Residents using Hominy Creek Greenway in recent weeks may have noticed the sudden disappearance of two herds of goats, which had been put to work since May to clear invasive species such as Japanese Knotwood and English Ivy from the 14-acre tract. The absence of the hardy herbivores is the result of a June 28 attack on one of the animals — a wether named Skippy — by an unrestrained dog running through the greenway.
Although the goat was saved by on-site attendants and successfully treated for injuries, the attack — one in a series of recent incidents along the greenway involving unrestrained dogs — has set back the invasive-plant-removal project and raised questions about the proper use of public spaces.
Stewards of the land
The Hominy Creek Greenway, formerly known as the Waller Tract, began as a labor of love for Doug “Brotherhug” Barlow. “I discovered the greenway property when exploring the areas around our new home,” says Barlow, who moved to West Asheville in 2006 and was instrumental in early efforts to purchase and preserve the wooded area.
Working with Asheville’s then-Greenway Commissioner Marc Hunt, RiverLink, and neighbors of the property, Barlow helped facilitate the city’s purchase of the land in 2011 with county funds and $30,000 of private donations raised by the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club.
But little was done to improve the greenway after the initial purchase, says Jack Igelman, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of Hominy Creek Greenway, formed in 2011 to act as “stewards of the land.”
The city maintained the Metropolitan Sewerage District right of way along the greenway, cutting back brush once or twice a year, Igelman says, but installed little in the way of signage or infrastructure. So in 2012, the nine-member volunteer Friends, working in cooperation with RiverLink, contracted with the city of Asheville to maintain and improve the new greenway.
A subsequent $22,500 grant the following year, awarded by Buncombe County to the Friends, has allowed the group to initiate a number of projects, he adds, such as installing kiosks and a work shed, equipping volunteers and adding the munching goats.
“The control of non-native invasive plant species is imperative to preserving floral and faunal biodiversity,” says Lauren Reker, a herbivory specialist with KD Ecological Services in Mill Spring, whose company was contracted by the Friends and the city of Asheville in fall of 2014 to conduct the plant-removal project. Invasive plants alter the ecological character of the land and deplete food sources for native animal species, Reker adds.
“Goat herbivory applications are a useful option for managing unwanted vegetation when conventional methods aren’t suited or are cost-prohibitive,” Reker says. The goats’ penchant for eating woody invasives and their relatively small size and dexterity make their noshing more environmentally friendly than herbicides or heavy machinery.
“We liked the idea because it’s something on the ground,” says Igelman about the project. “It shows that we are moving towards creating this great community space” that would benefit the entire Asheville community. There were also hopes, he adds, that this would be the first in a series of projects employing goats around city parks to clear invasive plants.
These high hopes were shared by city officials, says Debbie Ivester, assistant director of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department. “By removing invasive plant materials then maintaining the area, [we’re] improving the property and creating access for public recreation use,” she says.
To keep the two herds — 28 goats all — within the work area and provide protection, KD Ecological Services erected an electrified plastic fence around the site. The company was aware of the presence of dogs on the greenway. “We double-fenced our project areas accordingly,” Reker says.
Although many goat herders employ “guard animals” — such as a dog or donkey trained to protect the herd — Reker says that such a measure would pose more problems than it solved. “The nature of guard animals is that if they can’t run a predator off [….] they will try to kill it,” she notes. “If a greenway user’s pet was killed or attacked by our guard animal, we would likely be facing litigation.”
Reker says that her company was surprised by the number of dogs on the greenway. “On weekends, it wasn’t uncommon to see 100 dogs out there.” Of that number, she estimates that about a quarter were off-leash.
According to Igelman, the Friends and the city posted numerous signs along the greenway alerting patrons of the goats’ presence. “I kind of thought if we put the goats out there, people would respond more to the signs and leash law, to avoid an incident,” he says.
Attempts to mitigate loose dogs on the greenway, however, have had little success. Despite signs regarding leash laws and efforts by Friends and city officials to speak directly to owners of unrestrained dogs, Igelman says board members soon realized that leash laws were a “very divisive” topic among residents.
