CHICAGO (AP) — In a remote corner of O'Hare International Airport, far from its high-profile modernization mega project, officials are carrying out a noisy but decidedly more low-tech initiative involving a barnyard band.
The mission of the roughly two dozen goats, sheep, llamas and burros: to mow the grass. And lots of it.
O'Hare is one of the largest airports in the world and takes its environmental initiatives to serious and sometimes quirky heights. It has acres of green roofs, including one atop an air traffic control facility, to reduce storm water runoff and lower the urban heat island effect of the airport's massive concrete expanse. The airport has even turned over a wooded patch of land to 1 million bees living in 28 beehives that produce honey sold in the terminals and help replenish declining bee populations.
The goats and their furry friends made their debut Tuesday in a brush-clearing operation. Under the mid-afternoon sun, they happily munched grass, seemingly oblivious to the roar of jets taking off and the jostling of a gaggle of news photographers and television reporters that outnumbered the animals.
One of the goals of the program is to rid the airfield of habitat for birds and other wildlife that can present a serious hazard to departing and landing aircraft. They'll also be used to clear hilly areas that are hard to navigate with traditional mowing equipment.
"This fits our need and allows us to manage the property in a sustainable manner," said the head of the Chicago Department of Aviation, Rosemarie Andolino.
So where does an airport find a herd of goats?
The wanted ad got a lively response from interested herders and set off a bidding war. Central Commissary Holdings LLC, which cares for a small grazing herd outside the city, won the contract that totals just less than $20,000 for two years.
The company's animals will munch away on as many as 120 acres across four sites around the airport. The project will lower the landscape maintenance costs for things such as fuel and labor, and offer an alternative to using toxic herbicides that can spill off into waterways.
But airline passengers needn't fear a high-speed collision with a foraging critter. The herd will be kept far from active areas of the airfield or behind fences.
Other airports have similar programs, including at San Francisco International, which uses a company called Goats R Us to clear brush each spring to protect nearby homes from potential fires.