SANDY HOOK, N.J. -- From the Spanish-American War through World War II, Fort Hancock's massive mortar battery defended New York Harbor from foreign invasion.
Now the battery itself needs defending - from a proliferation of poison ivy that's slowly destroying the overgrown historic site.
On Tuesday, the cavalry arrived, in the form of 11 Nubian goats from Upstate New York that happen to regard poison ivy and other pernicious plants as lip-smacking delicacies.
"It's a smorgasbord," said their owner, Larry Cihanek, of Rhinebeck, N.Y., as he watched his charges contentedly munching their way up a densely wooded trail marked "Keep Out, Hazardous Area." In less than an hour, the path looked noticeably wider.
"They're doing all the dirty work," said Betsy Barrett, president of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Foundation, which is funding the goats-in-residence project through the end of the year, at a cost of about $12,000.
Barrett said the clearing work is a necessary first step toward making the site, located across from the lighthouse at the northern end of Sandy Hook, more accessible to the public, with an eye toward someday restoring the battery and the adjacent cave-like ammunition "pits," which were converted into a secret coastal defense command center during World War II.
Over the years, the 6-acre site has evolved into a kind of Jurassic Park for poison ivy, or Toxicodendron radicans, which has run wild with destructive consequences. Indeed, the plants are so large and pervasive, no landscaper will touch the job with a 10-foot telescoping pole saw.
"This should have been named Poison Ivy National Monument," said Tom Hoffman, park ranger historian at the Gateway National Recreation Area. "It loves it here. It just spreads itself through this loose, sandy soil."
Cihanek, a 68-year-old retired advertising executive-turned-goat farmer, has forged a successful second career renting out his 60 or so goats to clear brush at city and federal parks and other public areas.
While part of his herd is settling in at Sandy Hook, he has other goats working at two sites on Staten Island, at Freshkills Park, a converted landfill owned by New York City, and Fort Wadsworth, which is maintained by the National Park Service. Cihanek's goats also have been used at the Vanderbilt Estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. and Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"I'll be at 11 different locations this year," said Cihanek, who runs the farm with his wife, Ann.
In 2008, several of the goats at Fort Wadsworth escaped through an 8-inch opening in the fence and wandered into a high-security area under the Verrazano Bridge. Somehow, they accomplished the feat without triggering an alarm that was supposed to thwart a terrorist attack. The New York Daily News dubbed the goats "weapons of grass destruction."
Cihanek has since upgraded the type of fencing he uses. At the mortar battery site, he has installed an electrified fence that he hopes will keep the goats inside and the public out. People shouldn't try to pet the goats, he says, because the goats will be covered with the toxic oil from the poison ivy plants, which spreads on contact.
Fortunately, Cihanek himself is among the estimated 15 percent of the population that isn't allergic to poison ivy.
Can the goats really do the job?
Monmouth County Agricultural Agent Bill Sciarappa said herbicides such as Roundup are an inexpensive and effective way to permanently kill poison ivy, but many people today are leery about using them in backyards and public places.
While goats will quickly gobble up poison ivy, he said, they don't eat the roots, which allows the plants to grow back. Using goats over an extended period, however, will eventually starve the plant of the energy it needs to survive, he said.
"So a persistent program of goats should work," Sciarappa said.
The 11 goats that arrived Tuesday are the vanguard of a herd that will total about two dozen goats by the end of the week, Cihanek said.
To see them tear into a stand of poison ivy, one would think the plant's waxy leaves were as delectable as a fresh mescalin salad, tossed with feta cheese and a drizzle of vinaigrette.
Cihanek said the goats are just as enthusiastic about maple leaves, knotweed, and virtually anything with thorns.
The mortar battery job, however, may be the goats' biggest challenge yet.
"This hill has the densest concentration of poison ivy of any place I've ever been," Cihanek marveled.
Shannon Mullen, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press