Waiting to Call Home

The solitude and routines of one goatherd and his two dogs—plus 600 nannies and billies.

known for their ability to eat just about anything, goats are often brought in to clear land of brush and grasses as protection against fire
Known for their ability to eat just about anything, goats are often brought in to clear land of brush and grasses as protection against fire.
CHRIS HARDY

The goatherd lies awake in his camper in the murky gray of dawn. His alarm is set for 5:30, but Christian Cordova is already stirring. He stretches and switches off the ringer before it can join the birdsong chorus outside. His herd of 600 goats sleeps nearby, within eyesight and earshot, still bedded down among the rolling hills of Oakland’s Mills College campus. Cordova rises to make coffee.

Forty-five hundred miles away and two hours ahead, in the small Andean village of La Oroya, Peru, Cordova’s wife and three children are also starting their day. He has yet to meet his youngest child, eight-month-old Lui, who was born after Cordova started this three-year work visa, his third. Cordova has seen him only in video chats. Perhaps he will call his family this afternoon.

Stocky and muscled from tending livestock, the 39-year-old Cordova dresses in his daily uniform: T-shirt, blue jeans, San Francisco 49ers baseball cap, and fluorescent yellow vest. He steps outside to check his dogs, Shakira and Chalupa, a pair of border collies still dreaming beneath the camper, then picks up a rubber mallet and tucks it into the loop of his work belt. It is one of the most important tools of his trade.

The coffee has brewed. He drinks the pot quickly, then calls to his dogs and leaves the trailer. The collies will accompany him throughout the day. Their first task is to walk the perimeter of electric fence enclosing the goats, looking for loose sections to tighten, fixing any fallen or lopsided posts, and, above all, ensuring that all 600 animals are well and accounted for.

The herd is a piebald, spotted, and banded collection of Spanish, Angora, pygmy, Boer, and Alpine goats, among other breeds. They’re raised not for milk, meat, wool, leather, or even companionship, but for their ability to reduce an overgrown lot of thistle, grass, and brush to its most inert, least flammable state.

Each day, these nannies and billies together can consume close to two acres’ worth of leaves and twigs as part of a landscape management plan, devouring everything small and leafy before it might catch and burn in a wildfire. They’ll be done here at Mills in a week, after which they’ll get loaded into double-decker trailers 200 at a time and towed to the next lot, and the next after that, browsing their way around the Bay Area.

Cordova makes for the generator and switches off the current to inspect the fence. It would be foolish hell to repair a fallen post with 4,000 to 5,000 volts of electricity coursing through it. He pops in a set of earbuds as he walks and plays the livestream of Radio Programas del Perú. The news is bad. News is bad everywhere—the economy, the pandemic—but this kind of bad news cuts deeply; it’s happening at home, and he’s not there to help. He’ll wait until the heat of the afternoon to call Yesenia, his wife, when the goats are resting in the shade of trees.

Christian Cordova, a 39-year-old goatherd from Peru, tends his animals as they graze amid the rolling hills of Mills College in Oakland.
Christian Cordova, a 39-year-old goatherd from Peru, tends his animals as they graze amid the rolling hills of Mills College in Oakland.
CHRIS HARDY

With the electricity down, the animals could, in theory, escape, but the dogs are here and alert. Cordova ascertains that no fallen branch has shorted the wiring, no wild dog has broken in, and the goats clearly have not charged through the fence in a panic. Of these incidents, the fallen branch is the only one Cordova has directly experienced in his seven years of working in California, but from conversations with the boss and fellow goatherds, he knows that such things happen

He comes upon a loose post, wobbly from the ground beneath it giving way, its softness caused by a gopher tunnel, perhaps, or a rotted tree root. The neighboring posts remain firm and are keeping the electrified lattice taut. Still, it’s a weak spot. Cordova pulls out the PVC post, repositions it, and swings the mallet down till the post sticks tight.

Soon the fence is again intact. Even had any animals escaped, they could not have gone far, as they’re grazing land that is gated and hemmed in by a freeway. But next week they will be moving to a property in the East Bay Hills. There, an unfenced goat could wander for miles before finding anything to stop it, much like at Cordova’s family ranch high in the Andes. Though also not like it at all. In Peru, it’s sheep, cattle, horses. It’s wool, meat, leather. It’s open range and, when the work goes late, returning home in the dark under a completely different set of stars. Here it’s a camper, cell reception, and an electric fence.

Cordova enters the goat enclosure and switches on the electricity. A pack of 10 animals come over for attention and scratches. Cordova calls them his “friends.” They have no names. Goats don’t get names, he says. Besides, who could come up with 600 of them?

Cordova examines each goat for pneumonia, always a risk with so many animals close together in the daytime dust and then the nighttime fog. First he looks over his 10 friends, then the rest of the herd: 590 more creatures, one at a time. It’s slow going, and soon it is close to two in the afternoon. One animal looks sluggish and has a dry cough. Cordova makes a mental note to dose it with a broad-spectrum antibiotic when he returns later to clean the generators.

The day turns hot, and the goats find shade beneath clusters of live oaks. Cordova also takes a break, going inside the camper for a late lunch. Soon he will call home. His 18-year-old daughter, Lilibeth, and his 15-year-old son, Jeferson, will have finished school and be needing help with math. Then he will talk with Yesenia about the news reports, about her day and his, on opposite sides of the globe, and about Lui. Being alone does not feel so lonely then, nor does his family feel so far away.

He won’t see any of them—except during video chats—for two years, when his work authorization will expire and he’ll return south for the winter. Or rather, for the summer, as the seasons there are reversed from those here. He’ll stay in Peru for anywhere from a couple of months to half a year, just long enough to re-up his work visa.

But all that seems a long way off. Cordova will wait for the day to cool, then find and medicate that sluggish goat, clean the generators, spend a bit of time with his 10 friends, and, finally, walk the fence at 8 p.m., making sure there is no threat of falling branches or wild animals. And as night falls, may all of them—600 goats, two dogs, and one goatherd—sleep safe and well.

Tomorrow it begins again. But for now, at this moment, Cordova will call home.

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