In Gretna, John F. Carroll strives to save the rare San Clemente Island goat
On an acreage in Gretna, John F. Carroll shepherds perhaps the largest herd of San Clemente Island goats left in the world. The herd is nearly 150 strong. But if Carroll has his way, his work will pave the way for the endangered breed’s resurgence.
“Whatever my legacy in life is going to be, saving these goats will be a part of it,” said Carroll, 49.
For several years, Carroll and his longtime partner, 41-year-old Chad Wegener, have worked to acquire and breed San Clemente Island goats here in Nebraska. Gentle and deer-like, the creatures are unique in both features and history. For over 100 years, the feral goats lived plentifully on the 57-square-mile San Clemente Island off San Diego, their numbers swelling to 15,000 in the 1970s. Some contend the goats were originally brought to Catalina Island, one of the eight Channel Islands, by way of Spanish explorers in the 16th century, although no one knows for certain. In 1875, history indicates that Salvador Ramirez brought goats and foxes from Catalina Island to San Clemente Island where both spread across the island.
Regardless of their beginnings, their end on San Clemente Island is clear. Biologists determined the goats threatened the island habitats of certain plants, birds, and lizards on the federal endangered species list. The owner of the island, the U.S. Navy, began an extermination program that included shooting the animals. Most were slaughtered in the 1980s, save those that the Fund for Animals rescued and adopted out to individuals. Their numbers shrunk from 4,000 to a low of 250. The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that works to protect heritage breeds of livestock, today lists the goats as critically endangered.
Carroll first interacted with the rare goats in the 1990s in California, where a neighbor owned a rescued pair. The brown and tan goats touched on a childhood fascination with animals. While other kids were trading baseball cards, Carroll grew up collecting animal cards. At 13, he secretly converted his closet into a chicken coop and mail-ordered chicks. (His mom was not pleased.)
“I was always that kid bringing home the baby bird and fixing broken wings,” Carroll mentioned. “It’s continued into adulthood.”
That love of animals stuck with him throughout varied life experiences. Over the years, Carroll has been a medic in the U.S. Air Force, a caregiver to those affected by HIV and AIDS, a registered nurse, and a “Survivor” season four contestant. He graduated from Creighton Law School in 2005 and founded the medical malpractice firm Watson & Carroll in 2011 with his law partner, Steven M. Watson.
When he and Wegener bought their Gretna acreage nine years ago, they envisioned it as a place to tinker with projects. Wegener soon realized Carroll’s vision included animals when a delivery arrived. “I looked out to the driveway and saw a small truck, a trailer, and a goat’s head hanging out,” recounted Wegener.
Unbeknownst to Wegener, Carroll had rediscovered the goat breed he knew in California and was moved to acquire a pair. Luckily, the gentle goats grew on Wegener.
“How can it not touch your heart when you learn about an animal of any species being endangered?” he said.
Over time, Carroll acquired additional goats through breeders nationwide; soon kids were born. Dubbed Willow Valley Farms, the property became home to not just goats but also chickens, turkeys, Muscovy ducks, and guinea fowl. As the animals increased, so did the associated projects. Wegener, who grew up around farms in South Dakota but previously worked in business, now works on the farm’s development full-time.
Carroll and Wegener have big plans for Willow Valley Farms and the goats. A top priority is trying to turn the goats into a dairy breed. The goats produce milk with a high butter fat content yielding a sweet, mild cheese — one that Carroll believes has a market. If successful, their model of using San Clemente Island goats to craft artisan cheese will be replicated by others, helping increase the goats’ numbers in Nebraska and beyond.
“At the end of the day, we really want to have a working goat farm where we’re milking in the morning and evening and producing some of the best goat cheeses from an endangered breed,” Wegener explained.
Carroll and Wegener also dream of using the farm to teach others. They imagine a cheese tasting room and a place for guests to drink wine with a locally grown meal. They are rehabbing vintage RVs on the property to offer “farmcations” — an opportunity for people to escape from city life and relax on the farm. Being close to nature and animals, Wegener believes, brings out a sense of wonderment in both children and adults.
At the center of these experiences will be goats like Booker, the hand-fed goat who follows Wegener around like a puppy, or Rosemary and Big Red, the farms’ original goat residents. If all goes well, the herd of 150 is just the beginning for the San Clemente Island goats.
“Hopefully by the time I retire, there will be 5,000 goats around the country, and they will be in a place where they will survive,” Carroll said.
For more information on San Clemente Island Goats please visit http://www.willowvalleyfarms.org and www.scigoats.org