Billies and nannies in wild

Feral: A herd of 18 wild goats that started a decade ago with a livestock-auction escapee roams the ridges and pits of a Carroll County quarry. Their straying off the 850 acres has become an issue.

January 11, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The search lasted more than an hour, the pickup rumbling up and over the barren, rocky hills. Then, one appeared, a small black form peeking over the ridge at its audience.

Another joined it, and another. Within minutes yesterday morning, all 18 had emerged - some black, some white, some diminutive, some bulging with muscles, a few even sporting great, curling horns.

The feral goats were on the move.

"Hah, hah, hah, them little suckers," said a grinning Gene Larrick, manager of the LaFarge Quarry a few miles outside of Westminster, where the wild billies and nannies make their home.

A decade after the first goat - a robust male the quarry workers named Billy - apparently escaped a nearby livestock auction and took up residence, the herd is co-ed and growing. But the goats have been straying off the quarry property lately, say county humane society officials, who worry that the animals pose a traffic hazard and have targeted them for capture and relocation.

"If they'd stay on the quarry property, nobody would be happier than me," said Nicky Ratliff, director of Carroll's humane society. "But if they're on the roadways, I'm not sure we can just turn our back on it."

Since the humane society began its search a few weeks ago, however, Ratliff has received numerous calls from people who want the goats left alone.

"These goats have just been absolutely harmless and minding their own business," said Jan Stambaugh, who lives in Union Bridge, a few miles from the quarry. "To think about all the things our tax dollars could be used for instead of worrying about these poor goats. It's just ridiculous."

Stambaugh said she had dismissed talk of the wild goats as folklore until she saw them last year. She has since seen them several times while driving past the quarry, and even stopped once to take pictures.

"There was one in particular that looked like it came right out of a television commercial," she said. "It had the curling horns and everything."

Stambaugh swears that on another occasion, she watched the goats pause and look both ways before crossing railroad tracks. Such caution makes the animals less of a menace than the darting deer so familiar to motorists, she and others argue.

Farmers in the Medford area also say the goats are less destructive than deer. "If we don't see any property damage, we don't see any problem," said Melvin Baile Jr., who along with his father has farmed near the quarry throughout the goats' tenure.

Larrick tried to defend the goats at first, but he has thrown up his hands. He likes having the animals around, he said, but he has a quarry to run and can't spend hours every week worrying whether a herd of wild goats is wreaking havoc on neighboring roads.

"People like to see them, I know that," he said. "But it's a concern that there are so many now. The herd's got to be reduced. Everybody agrees on that."

Larrick's goat dealings began with Billy, who with his rippling muscles, flowing black beard and strutting gait made the perfect patriarch. "He was cool," said Larrick, who keeps a framed color photograph of Billy in his office. "He'd just stand up on top of the quarry wall all day long and look down at the trucks."

Billy and the other pioneering goats apparently wandered away from the Westminster Livestock Auction on Route 31 before the auction owners put up a fence. The herd began growing in earnest about four years later when a female with a reddish brown coat escaped and found Billy and his boys. She turned out to be quite fertile.

Still, for years nobody but the quarry workers knew Billy and his crew were marauding about, Larrick said. The 850 acres of cavernous rock pits and long, tree-lined ridges proved a perfect habitat for the goats, who liked to climb the quarry's jagged slopes and munch on the ample supplies of scrub and bark from locust trees.

They developed a daily routine, Larrick said, sunning themselves on the rocky face of the quarry pit in the morning and climbing up and down hulking mounds of dirt in the afternoon. In the evening, they often walked close by the brick house where Larrick has his office.

The goats acted as if they owned the place, Larrick said with a laugh, often climbing all the way down into the 350-foot-deep quarry pits. Attempts to get a close look at them were usually fruitless, because they could scurry along the rocky terrain much faster than people.

Under Billy's command, they never seemed to stray across main roads onto neighboring properties, Larrick said. "He kept 'em in line."

But since Billy's death, the pack has begun spreading farther, apparently too far for some, Ratliff said.

The humane society director said she has known about the goats for years and was fine with leaving them alone as long as they stayed on the quarry property. But Ratliff said seven or eight people have complained in the past year that the goats are crossing public roads. Humane society workers have seen the animals cross Nicodemus and Medford roads several times.

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