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Many want a part in islander’s green business

April 23, 2013 · Updated 11:02 AM
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A couple years ago, Bothell resident Adrienne Anderson felt lost. In her mid-40s, she was growing weary of her stressful job as a social worker, but unsure what else she could do. These days, she spends much of her time outside tending a small herd of goats as they energetically munch on underbrush.

Anderson is one of a small but growing number of people across the country and around the world to follow in the footsteps of islander Tammy Dunakin, using goats to clear land more easily, more cheaply and in a more environmentally friendly way than equipment can. Rent-A-Ruminant, a name that’s well known on Vashon and has made headlines in Seattle, is now tagged onto the names of Dunakin’s new affiliates from North Carolina to Australia.

“It would never have occurred to me,” said Anderson of her new career as a goat wrangler. “Even if it had, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it on my own.”

Dunakin, a well-known Vashon resident with short-cropped hair, a warm demeanor and sharp sense of humor, started her own goat rental business in much the same way — middle-aged and looking for a change.

Having grown up on a farm, Dunakin has long kept a small herd of goats at her Vashon home, even while working a demanding job as a medical assistant at Harborview. But about 10 years ago, she found herself in need a break from the fast pace at the hospital. It occurred to Dunakin that perhaps a new career could incorporate the goats — friendly and entertaining animals that were also tireless eaters and could navigate any landscape.

“One day I looked at the goats in the pasture, and they looked really bored,” she said. “I felt like their talents were being wasted.”

Over the next several years, Dunakin grew her small herd of 10 goats to more than 100 mostly rescued animals and hauled them all around the Puget Sound region for several months each year, letting them loose at job sites to eat up everything from fields of high grass and weeds to steep slopes engulfed in blackberry bushes.

“It’s good for the goats, it’s good for the planet, and it’s good for people,” she said.

Though the idea of renting goats to clear land wasn’t new at the time — some in California had been doing it for years — Rent-A-Ruminant, as Dunakin decided to call the unique and decidedly green business, gained considerable media attention. The goats’ first job in Seattle drew news helicopters. Then came segments on NPR and ABC News. The goats even appeared in a couple commercials, a Fleet Foxes music video and a full-length sketch on The Colbert Report.

As Dunakin juggled clearing jobs and news interviews, she also began to receive calls from around the world. As it turned out, a lot of people liked her idea and wanted to give it a try.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people wanting to get into the business, wanting to pick my brain,” Dunakin said.

Wanting to help those who were serious get their businesses off the ground, but not wanting to hire them as employees or give too much free advice, Dunakin started an affiliate program. For a buy-in price, Dunakin now helps new goat wranglers obtain animals and equipment and set up their businesses and allows them use of Rent-A-Ruminant’s name as an affiliate. She’s also on call to advise affiliates on everything from advertising to goat care.

“My experience is valuable because I have made every mistake in the book,” Dunakin said with a chuckle. “I have done everything the hard way and done everything by the seat of my pants.”

Anderson, in Bothell, was one of the first to take Dunakin up on her offer. She was perusing Facebook one day when she noticed a post about Rent-A-Ruminant.

“I saw the post one day after a month and half of thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something different with my life,’” she said.

Now, Anderson still works part time in social work, but also runs Amazin’ Grazers, an affiliate of Rent-A-Ruminant that handles small jobs around the Seattle area. She recently took her 14 goats to clear a spot in North Seattle for a pea patch garden as well as a small spot outside a city mosque.

“I like that it’s a green way of doing business. It matches my way of being in the world,” Anderson said.

“The goats themselves are very peaceful and calming to be around,” she added. “They’re cute, and they provide entertainment and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Around the same time Amazin’ Grazers took off, Dunakin signed another affiliate in Sacramento. A North Carolina business, Mountain Goatscapes, came on as well, and a couple down under has taken off with Rent-A-Ruminant Australia.

Closer to home, an acupuncturist in the Portland area started Sauvie Island Goat Rental, Dunakin said, and a Git-Yer-Goat in Bellingham recently started handling small jobs up north.

“She’s been an amazing support,” Anderson said of Dunakin and her program. “It’s great having someone who knows the business like she does. I wouldn’t have done it myself.”

For Dunakin, counseling new affiliates has topped off what she calls a wild ride in a rewarding but unpredictable line of work. Over the past several years, she’s had goats escape from jobs, been robbed at work sites and dealt with homeless people trying to get inside her fences. About a year ago, her goats contracted a virus that made the entire herd ill for weeks and threatened some of the animals’ lives. Fair Isle Animal Clinic helped diagnose and treat them.

“We managed to get them all through without losing any,” Dunakin said.

Business has stayed steady for Dunakin, and this season she signed her largest job ever. She’s currently working a 51-day stint on Indian Island near Port Townsend, where the goats are clearing hundreds of acres of Scotch broom, thistle and other invasive plants at a U.S. Navy base. Dunakin recently jumped through several hoops to become an official government contractor, allowing her to take such jobs.

“I’m the only one in the whole federal government at this point that does goats,” she said.

And while the affiliate program brings in extra revenue, Dunakin, says she also simply wants to see more people taking part in a business that’s both good for the planet and oftentimes gives unwanted animals a home.

“It’s a fledgling industry in the grand scheme of things, for the size of the U.S. … It’s still a drop in the bucket for what needs to be out there,” she said.

Dunakin half-joked that she’d like to have a Rent-A-Ruminant affiliate in every state. But in all seriousness, she said, she’s getting close to retirement and perhaps one day she’ll put all her time into training the next generation of goat wranglers.

“My second goal is to take over the world with goat rentals,” she said with a smile.

Rent-A-Ruminant is still signing affiliates and open to having one on Vashon. For more information, see www.rentaruminant.com.

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