Hooved helpers: Unique business launches Islander to success and small-town stardom

Tammy Dunakin, right, looks on as a crew from Comedy Central’s the Colbert Report films her herd in late September. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Tammy Dunakin, right, looks on as a crew from Comedy Central’s the Colbert Report films her herd in late September.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

On an overcast September day, a large herd of Tammy Dunakin’s goats chomped away in a field behind the K2 Commons. As Dunakin shouted “Goats!,” her border collie Pearl ran around the herd, directing their movement.

It was almost a normal day for Dunakin, who rents out her herd to clear land of unwanted vegetation. Only one thing was different at this site: A film crew from The Colbert Report was following her every move.

The four-member team flew over from New York to shoot a feature on Dunakin’s business, Rent-a-Ruminant, for Steven Colbert’s late-night show on Comedy Central. After spending a full day filming Dunakin and her goats at their latest worksite in Issaquah, they headed to Vashon to spend another full day filming on the Island. The filmmakers put the Rent-a-Ruminant team’s patience to the test, filming the goats from every possible angle, spending hours interviewing Dunakin and at one point even dressing up one of the goats. But the smile never left Dunakin’s face.

“Doing Colbert was very exhausting. ... I was surprised by the days of shooting, but it’s fun. I enjoy it,” she said.

Though being featured on national television may seem like a remarkable accomplishment for a simple goat herder from Vashon, these days reporters and cameras are becoming somewhat commonplace for Dunakin, whose business has experienced not only considerable commercial success but also growing media attention since she began it half a dozen years ago.

Since 2004, the hard-working Rent-A-Ruminant herd has grown from 10 goats to more than 100, mostly rescued animals, to meet the demand for their services. Dunakin, a paramedic who has spent most of her life on farms, quit her job at Harborview Medical Center, beefed up her business and now performs almost exclusively off-Island work.

Dunakin’s unique and decidedly green business caught the attention of local news media almost as soon as she drove her goats off the ferry. “My first job, helicopters were flying over giving reports on the goats,” Dunakin said, laughing.

She happily answered reporters’ questions, amused they were so interested and pleased for the free publicity.

Then, as segments on Seattle news stations, features in local newspapers and blogs about the plant-munching goats eventually died off, the national media began to take note of Rent-A-Ruminant. ABC News Now and NPR have both run segments on Dunakin’s business. She was also featured in the Wall Street Journal and was recently interviewed for an article for the The New Yorker. ABC’s Nightline is planning to film Dunakin at an off-Island location this week.

Though Dunakin was always confident that her business would be successful, she said she never expected it to earn her so much attention. “It’s just a phenomenon,” she said. “I’m surprised it keeps going. I thought it would start to wane, but it hasn’t.”

Even the commercial and entertainment media now want in on the “goat-a-palooza,” as KOMO news called it. Dunakin’s goats have been featured in TV commercials for PEMCO Insurance and Taco Time, as well as a Fleet Foxes music video.

“The goats do acting on the side,” Dunakin joked.

Now, it’s rare for Dunakin to do a job in an urban area without drawing a crowd of curious onlookers, some who recognize her from the news and some who simply wonder why a herd of goats is munching away under the Alaskan Way Viaduct or outside Chief Sealth High School.

“I answer the same questions over and over and over,” Dunakin said. “It gets old. I have to retreat to my truck and disappear for a while.”

Dunakin believes the media and the public like Rent-A-Ruminant for reasons similar to her cusromers’: It’s environmentally friendly, reasonably priced and is often easier than having people clear the same land. She added that her fans also seem to like the business’s catchy name and the undeniably cute animals, which vary in breed, sizes and color. “People love them. It makes people happy to have them around. That was a perk I wasn’t expecting,” she said.

Dunakin, who has taken her small-town celebrity status in stride, still remembers the day she had the idea for Rent-A-Ruminant. “One day I was looking at the goats in the pasture and they looked really bored. … I felt like their talents were being wasted,” she said.

Vicki Dunakin, Tammy Dunakin’s sister and a Vashon filmmakers, said she initially questioned whether Tammy Dunakin could make a living off Rent-A-Ruminant, but knew if anyone could be successful renting out goats, it was her sister. The two of them, she said, inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from their father, who quit his office job to make a living through various non-traditional means.

“She’s kind of following her own path in life,” Vicki Dunakin said. “She’s definitely following her joy with the goat business. I think that’s what’s most remarkable; she’s someone who’s really following her heart.”

Dunakin is not the only professional goat wrangler in the state; a handful of others rent out herds to beat back noxious plants. However, her herd seems to have become the “spokesgoats,” for the state and even the country.

Vicki Dunakin believes her sister’s integrity in handling the animals has earned her a reputation with area businesses as well as the media.

“She clearly loves them,” she said. “She knows their names, she stays on the site with them, she cares for them like they’re children, and I think that comes across. … I think for some of the guys they’re livestock. They’re probably not treated much better than cows in a feed line.”

Rick Skillman, who has known Tammy Dunakin for a dozen years, echoed Vicki Dunakin’s thoughts, saying Tammy Dunakin’s intelligence and down-to-earth personality have helped her grow her business from the ground up. “Tammy always struck me as someone who has her feet on the ground and is pragmatic. ... She’s a straightforward realist; she does what she commits to. I have not heard one person say anything negative about her or her program,” he said.

Tammy Dunakin said her friends are shocked at the attention Rent-A-Ruminant continues to receive. “They just say ‘Oh God, Tammy’s on TV again.’ ... They all laugh; it’s fun,” she said.

Vicki Dunakin said she was most surprised to hear that the Colbert Report was interested in her sister’s story. The segment they made is expected to run sometime in the next couple of weeks.

“That’s like winning an academy award,” Vicki Dunakin said. “People don’t just get on the Colbert Report, and they don’t go out and film that often. That’s amazing.”

While it seems as though Rent-A-Ruminant couldn’t get much more successful, Tammy Dunakin is now preparing to move into a new phase of her business. Through a new affiliate program, she offers goat lovers the opportunity to start their own business using the Rent-A-Ruminant name.

For a buy-in price, Dunakin will help new goat herders find animals and get their business started. Dunakin already has one taker, who will perform the jobs that are now too small for her, and has gotten inquiries from all over the world. “Any of my affiliates will be doing 15-goat herds so they’re not competing with me. … That’s how I’m focusing on growing,” she said.

Dunakin, who used to work as a paramedic on Vashon and just years ago was treating burn victims at Harborview, said she is pleased to now spend her days with the animals she loves.

“I feel like I lead a charmed life, not without its difficulties, but mostly very sweet, exciting and fun,” she said. “And surprising.”

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