A Miraculous Rescue from the Flood

How the San Clemente Island Goats Were Saved at Willow Valley Farms

A Miraculous Rescue from the Flood

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The San Clemente Island breed of goats is critically endangered with only about 800 known goats left in the world. They originated from San Clemente Island in the Channel Islands of California. Thought to have descended from several ancient breeds of Spanish goats, they are a distinct breed of their own. As they were forced from San Clemente Island nearly 30 years ago, their numbers dwindled dangerously low. Due to conservation efforts, that number is now increasing. However, when a herd that comprised 40% of the known San Clemente Island goats was in danger of drowning in rapidly rising floodwaters, many friends, neighbors, coworkers, and volunteers flocked to offer their help. What follows is the miraculous story of their rescue.

Photo by Chad Wegener

Willow Valley Farms began in 2007 with a single fertilized chicken egg on John and Chad’s 40-acre farm along the Elkhorn River with beautiful willows surrounding it. Over the years as they added the San Clemente Island goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, guineas, and peacocks.

The recipe for the perfect climate disaster happened in the winter of 2018 when higher amounts of snow piled up. This winter’s snow was still on the ground when temperatures suddenly rose to the high 60s. Virtually everything had melted within two or three days when the bomb cyclone hit. Several inches of rain fell in only a couple of days, but the still mostly frozen ground could not absorb any of it. The water just ran over the ground, not sinking in at all. Rivers rapidly rose and spilled over their banks, exacerbated by the ice packs still locking up entire sections of river. With little warning, people fled their homes for higher ground as rivers of water filled with large chunks of ice and debris began flowing across roadways and tearing out bridges.

On Friday, March 15th, John got up for work as normal. Looking out from the balcony, he noted that the Elkhorn River was starting to flood; the water had already reached the high point that the historic “500-year flood” of 2011 had hit. Although he was concerned, he still had work obligations, and Chad was there to watch the animals. By 2:30, Chad was calling John to come home as the waters were rapidly rising and even covering the goats’ pastures. Ten minutes later, the pasture for the does was underwater. As John rushed home, he could see that out of 40 acres, at least 32 of them were completely submerged, and it was only getting worse. By 4:15, the pasture of bucks was also in serious trouble.

At this point, John and Chad turned to social media to plead for help in rescuing their endangered herd. Within an hour, almost 50 volunteers came with trailers to try to get the goats out. They began grabbing goats and carrying them individually to the trailers. However, chaos broke out again as a volunteer’s Border collie excited the goats and had them running back into the water. Finally, with the dog contained, they herded the does into the barn so they could easily grab the rest of them. Those trailers full of 225 does and a few wethers left the farm at 8:30 in the evening. Even as they drove away, the trailers were often losing traction and often could be felt floating in the water that covered the road. They were the last vehicles to travel that road before it was closed. Now stranded, John and Chad still had all the bucks to save. It was now completely dark, and water filled with debris and ice rushed through all the pastures. Unable to even walk through the pasture due to the hazards, they ended up literally throwing the bucks over a five-foot-high fence to the neighbors on the other side, who then placed the bucks three at a time on ATVs to take them to a couple of horse trailers. Once all the bucks were in the trailers, John and Chad drove them to high ground and then had to leave them there until the roads became clear enough to transport them elsewhere. That would be in three days.

With the goats rescued, or at least as rescued as they could be, John and Chad turned their attention to the aviary of birds. With an extension cord tied around his waist, John waded to the aviary with a pillowcase to grab the birds that were still alive and set them loose. There was nothing more that could be done. Now, in the middle of the night, with the floating propane tank tethered, they could focus on warming up and trying to rest. Through the night, floodwaters flattened their fences and ravaged through their farm that they had worked so hard to create.

On Saturday morning, John and Chad looked out to see that the river that normally flowed beside their property was now flowing through it at four times its normal size. Their house, built on the highest point of the 40-acre farm, was merely a couple of feet away from the water. Finally, on Sunday, they could tell that the water was beginning to go down a little. It was Monday afternoon before they could leave their property, taking the two trailers of bucks and wethers to a safe holding place until they could be brought home.

With the goats being temporarily held at other farms, John and Chad surveyed the destruction of their beloved farm. With fences leveled, debris and sand piled up, sinkholes as big as swimming pools, and their newly purchased hay having floated away, their hearts broke at the sight. As the waters slowly continued to recede and dry up, John and Chad began the cleanup and rebuilding. Chores included a three-hour round trip of driving in opposite directions, bypassing three downed bridges, to feed and care for the goats. It took two full months of work combined with waiting for the water to dry up enough for goat safety and health before they could think about bringing the herd home. While none of the goats were lost in the flood, six were lost in the aftermath of stress and overcrowding at the temporary holding places. Finally, in mid-May, the herd of San Clemente Island goats was able to return home. The goats leaped and danced as they exited the trailer, recognizing their home. They had lost a lot of weight mainly because of the overcrowding, and now they must work hard to put that weight back on. Fortunately, being gone for two months allowed the land to flourish with feed in preparation for their return.

Even though the herd is home and has gained back the weight they lost, John and Chad still have a ton of work left to do. There is still over half the fencing on the farm that needs to be completed. Some buildings need to be gutted or even completely rebuilt. Before the flood, Willow Valley Farms was working toward becoming a goat dairy, but that plan was on hold during repairs. Now they are moving toward that goal once again.

John and Chad at Willow Valley Farms welcome volunteers and help in any way. They accept donations via Venmo @JohnandChad. They also welcome interest in the San Clemente Island goats themselves. For those looking to possibly work in helping to preserve this remarkable breed of goat, you are encouraged to visit www.scigoatfoundation.org for information about starting a herd.

Disasters bring people together in amazing ways. Complete strangers rushed to help save endangered goats from drowning in freezing water. It is interesting that these same disasters also bond the humans and animals involved. When John went to save their birds, he also grabbed his peacock. This peacock had never let a human come within ten feet until the flood. Now, that same peacock sits outside the back door, waiting for John and Chad to come outside every morning. It often roosts in the tree next to the house and is never far. The flood that leveled Willow Valley Farms forever changed the lives of John and Chad and their San Clemente Island goats, but some of those changes may have been for the better.

Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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