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Published July 16. 2014 04:00PM

With all we hear of the wasteful spending in Washington and how big government continues to throw money at problems, it's good to know that there are some officials on the state level who are thinking outside the box.

Last week, we learned that goats were hired through Eco-Goats, a Maryland firm, to clear weeds and invasive vines from a Pittsburgh park as the first stage in a restoration project. The nonprofit group Tree Pittsburgh is spearheading the effort to improve and plant more trees in the city's Polish Hill neighborhood.

Erik Schwalm, a farmer who lives about 25 miles north of the city, made available the 130 he raises for meat and for show. Each goat can eat about 25 percent of its body weight in greens each day. It's a bit more expensive to clear ground using goats, but they have fewer side effects than herbicides.

The use of goats to help the environment is not new. Last October, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry gave a presentation on "Goats in the Woods" at the Schuylkill County Agricultural Center in Pottsville. Sandra Kay Miller, owner of Painted Hand Farm in Cumberland County, shared her experience in working with goats to control invasive plants and showed how to use the animals to control unwanted vegetation in our woodlands.

Another barnyard animal that gets little respect is the mule. A few weeks ago, the Summit Hill Historical Society gave them some recognition by featuring a mule driver's ball as part of its celebration highlighting the rededication of Ludlow Memorial Park.

The mule played an important part in the early history and economic growth of this region. The dependable animals worked alongside coal miners. They were used to pull the coal-laden barges along the canals for river transport.

The Mother Nature Network ranked mules as one of the eight animals that are helping humans save the planet. In 1959, a partial meltdown occurred in a nuclear reactor at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, 30 miles outside Los Angeles. Two mules - Sarah and Little Kate - wandered through the rugged terrain around the facility carrying gamma radiation scanning equipment to see if any radiation lingered at the former rocket engine and nuclear research facility. Their data proved invaluable in making it safer for humans.

Columnist Ann Landers once dedicated a column to the mule after a writer took her to task for degrading the animal by describing someone as being "as stubborn as a mule."

The reader pointed out that mules are highly intelligent animals. It's only when they are ordered to do something which they perceive to be potentially harmful to themselves that they appear to be stubborn. He added that unlike horses, mules have a strong sense of self-preservation and cannot be forced to work themselves to death.

The reader called the mule the most unappreciated, maligned domestic animal in our nation, pointing out that more than 500,000 mules served the allied armies in World War I and II and thousands were killed in action. They earned the respect of our soldiers. The American Legion even considers mules to be veterans of foreign wars.

Landers did apologize and thanked the writer for enlightening her about our long-eared friends who deserve so much more than simply being the butt of jokes.

By Jim Zbick

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