Rare breed gets a lift in Nebraska

By Blake Ursch / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, August 20, 2016


BY BLAKE URSCH | PHOTOS BY SARAH HOFFMAN | THE WORLD-HERALD
ON SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND OFF THE COAST OF CALIFORNIA, A HERD OF GOATS ONCE LIVED AS GOATS DO.

Chad Wegener takes a break from chores at Willow Valley Farms in Gretna.

They roamed the island’s rocky canyons in herds, mating and multiplying.
But the goats weren’t native to the island, and the more their numbers grew, the more they threatened wildlife that was. So in 1985 the U.S. Navy, which owned the island, concocted a plan: Send up a helicopter, a man and a shotgun to eliminate the thousands of goats. A last-minute rescue mission by an animal rights group spared their lives.
And now, decades later, one could argue that the San Clementes are mostly a Nebraska goat. Of the little more than 700 living today, about 200 live on a small farm in Gretna.
There, John Carroll, 51, and Chad Wegener, 42, care for the largest herd of San Clemente Island goats in the world. Since 2008 the couple have owned and operated Willow Valley Farms. In a way, the farm serves as an ark for the breed, which is now considered critically endangered by livestock conservation groups.
Caring of the goats is a daily challenge. For Carroll, a registered nurse and medical malpractice attorney, and Wegener, a pharmaceutical representative, home means chores. At the end of the day they ditch their suits for mudded boots and straw hats. Days are long. Nights are late.
It’s a struggle, too, for the San Clementes as a whole. People like Carroll and Wegener, along with heritage livestock activists, are still working to find a niche for the San Clemente goat — a reason for them to be bred and raised. A reason to save the breed.

Wegener serves as a handy step stool for a goat to reach a branch at Willow Valley Farms in Gretna.

THE GOATS ARE LITTLE — FAR SMALLER THAN THE MORE COMMONLY RAISED BOER GOAT. THEY’RE DEERLIKE, WITH FINE BONES, ROUNDED PUPILS AND GENTLE TEMPERAMENTS. MOST HAVE COATS OF RED OR TAN WITH BLACK MARKINGS.

They’re unique, say Carroll, Wegener and other breeders. And science seems to back them up.
In a 2007 study conducted by the nonprofit Livestock Conservancy and Spain’s University of Cordoba, San Clemente Island goats were found to be a genetically distinct breed. They are not of Spanish origin, as it was originally thought. Their origins remain a mystery.
However it happened, the goats made their way to San Clemente Island. And they thrived, numbering in the tens of thousands. But in such large numbers, they began to harm endangered plants and animals on the island. So the Navy began a program of trapping and eradicating the goats, using “Judas goats” equipped with radio transmitters to locate elusive herds.
By 1985 there were a few thousand goats left on the island, according to news reports of the day. When the Navy announced plans to kill the remaining goats via a gunman and helicopter, it predictably drew the ire of animal rights groups, making headlines around the country.
The nonprofit Fund for Animals fought the plan, offering to remove the goats and relocate them to the mainland.
In January 1985, less than 24 hours before the sharpshooters were to begin killing the goats, U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger allowed the fund to begin netting and relocating the animals.

The goats were adopted out to owners on the mainland with the agreement that they would not breed them, said Leslie Edmundson, founder of the San Clemente Island Goat Association. Before long, their numbers dropped to just a few hundred.
In the 1990s, a similar debate would rage on neighboring Santa Catalina Island about the goats, thousands of which would eventually be shot as part of efforts by a conservancy group to restore the island to its original state.
The Channel Islands goat saga caught the ear of John Carroll, a Nebraska native living in Los Angeles during the 1990s. One day, at what Carroll describes as an “animal flea market,” he found a baby San Clemente Island goat and adopted him. He named him Rocky and raised him alongside other animals on a small farm in Sylmar.
“As he grew up he turned out to be this really magnificent pet,” Carroll said. But he had to re-home the animals, including Rocky the goat, when he moved back to Nebraska in 1997.
Years later, shopping for clothes for a reunion show following an appearance on “Survivor” (Carroll was a contestant on the reality show during the 2002 season, set in the Marquesas Islands), he met Wegener, who was working at the Hitching Post and Wooden Nickel. The two eventually started dating.

The farm is home to 200 of the some 730 San Clemente Island goats in existence worldwide.

Wegener had spent weekends and summers during his childhood on family farms in South Dakota. Carroll, the former goat owner, had always loved animals. So when the two moved in together, it made sense that they settled in a fixer-upper house with 40 acres in rural Sarpy County.
“This land was just waiting for us to come along,” Carroll said.
But, initially, goats weren’t on the agenda. At least as far as Wegener knew.

John Carroll feeds chickens at Willow Valley Farms.

