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O’Hare follows the herd in new grass, weed clearing plan

A group journalists gathers remote corner O’Hare International Airport far from its high-profile modernizatimegproject Tuesday Aug. 13 2013 Chicago as

A group of journalists gathers in a remote corner of O’Hare International Airport, far from its high-profile modernization mega project, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, in Chicago, as a decidedly more low-tech project is being carried out by a herd of goats, sheep, llamas and wild burros. The mission of the roughly two dozen animals is to mow the grass. And lots of it. (AP Photo/Jason Keyser)

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Updated: September 15, 2013 6:33AM

O’Hare International Airport just hired some hungry employees: 14 goats, five sheep, three burros and two llamas.

And the airport’s youngest employee? A male lamb born Tuesday morning on an O’Hare field.

During a two-week test, the herd of 25 animals — 20 of them from Beecher-based rescue shelter Settler’s Pond — managed to eat up two-thirds of an acre of vegetation in just 10 days as part of a two-year $19,500 contract awarded to Chicago-based Central Commissary Holdings.

With airplanes roaring ahead, and nary a noise from the animals except for a quiet “bah” from a sheep — the mother of the baby lamb — the animals grazed freely on an acre of land just east of an O’Hare administrative building on Tuesday — Day Two of work on a new area.

Reporters got a first look at what Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino dubbed “Project Herd.” The herd calmly grazed on a steep embankment just east of the airport. Two furry llamas rested, often chomping their teeth, as goats ran around with herders close behind.

The goal of the program, part of the city’s Sustainable Vegetation Management initiative, is to get the animals to graze about 120 acres of land in areas that would have been troublesome, and expensive to clear if not for the animals.

A bonus: The animals eat 24 hours a day.

The 120-acre area is costly to maintain because it’s hard to get to and requires special heavy machinery, which is expensive and not environmentally friendly, thanks to the fuel it burns.

Airports in Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco have initiated similar programs.

Besides clearing vegetation, some of the animals actually fend off wildlife, a problem every airport faces.

“The llamas and the wild burros keep the coyotes away. The goats, they’ll eat the weeds that the burros won’t,” said Pinky Janota, founder of Settler’s Pond Animal Shelter — which is home to some 300 rescued animals. “Everyone complements each other.”

Janota checked on the animals daily during their first two weeks to make sure the noise didn’t affect them. And on Tuesday morning, the roaring planes didn’t interfere with a sheep giving birth: “She got up, the baby got up and started to suckle right away, and momma didn’t even flinch when she heard planes were going over her head.”

Despite being on airport property, there’s no danger to the animals. The areas designated for grazing are fenced in and far away from the airfield. But sorry animal lovers, there are no current plans to have a public viewing of the hungry animals.

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