By Daniel Nash
The newest employees of Dieringer Heights Elementary are partial to scraggly beards and long hair, their favorite snack is grass and they walk on four legs.
The Lake Tapps school has hired a herd of animals, including goats, llamas and Shetland ponies, to clear away the excess plant life in the drainage fields surrounding the playground.
The area had been overgrown for a long time and school administrators knew they probably wouldn’t be able to spare the staff and equipment to remove the growth manually, Principal Kevin Anderson said.
“It almost began as a joke,” he said. “It was something a few of the staff had seen on the news, so they said ‘Why don’t we bring in goats?’ But (Operations Manager) Kelly Whitman kept it in mind.”
Whitman was visiting a petting zoo at the Auburn Fourth of July celebration when he began speaking with the owner about using the animals for landscape management.
That owner was Debbie Anderson (no relation to the principal), an Eatonville-based entrepreneur who rents farm animals for petting zoos, pony rides and now lawn care.
“Luckily, it just so happened that I had my sign out that day, and that got Kelly’s attention,” Debbie said.
Debbie Anderson runs Serenity Restoration Ranch, a private animal rescue, sanctuary and rehabilitation center located on 10 acres in Eatonville. Animals of all sizes, from rabbits and chicks to barnyard big boys like ponies and horses call Serenity their home. She founded Debbie Dolittle’s Fairytale Ponies in 2006, renting out her animals for parties and events to help fund Serenity’s day-to-day rescue operations.
The name Dolittle comes from the literary veterinarian of the same name. Her friends have used the nickname for years because of her vast animal collection, she said.
She began renting animals out for landscape work in 2008, dubbing the new venture “Debbie’s Little Gardeners.”
Using animals to clear a landscape is an environmentally-friendly alternative because it eliminates pollution from gas-powered equipment, minimizes human effort to just animal care and gives back to the ecosystem through animal waste, Debbie Anderson said.
In extremely overgrown areas like the three-years-untouched Dieringer grounds, the animals can at least thin growth for subsequent human labor and equipment.
The animals were brought out to the Dieringer Heights grounds in the beginning of August. Ponies and llamas ate the soft grass growth, while goats and sheep worked on the brambles and tougher growth. The ponies have since been phased out, and the animals will remain until the area is cleared, which is estimated to happen by December.
“Just estimating, they’re probably 25, maybe 30 percent done,” Kevin Anderson said.
Care for the animals is split between the Dieringer staff and Debbie Anderson. She comes out once a week to check on the animals and provide care supplies, and Grounds Maintenance Technician George Magill takes care of feeding and watering the animals each day. Hay supplements the animals’ diet of vegetation.
“This has really worked out well for us,” Debbie Anderson said. “The area was perfect because it’s fenced in and elevated above the playground so that the kids can see the goats, but they can’t get up and stick their hands through the fence.”
If the project goes well through to the end, the district may use animals to clear plant life for their other schools, or for other areas of the Dieringer Heights property, he said.
Debbie Anderson usually charges by the week or the month, but she worked out a flat rate for the school in return for potential use of the grounds for animal storage in the future.
And because of the public location, the deal may bring Debbie’s Little Gardeners more business.
“Some of the owners of the more rural, farmland properties neighboring the school have noticed the project, and I may be setting up some business with them in the near future,” she said. “And it may be a gateway to ownership for some people. Some of our customers are considering adopting a goat or an alpaca, etc. (through Serenity) for the first time, and this gives them a chance to try it out before deciding to give an animal a home.”