The running of the goats in Malibu West

Malibu locals Howard Rose (left) and Aron Marderosian assists Ventura Brush Goats herder Zachery Dehaas (third from the left), along with Malibu local Greg Cornith (right). Photo by Julie Ellerton/TMT.

Most of us have heard of the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, but now Malibu has its own version of that event — the running of nearly 200 goats and sheep down the streets of Malibu West. Running the animals down the streets was the easiest way to move them from one area to another as they ate their way through section after section of brush on the surrounding hillsides. 

The board of the Malibu West Homeowners’ Association decided to try something new for brush clearance this year, hiring a herd of goats to eat 12 acres worth of tall, dry plants — especially invasive mustard — to reduce the amount of fuel in the event of a wildfire.

HOA Board Member Tim Biglow said the idea of using goats came to him after reading about it, and after a neighbor spotted goats in Thousand Oaks. Biglow and HOA President Tracy Weirick researched goat companies, learning that the city of Hidden Hills “has their own goats” and a company named Firebusters was too far away.

“We wanted a local company that we could use every year,” Biglow said.

When they finally found Ventura Brush Goats in Ojai, things clicked. 

“We liked their background,” Biglow continued. “They started the business after the Thomas Fire, and it’s family-owned, and they were willing to come down to Malibu and walk the terrain with us. They seemed more invested in us than other companies.”

The Malibu West neighborhood lost about a dozen homes to the Woolsey Fire in November 2018; making them even more conscious about being prepared for wildfires. 

During the Woolsey Fire, Malibu West was one of the few city neighborhoods with an organized volunteer fire brigade, industrial-grade fire hoses, and the training to knock down fences, put out fires, and shut off gas and water. Even though they saved an untold number of houses, they’re still looking for ways to be even better prepared the next time.

One of the things the board members really liked about using goats for brush clearance is that they are so much quieter and cheaper than a team of workers using loud gas-powered weed-eaters. Goats are also better able to climb steep terrain. But perhaps best of all: Weed-eaters fling weed seeds everywhere and leave brush cuttings on the ground. Goats leave nothing on the ground to fuel future fires because they eat everything. And, according to Ventura Brush Goats, “99 percent of the seeds that pass through them are destroyed.”

Having the goats around the neighborhood for over three weeks also had an unexpected benefit.

“This has always been a close-knit community, but the goats have brought people even closer,” observed resident Maggie Luckerath.

Last Wednesday, for a scheduled running of the goats down Paseo Canyon Road, residents lined up and watched the “parade,” then gathered in the street over free drinks and tacos; and booths featuring Poison Free Malibu and LA County. Many talked about how much they had enjoyed having the goats around over the past few weeks.

Zachary de Haas was the young shepherd assigned to watch over the herd the entire time they were in Malibu West, along with a well-trained sheep herding dog or two. He explained in a phone interview that he “sticks with the same group of animals, wherever they go.” The herd covers jobs in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties that are mostly contracted by HOAs or private individuals.

De Haas said it’s not true that goats eat everything. 

“They really love mustard, rye grass, and wild oats, but don’t like sumac, native sage or California buckwheat,” he said.

Some people involved with the project like the fact that goats prefer to eat invasive, non-native plants and leave most native plants alone.

De Haas also related that goats eat the plants just as close to the ground as sheep, and if they really like something, will “clean it down to the bare dirt.”

He stays with the herd full-time, day and night, for the entire job. Portable solar electric fences keep the herd from wandering while he sleeps. Water for the animals comes from individual homeowners who agree to let him fill a water trough on their properties, which he connects to a hose and then carries as needed, once every hour or two during the day.

Zach packs a cooler and uses propane to cook; but does have to leave his flock to go to the grocery store on occasion. Sometimes he’s invited to sleep in a resident’s guest bedroom.

“I found my dream job,” he beamed.

Although some in Malibu West believe their HOA is the first to use goats for brush clearance in Malibu, others say Serra Retreat and Big Rock have done it previously, but maybe on a smaller scale.