The Judas Goat

In the summer of 1959, a group of fishermen made their way to the Galapagos Islands, specifically the tiny island of Pinta (here’s a map). They came prepared for the long haul, bringing food with them in case they didn’t catch enough fish. That food was in the form of three live goats, which the fishermen were going to raise on Pinta. This may not be palatable to everyone — especially not Americans — but goat is actually a pretty common source of red meat. As New York magazine once noted, it’s a “dietary staple in most of of the world” that is “high in protein as beef, lower in fat than chicken, and relatively easy to raise.” Goats can be pretty useful if you’re a bunch of fishermen on a relatively remote island. So the fishermen’s decision was probably a good one — albeit very, very shortsighted.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons goats are relatively easy to raise is because they’re generally indiscriminate eaters. They’ll graze upon all sorts of things. And another problem is that goats breed, and quickly, especially if they’re in an area without any predators. Like, say, a remote island in the Pacific which, beforehand, had never been host to even a single goat. The fishermen’s goats started grazing and making goat babies, and by the 1970s, as Modern Farmer reported, the goat population on Pinta exploded to 40,000. Meanwhile, the native plant life on the island was being slowly eradicated by the feeding goats. Goats were transported to some of the other Galapagos Islands and, similarly, their populations quickly spiraled out of control.

Something had to be done, and in 1997, the Galapagos Islands instituted something called “Project Isabela,” designed to restore the ecology of the area. To do so, they had to kill the goats. All the goats.

First, Project Isabela employed what was called “aerial hunting” — helicopters hovered over the area, guns blazing, killing goats in high numbers (and quickly). (Here’s a short video, and while it’s not terribly graphic, you may want to skip it nonetheless.)  As the numbers were pared down, the Galapagos anti-goat team entered the ground war phase of the operation, hunting goats on land. This dwindled the number of goats to only a few stragglers, possibly in the dozens or low hundreds.

But the target number of goats was zero — which makes sense, given that the entire problem began with only a trio of goats in the first place. Finding those last few goats was critical to Project Isabela’s success, and that proved difficult. Killing off some of the goats when there are literally tens of thousands of them running around a very small island, well, that’s not all that hard — no matter where you attack, you’re likely to find some, but searching for one of only a few goats running around an entire island? That’s much harder.

The solution: more goats!

That sounds counter-productive but wait, there’s more. These were special goats — “Judas goats” — which were specially engineered for the seek-and-destroy job. (Well, the “seek” part, at least.)

The Judas goats were like any other goats with two changes. First, they were sterilized — which makes sense generally if you’re trying to control the population, but in this case, was critically important. That’s because the second change was to cause a hormonal imbalance in these goats, making them permanently in heat. Goats are naturally herd animals, so the always-in-heat but sterile Judas goat would naturally attract a following. Once another goat started to hang out with the Judas goat, the goat hunters would step in.

By 2006, the invasive goat population in this part of the Galapagos Islands was eradicated. Much of the geographically-specific flora has recovered and is growing once more. The threat of another goat takeover, however, isn’t entirely gone. Some Galapagos natives have taken to raising small goat herds, so there are still a few of the animals in the area. And, in a comical sense, the goat-related warfare is hardly over. Modern Farmer explains: “Additionally, goats have become an odd political bargaining chip. When local fishermen are displeased with government fishing regulation, [the man who ran Project Isabela, Dr. Karl] Campbell says they retaliate by releasing new goats on the islands. ‘It’s reintroduction as a malicious act,” says Campbell, “a way to spite the park service.'”

Bonus Fact: A secondary problem of having all those goats on the Galapagos Islands occurred after the eradication efforts began: you have goat corpses everywhere, rotting. But as the same Modern Farmer article pointed out, that’s OK: “The goats had consumed valuable island nutrients. Exporting their meat would remove these nutrients from the island forever.” By leaving the dead goats where they were, those nutrients returned to the soil.

From the ArchivesGoogle’s Lawn Mowing Goats: Goats that eat grass and keep Google’s lawn clean.

Related: “Getting Your Goat: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Goat Meat with Original Recipes and Classic Stories.” The book’s description begins thusly: “Please stop hyperventilating at the title of this book,” suggesting that it’s not for everyone.