A family's pet goat becomes a cause celebre in Cecil County

Debate over what's considered a pet and what's deemed a farm animal is growing nationwide

  • A family in Cecil County is struggling to keep it's pet goat, Snowbird, suing the county after officials moved to take the goat on a zoning technicality. Craig Balunsat and his wife Lisa say there is no reason why their beloved goat, who they raised inside their home, should be treated different than their dogs and cats.
A family in Cecil County is struggling to keep it's pet… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
February 19, 2012|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

One day last winter the Balunsats carried home a gangly baby goat. They named the fuzzy thing Snowbird, cradled her while she slurped a bottle and allowed her inside to snuggle under a heat lamp.

With Chesapeake City grass, hay and the occasional potato chip, Snowbird filled out into a handsome animal with a thick white coat, ridged horns that curl between her ears and lips that seem ever-pursed in an ironic smile. When she bleats "Meh, meh, meh," Lisa Balunsat — who will tell anyone she raised that goat as a child — hears, "Ma, Ma, Ma."

Cecil County officials mainly hear a zoning violation.

For months now the Balunsats and officials have engaged in a custody battle of sorts over Snowbird — the family wants her to stay, the county says she has to go because their lot is simply too small. After a winter of orders, ultimatums, hearings, petitions and tears, Craig Balunsat sued the county in federal court this month, saying he's not only constitutionally entitled to Snowbird, but by considering the animal differently than a dog or a cat, the county was discriminating against goat kind.

"The zoning law is not designed to deprive us of the kind of animal we want as a pet," Craig Balunsat says. "They can say it's animal husbandry, but that doesn't make it right."

The Balunsats' efforts to share their life with a goat leave them squarely — though unwittingly — in the middle of a growing national movement to erase the barnyard stigma from certain animals and welcome them into suburbs and even cities.

Advocates preach a preindustrial sensibility, hoping America can return to a time when people and the animals that helped sustain them coexisted without question.

It's the locavores who are pushing for change, craving their fresh eggs and their homemade chevre. Even as rural Cecil County attempts to hold the line between farm and homestead, cities as big as Seattle, Denver and San Francisco have decided goats are welcome neighbors.

Craig Balunsat is 47 years old, and, Lisa, his wife of eight years, is 49. They're a free-spirited, dreamy pair who met in Las Vegas. He had headed west on a mission to find himself. She claims she'd been dreaming about him for a year before they ever met.

They've made a home these last four years in a worn ranch house on Basil Avenue where the floors are unfinished and holiday lights stay pinned to the walls year-round. Though the couple has no children together, their grandchildren from previous relationships sometimes live with them, sharing the few rooms with a half-dozen sprightly Chihuahuas and about as many cats.

Last year's decision to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a goat — a deal arranged through a newspaper advertisement — stemmed from the couple's interest in Native American spirituality. By opening their home to a goat, they figured they'd be closer to nature, maybe even to God.

Living as they do in a rural district, their property abutting one expansive farm and sitting across the street from another, the Balunsats assumed theirs was a goat-friendly spot — until one day last fall when an inspector knocked on their door and shortly thereafter a letter on county letterhead arrived in the mail. It said the goat, along with the family's six hens and two ducks, had to go. Or else.

The family launched an appeal, an effort that caught the public's attention when Craig Balunsat leashed up Snowbird and began to sit with her, in protest, on the side of Highway 213. His granddaughters would join them some days on the sliver of scrub grass, holding signs they made with watercolors and glitter imploring passing motorists to help "Save Snowbird."

One sign showed a little girl crying blue marker tears. Another had a little bite out of the top — Snowbird's imprimatur.

It was mainly out there that the family collected about 200 signatures supporting their cause. But in the end, none of that held sway with the appeals board.

Zoning administrator Cliff Houston relates the county's position on Snowbird in the measured, tempered tone of someone who believes too much of his recent life has been spent discussing a goat.

What happened? He'll tell you. Someone called to anonymously complain. County officials responded, saw farm animals, noted the lot size and that was that.

"It's not an area," Houston says, "where there's a whole lot of give and take."

It didn't matter that the original complaint centered on the Balunsats' rooster, not the goat, or that the family has since gotten rid of the noisy bird. The family's insistence that Snowbird was a pet, not an instrument of animal husbandry, didn't matter either.

What mattered was that in Cecil County, since the law was written in 1979, anyone wishing to engage in animal husbandry, even in rural areas, must own at least one acre of land. The Balunsats' corner lot missed that mark by four-tenths of an acre. So, Houston says, they're out of luck and out of a goat.

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