There comes a point in everyone's life when it's time to gather one's herd and leave the hustle and bustle of the big city. For Elaine and Michael Fresco, that time is now. And although the herd in question numbers only two, they're much beloved -- and they're goats.
Yes, Laurel Canyon, long a home to musicians and other entertainment industry folk, is also the home of two Mini Mancha dairy goats, Snowflake and Pumpkin.
But not for long. "I like Laurel Canyon," says Elaine, "but not LA." So, after about thirty years of living at the urban-wilderness interface that's characteristic of Laurel Canyon -- including three years with the goats -- the Frescos are moving to a rural area near Santa Cruz, and taking their petting zoo with them.
Animals of many types are common in the canyon, particularly coyotes, hawks, owls, rats, field mice, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, lizards and snakes -- a veritable menagerie -- as well as dogs and cats, both of the latter best kept indoors at night and away from the coyotes. No one wants to see a pet end up as a non-alpha link in the food chain.
Not that coyotes are always the enemy, though -- at least, not in Laurel Canyon. A young one showed up a couple years ago, sick, hairless and at death's door. Rather than letting the creature succumb, residents named her Rosie, set traps and deployed "two animal control officers, a veterinarian and an off-duty cop who was armed with tranquilizer guns and wearing camouflage, with leaves and twigs poking out of his hat," as the LA Times described it.
The cop heroically, or stoically, spent his off-duty hours sitting motionless in a lawn chair, dressed as a bush and waiting for Rosie to appear. It was ultimately a trap, though, not a tranq, that caught the coyote. She was sent off to Valley Wildlife Care ("dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife"), where they helped her to "bloom into the beautiful coyote that she was born to be."
A coyote with a name is unusual, but wilder things sometimes appear here too, as if briefly transported from a Maurice Sendak dreamscape: a bobcat (sighted recently), a deer (a few years ago), and even a mountain lion (in the early 1990s). All left as mysteriously as they arrived, wandering harmlessly back into the Laurel Canyon brushland -- even the mountain lion, who slipped away just before the police arrived, and probably armed with more than tranquilizer guns.
Still, barnyard animals seem a different thing altogether -- almost one-of-a-kind.
In fact, though, the Frescos are not alone in their love of goats. Not far from them lives a neighbor who also harbors a pair of the plant-munching animals. And that's nothing compared to a resident who lived a ridge or two away -- a stuntman who keeps, or kept, a goat, a sheep, a chicken and a peacock, as well as a monkey, of all things, in a two-story enclosure.
Then there was the case of the agonized apiarist: "My bees have swarmed away from their hive," he or she wrote on a Laurel Canyon email list. "Has anyone seen them?" Somebody had. It took a master beekeeper to coax them back, but the story ended well.
Like the bees, the Frescos' animals have a quasi-public profile. Elaine advertised a while back on the same email list for someone to do "goat chores." The only pay offered was in-kind -- "some fresh goat milk or cheese" -- which may be why she found few takers. City folk don't know what they're missing.
Her 2009 email message also noted that the couple had "more milk and cheese than we can consume." That was at a time when she was milking only one of the pair: "we will start milking the other in a few months," she said -- guaranteeing an even greater oversupply -- "when her kids are big enough to wean."
As if two adult animals weren't enough? There's really no choice in the matter: females have to be bred every year so they continue to give milk.
"I especially enjoy helping them birth," said Elaine -- previously a midwife by profession -- "and I love the little kids. The saddest thing is finding homes for the babies." That's probably the hardest thing, too. I imagine few city dwellers want goats, and even fewer neighborhoods would be hospitable.
That's a pity though. The two Mini Manchas are quite charming. On a recent visit, Snowflake, pure white, was sociable, while Pumpkin -- tawny brown, like pumpkin pie -- was just slightly skittish. They come from San Diego; go figure.
I wondered why someone would decide to acquire goats in the city. Elaine's initial motivation was to try her hand at making goat cheese -- "fun to make, though time-consuming," as it turns out -- but now the little scamps are their own reward: "most of all, the goats are fun and I've grown very attached to them. I feel very peaceful when I milk or hang out with them."
It does have to be "them," Elaine told me. Goats are herd animals, so two adults is the minimum one should consider. Just so you know.
Mini Manchas, as the name implies, are conveniently small goats, which led one website to tout them as "simply the best choice for household milk production." For grocery shoppers tired of crowded aisles and endless checkout lines, that's advice worth remembering.
The Frescos' companions are strictly residential, by the way, and shouldn't be confused with municipal and non-profit goats employed to clear fire-prone brush by the likes of the cities of Los Angeles and Laguna Beach and the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve. Those ruminants are probably some McMansion-size breed, in any case.
And do local authorities seek to maintain a monopoly on goats? It seems not. Asked whether the city had ever protested the Frescos' unusual household -- which also includes a dog and a cat, both of whom get on well with the goats -- Elaine said that city hall had never sent anyone to pay a call.
