroll

While Air travellers landing in Mumbai may see a depressingly vast colony of slums without even a trace of green, in California, they do things differently.

Last month, officials at San Francisco International Airport hired a huge batch of part-time employees – goats, not humans – to prevent fires.

A person looking down from an inbound or outbound plane may have wondered what's with the field full of goats.

The job of the 400-odd goats is to chomp up low-lying vegetation around the airport to prevent scrub fires.

For two weeks in June, Mr Fuzzy, Cookie, Mable, Alice and their 400 fellow employees chomped on the brush in a remote corner of the airport.

The area needs to be cleared each spring to protect nearby homes from potential fires. But machines or humans can't be used because two endangered species - the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog - live there.

It's not the type of job you can advertise in local classifieds. So, for the past five years officials have turned to Goats R Us, a small brush-removal company run by Terri Oyarzun, her husband Egon and their son Zephyr.

The airport paid $14,900 for the service this year.

The goats travel 30 miles each spring from their home in Orinda to the airport in a 16-wheel truck that Oyarzun calls her "livestock limo."

They come with a goat herder and a border collie named Toddy Lynn to help in the herding.

The goats spend two weeks cutting away a 20-foot firebreak on the west side of the airport.

"When passengers take off and fly over the goats, I'm sure that's a thrill," Oyarzun says.

Whatever the emotion, it isn't reserved for air travellers.

When Oyarzun's goats aren't clearing brush at the airport, they're munching away on the side of California's freeways, at state parks, under long-distance electric lines and anywhere else with overgrown vegetation.

The family has about 4,000 total active goats on its payroll.

Working at an airport poses a different challenge – frighteningly loud jets constantly taking off.

"There was an adjustment period," Oyarzun said. "But they have a lot of confidence in their herder."

The goats did their job. "We're pleased with our organic process for weed abatement," said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.

At least one other airport has taken note. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has requested bids for goats to clear brush in an out of the way area of the airport's 7,000-acre property and expects them to be at the airport sometime this summer.

When goats become too old to work, they are typically sold for meat. But Mr Fuzzy, Cookie, Mable, Alice and the rest of their clan won't end up in a slaughterhouse. The Oyarzun family lets its goats peacefully retire at its farm.