The response from owners when approached about the leash laws, while generally friendly, struck a similar pattern, Reker says. “The feedback that I received from them was that they were aware of the rules but that their dog was not the type to attack goats or children,” she says. What’s more, she adds, many owners specifically told her they use the greenway due to the lack of leash-law enforcement.
Barlow believes the June 28 attack on the goat represents a larger problem: “Many cyclists have complained about loose dogs chasing them along the greenway,” he says, adding that unrestrained dogs pose a hazard to children, other leashed dogs, neighboring properties, wildlife and greenway volunteers.
“Several people, myself included, have been bitten by dogs there,” Barlow says. “Some of our best volunteers have quit working on the greenway because they’re tired of being harassed by unleashed dogs and their owners.”
Reker agrees a more serious accident may occur if pet owners don’t control their dogs. “Dogs that are willing to run down and attack a 60-pound goat may be likely to do the same to a child,” she says, although she is quick to note that few dogs attack humans.
The Friends of Hominy Creek Facebook page reports several incidents of misconduct on the greenway over the past month, including violent confrontations between dogs, arguments with owners and repeated appeals from the Friends to adhere to the leash ordinance.
To address off-leash dogs in public spaces, Asheville Police Department’s Animal Services issues a progression of warnings and citations, explains Animal Services Supervisor Sue McMullen. In general, for the first violation, Animal Services issues a warning, which can be written or verbal. The point, McMullen says, is to educate dog owners about the city’s leash ordinance. However, the second time an owner violates the leash law, “We issue them a citation. The first citation [carries] a $50 fine,” with each additional citation increasing by $50.
However, in response to the high volume of unrestrained dogs in Hominy Creek Greenway, dog owners there are now on a shorter leash, she adds. “Of the 34 parks in the city of Asheville, there are four where citations are immediately issued, rather than a verbal warning. Hominy Creek Greenway is one of them.”
Despite the stepped-up enforcement, Barlow says the problem persists. “No matter how many signs get put up, too many dog owners continue to feel entitled.” Igelman believes that many residents expect the Friends to address the problem. “We’re only nine volunteers. Our job is not to control dogs.”
Although the volunteer group continues to alert the Asheville police and Animal Services — the latter, ironically, being located across the street from the greenway’s Shelburne Road entrance — city resources for on-site investigation are extremely limited.
APD’s Animal Services Division currently employs two staff members to handle approximately 500 calls a year, although there are plans to add an additional field officer in August, McMullen says. “Every year our complaints and calls for service increase,” she says, noting that Animal Services issued about 250 written warnings in 2014, not including verbal admonitions.
Residents who witness unrestrained dogs acting aggressively should report them to Animal Services immediately, McMullen says. And she encourages dog owners to “keep their dogs on leash not just because it is the law, but for the safety of the pet as well,” noting that off-leash dogs are prone to violent altercations with other animals, people and being killed by moving traffic. “If you love your dog, leash it.”
Asheville Humane Society’s Behavior Department Coordinator Katy Mahaley compares leash laws to seatbelts laws. “We keep our dogs on leash to protect them and others around them. Just because your dog is good off-leash doesn’t mean everyone else’s is,” she says.
A thorny future
While the Friends of Hominy Creek Greenway hope that the goat incident will spur discussion about unleashed dogs in public spaces, many members are ambivalent about the continuation of the goat project.
Igelman says the project is on hold. “We’ve really got to sit back and think about it. The city of Asheville will play a huge role in that, and of course the company that manages the goats.”
KD Ecological Services “no longer feels that the project areas are appropriate sites for goat herbivory applications,” Reker says. KD is currently working with the city and Friends to evaluate how to address the second phase of the project this fall.
Barlow doesn’t see goats returning to the greenway anytime soon and worries that continued neglect by dog owners will lead to more drastic regulations. “I’d hate to see the greenway become a dog-free area, but I would prefer to see that than have it continue to be thought of as a dog park.”
Igelman suggests this is just the beginning of a larger discussion among greenway users. “The big challenge moving forward,” he says, ” is how do we all share this public place when we have different interests?”