The burgeoning green movement has scored another victory at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. The facility has fields around it that are cut periodically to control weeds and reduce fire hazards. Google has recently exchanged lawnmowers for a herd of goats. Someone is now paid to bring in a herd of about 200 goats which spends a week or so grazing the area. This provides fossil-fuel-free grass cutting and a source of food for the goats. It’s also presumably much nicer to look out at a group of grazing animals than a noisy lawnmower.
This is another interesting example of attempts to "return to nature", at least to some degree. Another example is urban chickens, which are a topic of considerable debate in some cities (more on that in a later post). Any time there is the potential for increased contact with livestock, there is some increased risk of transmission of diseases from these animals, although this risk is likely pretty minimal with lawnmower goats. The main concern is shedding of potentially harmful microorganisms like Salmonella in the animals’ manure. Sunlight does a good job killing many of these microorganisms, and the duration and density of grazing would minimize accumulation of manure in the fields. If human contact with the fields is minimal, the risks would be extremely low. It sounds like these fields are not heavily used by people, so it’s less likely that Google employees will be exposed to anything harmful, compared to what the situation would be if they used the area for having lunch or lounging in the sun while on break. Q-fever is also a potential concern, but that’s mainly a risk around the time of birth (called "kidding" in goats – no joke!), so they just need to make sure they’re not using heavily pregnant goats in their lawnmowing team.
There’s never a no-risk contact with animals (nor is there such a thing as no-risk contact with people), but slight increases in known or theoretical infectious disease risks are not necessarily a bad thing if the benefits outweigh the risks. There are also no blanket answers to many of the questions about infectious disease risks. For example, while I don’t have any real concerns with the Google goats, I wouldn’t want to see goats grazing in the yard of a daycare or preschool. In a case like this, however, I think it’s a good experiment and it will be interesting to see what happens over time.