In 2008, with land to raise animals, Carroll thought back to Rocky the goat. He did some searching online, discovered Edmundson’s goat association and an owner willing to deliver a pair of goats to the farm.
One day, Carroll, who wasn’t home, phoned Wegener at the farm. “Don’t be mad,” he said.
Several minutes later, the goats arrived. The couple joke about it now.
“Chad hated the goats for years,” Carroll said.
Wegener broke in: “I did not hate the goats.”
Carroll continued: “But he’s fallen in love with them.”
It’s that look in their eyes — curiosity, emotional intelligence — that has endeared the goats to the couple.
But it quickly became clear that those first goats, females named Big Red and Rosemary, were unable to bear children. Despite attempts to breed them with males, neither has ever had a single baby.
So Carroll and Wegener began collecting. They bought San Clemente Island goats from breeders all over the country, trucking them or flying them back to the farm. They bred the goats, and the herd grew. Female goats can give birth to two babies each year, and they can breed until they die of old age.
So, over time, Willow Valley’s two goats became 200.
There’s Booker, a former bottle-fed baby with a bit of an attitude. There’s Dot, a nervous goat who keeps her distance from the others. There’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch — “CTC” for short — named because the pattern of her coat resembles the breakfast cereal. There’s No’Nae, short for No Name, because, well, they couldn’t think of one. There’s Blessing and Pipsqueak, who spent three weeks as babies in Carroll’s law office.
And there’s Big Red, haggard and slow, but still kicking it after all these years.

As natural browsers, the goats must be walked around the property at least once a day and allowed to snack on leaves and plants, at top. The farm also has chickens, turkeys, ducks and guinea fowl, as well as a vegetable garden and fruit trees.

MOST PLACES ARE NOT WILLOW VALLEY FARM.

Wegener, right, and Carroll make blackberry jam.

There are currently only about 730 San Clemente Island goats left in the world, said Ryan Walker, spokesman for the Livestock Conservancy. Most are living in small populations, dotting the map in the United States and Canada.
Though the population has risen in the years since the Fund for Animals relocated the goats, it’s still far from secure. Part of the problem, Walker said, is that there isn’t much of an incentive for people to raise large populations of San Clementes.
They’re small, and they yield less meat than traditional livestock goats. Sure, they’re cute, but how many people are looking to casually raise and breed several dozen pet goats?
“You have to create a demand for these goats,” Wegener said. “They have to earn their keep.”
Certain breeds of livestock yield more return — more meat, more milk, more eggs, etc. — for farmers. Over time those animal populations have exploded while others have dwindled. But as interest in preserving rare “heritage” breeds of livestock has risen, so has the San Clemente goats’ chance of enduring.
The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has 10 San Clemente Island goats on display as part of its farm exhibit, said Lisa Smith, director of animal programs at the zoo. Visitors have the chance to hand-feed the goats and pet them through a fence.
“For us, it’s really important to show off heritage breeds,” Smith said. “They’re rare, but they’re important for teaching about farming practices.”
The goats serve another purpose by simply existing, said Randy Saner, extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Keeping breeds like the San Clemente Island goat around makes good sense for modern farmers, he said: Should genetic problems arise in the more common breeds, they can be crossbred with the heritage breeds in the hope of picking up their positive traits.

The San Clemente Island goat is far smaller than the more commonly raised boer goat and is deer-like, with fine bones. Wegener and his partner, John Carroll, want to find a niche for the breed, which once dominated an island off the coast of California.

“You get that little added incentive from putting unlike breeds together,” he said. “It’s usually improvement in the lowly heritable traits like mothering ability, milking ability, longevity.”
That’s part of Wegener and Carroll’s mission — to educate people on the worth of heritage breeds by letting visitors experience one for themselves. They have two tiny houses on the farm, available to rent for the night on Airbnb.
But eventually Carroll and Wegener are hoping to find a purpose for their herd by establishing a small dairy on the farm. They’d like to treat Nebraskans to cheese made “from one of the rarest goats in the world,” Carroll said.

Wegener and Carroll hope to establish a small dairy on the farm to make cheese “from one of the rarest goats in the world”: The San Clemente Island goats are considered critically endangered by livestock conservation groups.

There are more than a few challenges holding them back. Perhaps the biggest is a genetic abnormality caused by generations of inbreeding on the island: an extra — or supernumerary — teat, which means they’re tough to milk on modern machines. Carroll and Wegener are working to breed the extra appendage out of their herd.
All of this means a lot of work for the two full-time professionals. Beyond the goats, the couple have chickens, turkeys, ducks and guinea fowl that need to be fed. They have blackberry brambles, a vegetable garden and fruit trees that need tending.
And, of course, 200 mouths to feed and water daily. As natural browsers, the goats must be walked around the property at least once a day and allowed to snack on leaves and plants. They need medication to treat worms and parasites. They need their hooves — all 800 of them — trimmed.
Days start early, with roosters crowing at sunrise, and end late, often with a glass of wine and a dark walk around the property.
“It is exhausting,” Wegener said. “I don’t get a lot of sleep, but when I do, I am out.”
But it’s worth it. The farm, Carroll said, provides the men a respite from the harshness of the world. As a malpractice attorney, his office receives calls every day from people sharing stories of heartache and tragedy. He sees the farm as a way to do some good with the bad.
“To be out here, to dig in the dirt, for me, this place is everything,” he said.
Caring for such a large herd, knowing that they are shouldering much of the responsibility for keeping the San Clemente Island goat alive, does weigh heavily sometimes, they say.
But every so often the men venture into the goat pen and enjoy what they’ve done. They let the goats nibble at their shirttails and worn straw hats. They shepherd the sea of them up and down the farm’s hills and valleys.
And on the hard days, they find solace with the idea that they’re preserving these animals for the next generation.
“If not us,” Carroll said, “then who?”
Contact the writer: blake.ursch@owh.com, 402-444-3131, twitter.com/blakeursch_owh

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