Allegheny GoatScape came to UPMC Shadyside on a special mission — making the hospital’s campus safer for patients, staff, and visitors.
The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2019–2020

First, Do No Harm

When poison ivy threatened UPMC Shadyside’s patients, staff, and award-winning gardens, the grounds crew discovered an innovative solution

The grounds crew had a problem. “Two years ago,” says Roberta Kiefer, the grounds foreman at UPMC Shadyside, “poison ivy was cropping up all through our campus and gardens. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. We had to spray horrible chemicals to kill it or put on Tyvek suits with the gloves and pull it out.

“And none of that worked. The poison ivy kept coming back because birds were eating the seeds and dropping them everywhere around the campus.

“Then one day in early spring, I saw this massive field of red covering the whole busway hillside behind the hospital. Poison ivy. We also discovered it carpeting the busway hillside at the Luna Garage in Bloomfield, where our associates park.”

Finding the source of the problem, however, still gave Ms. Kiefer no idea how to solve it. “When you deal with an invasive plant like poison ivy, you’re very limited in how to control it safely and inexpensively,” she says. “Especially in a dangerous place like the very steep busway hillsides, because I’m not in any way sending my guys down there. You can’t burn it. And there’s no way I’m putting that much noxious chemical on the ground.”

“The goats don’t kill the poison ivy — they just control it. It can stay on the hillside, as long as it doesn’t go to seed. It’s part of the ecosystem.”
- Roberta Kiefer
A crew of eco-innovators

The cheerful and energetic Ms. Kiefer, who is the mother of three grown sons, has worked in professional landscaping for over 25 years. She heads a crew that also includes Robert (Bud) Saunders, Matt King, and Joe Murphy. This small, hardworking team cares for not only the award-winning gardens at UPMC Shadyside but also the grounds stretching from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to Shadyside Place, five parking garages, Urgent Care, Family Health Center, the Living Wall outside the Emergency Departmentand all the planters that bring such color and beauty to the hospital. They tend the indoor plants for UPMC Shadyside as well as the Shea Pedestrian Bridge leading from the hospital to the Hillman.

The crew has planted 40 varieties of flowers and vegetables at Shadyside’s West Wing patio and in the center island of the Emergency Department drivewaychemical-free tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, and herbs. They incorporated herbs into the Living Wall. They built and planted a sensory garden on the West Wing patio.

In the winter, the crew is responsible for all snow removal, often leaving home in the middle of the night to make driveways and walkways safe for patients, staff, and visitors. “We are all masterful winter drivers,” says Ms. Kiefer, who tries to “think safety and sustainability in every project we take on.” At the Luna Garage, for instance, the crew has created a recycling bucket-and-rain-gutter system for growing vegetables and herbs. They even started a vermicompost bin, a worm composting system for fertilizer.

“We have pampered worms,” laughs Bud Saunders. “They live in a luxurious ecosystem made up of vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the cafeteria, shredded unbleached brown paper, and food-grade diatomaceous earth. Their castings produced 70 pounds of rich fertil­izer on our first cleaning. That was pretty cool.”

First, do no harm

“So,” says Ms. Kiefer, “our starting point is always ‘First, do no harm,’ as Hippocrates wrote so long ago. We try to steer clear of things that are harmful to people, animals, and plants.”

Which brings us back to poison ivy and how to wipe it out safely. Answer? Google organic poison ivy control. Click on goats.

“Goats love poison ivy and can eat it without getting a rash or developing any other health problems,” says Gavin Deming, founder and executive director of Allegheny GoatScape, a nonprofit that rents goats that remove vegetation in an eco-friendly way. “Goats can traverse terrain that is difficult or impossible for people and machinery. They work long hours, and the only fuel they require is the plants they eat.”

“Our starting point is always ‘First, do no harm,’ as Hippocrates wrote so long ago. We try to steer clear of things that are harmful to people, animals, and plants.”
- Roberta Kiefer

After talking with Mr. Deming, Ms. Kiefer started trying to convince a large academic health system about the benefits of allowing nine goats and a donkey (their protector and herder) to work on hospital property.

“This project would not have been possible without the support of Pat Hogan, director of maintenance and engineering,” Ms. Kiefer says. Once she had his OK, she had to clear it with Infection Control. Legal had to take a look. So did Risk Management. The animals had to get certificates of health from a vet. Insurance certificates had to be provided.

By May, all was in place. Mr. Deming installed a temporary solar-powered electric fence to keep the goats from getting onto the busway. He delivered their hay and their shade canopy. Then the goats arrivedReuben, Ozark, Angel Face and his partner Twinsie, Kama, Cowboy, Wimpy, Butter Bailey, and Favouriteled and guarded by Hobo, the miniature donkey.

Let loose, the goats couldn’t get to their feast fast enough. Those were happy goats. And a very happy, if nervous, grounds crew with their fingers crossed.

“The goats did exactly what I’d hoped they’d do,” says Ms. Kiefer. “We had no incidents of poison ivy last summer because they ate it down before it went to seed. The goats don’t kill the poison ivythey just control it. It can stay on the hillside, as long as it doesn’t go to seed. It’s part of the ecosystem.”

The goats returned in May 2019 for another successful banquet. Ms. Kiefer applied for and received a grant from the Shadyside Hospital Foundation to sustain Allegheny GoatScape so they can continue their work in the community.

Beyond the satisfaction of solving a threatening problem safely and sustainably, the grounds crew won several innovation awards at the 2019 Quality Fair.