Good thing, too. In addition to having the run of the Frescos' hillside compound, the goats roam the neighborhood, too. What would Traffic Enforcement think of that? During my visit, they went loping up the street past several parked cars and clambered onto the Frescos' guesthouse roof, where they lay down amid the solar panels and relaxed in the hot Los Angeles sun.
In any case, the other goat owners down the street did have a run-in with the law after a local -- some malcontent, no doubt -- dropped a dime on them. Confounding the complainant, the city sent an animal control officer rather than a zoning inspector, and he turned out to be satisfied with the goats' living conditions, and with the fact that there were only two in residence.
On the animal control maps, the neighborhood of single-family homes is apparently zoned G2 -- no more than two goats per household.
Whether the zoning commission would agree is unknown. However, there is precedent for unusual land use regulations in Los Angeles: a couple years ago, in response to noise complaints, the city council was forced to confront the issue of people keeping roosters that crow at all hours -- and this in some of the city's more urban neighborhoods. The council's response was a decisive compromise: by a 12-0 vote, the lawmakers decided that the limit would henceforth be one of the red-wattled birds per address.
"Roosters have their place in this city," said Councilwoman (now Congresswoman) Janice Hahn -- without explaining precisely what that place is -- "but we think having more than one per property causes problems." Yes indeed! The council nonetheless grandfathered existing multi-rooster households, leaving little but a moral victory for those aggrieved.
One is tempted to say "only in Los Angeles," but the city's fauna seem tame -- literally -- when compared to the 400-pound Bengal tiger found living in a New York high-rise apartment about eight years ago. Subduing the beast required the combined efforts of a police sniper, who rappelled down the side of the building and fired tranquilizer darts through an open window -- this was received quite poorly by the tiger, who all but leapt out the window at the shaken officer -- and of three Bronx Zoo employees, who entered the apartment with police a while later to ensure that the tiger was, in fact, fully sedated. A zoo curator verified this by poking the animal several times with a long stick, a procedure best reserved for professionals.
The big cat -- whose name was "Ming" -- turned out to be adequately drugged, so he was hustled down the elevator (just imagine it) and trundled away, shipped off to a conservancy in Ohio. A five-foot caiman crocodile was removed from the residence as well, and sent to Indiana. Unsurprisingly, the tiger got the lion's share of the press during the whole affair. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance, was quoted as saying, "Clearly this tiger should not have been anyplace in New York City outside of a zoo."
That might have been obvious to the mayor -- and it applies equally well to the crocodile -- but some New Yorkers seem to consider their city as wildlife friendly as, well, Los Angeles. Ming's human neighbors, for instance, were reportedly not particularly alarmed by the presence of the tiger, let alone the toothy caiman or the hyenas, monkeys and snakes that they said had previously lived in the five-bedroom apartment.
And the Bengal in a bestiary wasn't an isolated incident. Six months later, the city's animal control agency seized six monkeys and a tarantula from a studio apartment where they lived -- conveniently enough -- with a veterinary assistant.
Helluva city, New York.
But back to Laurel Canyon and its more manageable farm animals. One wonders, have the canyon's barnyards previously escaped notice?
Apparently so. If pigs could fly, Laurel Canyon porkers would do so under the radar. The literature about the neighborhood includes two histories, both of which focus largely on the legends who lived here in the area's musical heyday, and a 2002 movie about troubled relationships between humans. It's unlikely any of those address the issue of goats in the 'hood. And although there's supposedly a character named Laurel Canyon in the recently-published novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, that story is set in post-apocalyptic Melbourne, not Los Angeles.
Equally unpromising as a chronicle of urban goat tending is a 1979 Steve Krantz potboiler called, simply, Laurel Canyon, the back cover of which describes the locale as a place where "it's always hotter after the sun goes down" and where "depravity is its own reward." This sounds less a tale of animal husbandry than of animalistic husbandry (and wifery).
Perhaps it's just that times have changed since the days of free love: nowadays, "hotter after the sun goes down" might mean that the air conditioning gave out just before dusk. And at the Frescos', I was rewarded with goat milk and cheese rather than depravity. (It was a welcome tradeoff.) The milk tasted much like cows', but creamier, and the ash-encrusted cheese like cream cheese with a mild tang.
In any case, the Krantz book's cover ends by warning breathlessly that "one beautiful, clever woman holds the power to bring the whole damned canyon down -- on everybody!"
Even without plowing through 350 crumbling pages of an old paperback, it's a safe bet that this novel has nothing to do with a woman who keeps goats. In real life, no one except fire marshals and building inspectors hold the power to bring the whole damned canyon down on anybody.
Not that Elaine Fresco has any interest in trying. On the contrary, in a recent canyon email, she said, "I am thankful for all my neighbors who have been so patient and tolerant of my goats. I will miss you all."
And, no doubt, vice versa.
Follow Jonathan Handel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jhandel