WASHINGTON — The herd of 25 goats rumbled into Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington on Wednesday morning, passing tombstones engraved with words such as "The Honorable" and "HOOVER" (as in FBI legend J. Edgar.)
They had been taken there for a mission. Over the next week, the goats are supposed to eat more than an acre's worth of poison ivy and English ivy, which are imperiling the historic cemetery's trees and endangering the gravestones.
The 206-year-old cemetery, owned by Christ Church of Washington and run by a nonprofit group, figures the goats are a cheaper, less toxic way of cleaning up the 35-acre property, which borders the Anacostia Watershed.
But before the goats could step off their trailer and get to work, they had to face another form of invasive species that crops up in the nation's capital on slow news days in August: reporters, armed with cameras, tripods and microphones, and dressed more appropriately for live stand-ups outside a courthouse than for live stand-ups with goats.
Brian Knox, the keeper of the goats, whose more official title is supervising forester of his Maryland-based business Eco-Goats, parked his trailer full of animals in the back of the cemetery, next to a 1.6-acre swath of ivy-strangled trees. Shortly after 10 a.m., Knox opened the trailer door and nudged his herd to step off and start dining. But the goats wouldn't budge.
The goat paparazzi were scaring them. "I'd give them room," Knox advised the reporters. "So they don't come over and topple you."
Knox clapped at his goats. He boarded the trailer and tried pushing them off. "Come on Yoda," he said. "Come on Mimi. Somebody's got to go first. Come on kids. It's just like any other job."
Several ambled off the trailer, but found their path to the woods blocked by the press. The spooked goats scampered back onto the trailer.
"Um, can we give them more room?" Knox pleaded.
Finally, as the reporters cleared the way, the goats strode into the woods, biting their way through morning glory, honeysuckle, poison ivy and other vines. For the cemetery, the $4,000-a-week cost of employing the herd — which grew to 55 after an additional 30 goats arrived in the afternoon — will solve an expensive problem.
The more ivy smothers the trees, the heavier the trees get and the more susceptible they are to crashing down, which could damage gravestones. The ivy's leaves also can interfere with the trees' photosynthesis, killing them.
The Goat Gorgefest is the latest tactic in the cemetery's effort to upgrade its image. Until at least the late 1980s, the cemetery was overrun with weeds, dead trees and drug users, said Paul Williams, the president of the Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery, which leases the site from the Christ Church.
"It was more or less abandoned," Williams said. "The church couldn't keep up with the 35 acres of cleaning."
In 2000, the cemetery's reputation hit a low point when its longtime superintendent was convicted of stealing more than $175,000 from people who purchased headstones and burial plots.
In recent years, however, the cemetery has attracted more donors and built up a large base of dog walkers whose membership fees account for a quarter of its operating budget. Now, the cemetery conducts two burials a month, brisk business compared with five years ago, Williams said.
The only problem now, he said, is convincing the public that the cemetery is not only for members of Congress but for the nonelected, too. So, the cemetery has resorted to humor in its newspaper ads.
"We have ads that say things like, 'Where do you see yourself in 100 years?' or, 'Cheapest Rent in Capitol Hill!' " Williams said.
Right now, about 60,000 people are buried at the cemetery, with about 1,000 spaces left, said Lauren Maloy, the cemetery's program director. Aside from Hoover, the cemetery's other major celebrity is John Philip Sousa, the American composer famed for his patriotic marches. Dozens of members of Congress, 10 Washington mayors and numerous Indian chiefs are buried on the grounds, too.
Shortly after the grazing got underway, a goat news conference was called, lectern and all.
"Brian, how effective are they?" one serious television reporter asked the goat keeper. "When we come back here in a week and look back on exactly this spot...what will we see?"
Knox said that although his goats won't eat some of the area's vegetation, they should clear enough leaves and stems off trees from seven feet high down to the ground.
"They've got very, very nimble lips and tongues," Knox told the reporter.
But the reporter pressed for more information."How do they feel about the dead?" he asked Knox.
"The dead?" Knox asked. "You know, I think they prefer fish."