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Mayor unleashes goat program

Animal rights group, union pans new plan

Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson unveiled yesterday a controversial new program aimed at conserving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions at city hall.

The GoatingGreen program, which originated in the Netherlands, is the first of its kind in North America.

At a backyard press conference at city hall, Robertson, who made environmentalism a key component of his successful 2008 civic election campaign, introduced Tony, a striking four-year-old African pygmy goat and program centerpiece.

The concept is simple: Tony grazes on city hall greenspace and reduces the need for carbon-spewing lawn mowers and weed whackers. In addition to his daily grass intake, Tony consumes a high-fibre diet of prunes and whey. Tony's manure is collected and mixed with nitrogen fertilizer, which powers a battery of microwave-sized generators strategically placed inside city hall. The generators heat individual rooms and can be easily moved around the building, if necessary.

"GoatingGreen will reduce city hall's heating bill by 30 per cent," said Robertson, as Tony quietly nuzzled the mayor's pant leg. The savings, added Robertson, will help recoup the $37,580 program cost. GoatingGreen materials include Tony, 12 generators, two stainless steel pooper scoopers, one Goat-a-Matic tracking collar and a three-year supply of environmentally friendly fertilizer.

Pending council approval, Robertson plans to purchase more goats and expand the program to public sites around the city, including parks and school grounds.

But not everyone's on board.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton accused Vision of grandstanding, and said city staff was not properly consulted about the program. She noted the recent controversy involving backyard chickens--an initiative championed by Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer.

"Vision seems obsessed with barnyard animals," she said. "What happens if Tony eats poison ivy or somehow escapes onto 12th Avenue? What happens if he bites a passerby? There are a lot of questions, here, and taxpayers deserve answers."

The program also drew fire from animal rights groups who worry about goat fatigue and exploitation.

PETA spokesperson Ashley Fruno, whose online campaign titled "Tighten up Tony" opposes GoatingGreen, noted program researchers expect Tony to defecate at least 10 times per day. "They're going to pump this poor animal full of fibre and limit his diet to backyard vegetation," said Fruno. "No person, no matter how constipated, would be expected to undergo such treatment. This is a cruel experiment. Tony's not a guinea pig."

Paul Faoro, president of CUPE Local 15, blasted the program, noting that Tony will graze on public property. "This is a slippery slope," he said. "The city has essentially outsourced union work--landscaping city hall grounds--to non-union personnel."

The Tony concept dates back to the fifth century, when the Anglo-Saxons used goat manure to construct and heat their homes before slaughtering the goats in pagan rituals. Pope Gregory the Great outlawed the practice in 592 AD when Christianity spread to Britain and dried cow manure replaced goat manure as the heating fuel of choice.

The GoatingGreen program, founded in 2005, operates in several municipalities in the Netherlands and Germany.

The Courier contacted program founder Dr. Hans Andreas Fles-Derksen, a professor at Wageningen Agricultural University in Gelderland, by phone at his home in nearby Scherpenzeel. Fles-Derksen dismissed concerns about Tony's health and well-being and praised the animal's ability to assimilate. "Goats, also known as capra aegagrus hircus, are nature's greatest invention," he said. "Due to their strong jowls and four-chambered stomach system, they produce high-potency waste material. I helped breed Tony. He'll be just fine."

But critics in Europe point to the program's secretive research and past controversies. Fles-Derksen made headlines last year after neighbours claimed he kept several goats on his two-acre property in violation of town bylaws. According to news reports, Fles-Derksen housed up to 10 Toggenburg goats--a dairy breed known for the low butterfat content of its milk--in and around his modest-sized bungalow. Fles-Derksen relocated the goats to a petting zoo, and no formal charges were laid.

He refused to comment on the incident, and reiterated his support for GoatingGreen. "The goat is a very intuitive animal. He's able to adapt quickly to his environment and rise to exalted status within his ecosystem. They are quite dominant, you know. Despite misconceptions or rumours to the contrary."