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Brown goat made of metal stands in a rocky grotto.
Garbage Goat, steely trash-eater of Spokane, in his basalt grotto.

Garbage Goat of the Welding Nun

Field review by the editors.

Spokane, Washington

Garbage Goat has been eating the trash of Spokane since the mid-1970s, making him one of the world's hardest-working pieces of public art. The vacuum-powered steel goat was designed and built by the late Sister Paula Mary Turnbull, known to the art world as "the welding nun."

White painting of a goat surrounded by thunderbolts.
Cabinets of electrical relays give Garbage Goat his power.

Garbage Goat debuted at Expo '74, a world's fair whose theme was ecology. He wasn't a veiled warning that Nature would ultimately devour the works of humankind. He was just a way to encourage kids not to litter. "Sister Paula visited a zoo that had trash cans with animal heads," said Tom Keefe, a long-time friend of the nun and founder of the Friends of the Goat association. "She thought, 'If you're going to have an animal head, why not have the whole animal?'"

Sister Paula also decided that simply shoving trash into an animal mouth was not fun enough, and outfitted the goat with a powerful internal vacuum connected to a hidden trash barrel. Visitors press a button on the rock wall next to the goat, listen for the suction, place trash in the palm of their hand, and hold it under the goat's nose. Fump! The trash instantly disappears.

A hand feeds a tissue into the mouth of a metal goat.
Feeding Garbage Goat requires a delicate touch.

"It was part of the anti-pollution message," said Karen Mobley, former director of the organization Spokane Arts. "Teach our children not to throw trash on the ground. Put it in a garbage can or give it to a goat."

That message drew fire from Kent Leach, editor of The Dairy Goat Journal. He wrote that Garbage Goat was "degrading, debasing, and grossly misleading," and would encourage children to feed bad things to goats. Garbage Goat defenders countered that the Goat Journal editor had missed the point, and noted that the area around the goat was the most litter-free of the entire Fairground. Expo '74's organizers, anxious to avoid bad publicity, quickly put up signs stating that farm goats were fed a healthy diet, and that they were "a most economical, true ecological animal." Sister Paula simply said the goat was a billy goat, not a dairy goat.

In fact, despite its name, Garbage Goat was designed by Sister Paula so that it can't eat garbage: the mouth opening is small, and any attempt to cram in a can or bottle usually shuts off the vacuum.

Older man in a white suit and a very old woman wearing a colorful blouse stand on either side of a metal goat wearing a Hawaiian lei and a purple birthday hat.
Tom Keefe, Garbage Goat, and Sister Paula at the goat's 40th birthday celebration.

The World's Fair closed in November 1974, rapidly fading from memory, as did the dairy goat controversy. But Garbage Goat remained, ever-hungry. The City of Spokane Parks and Recreation Department kept his electronics and vacuum in good repair, and continued emptying his trash barrel. Visitors fed the goat, then posed straddling his back, holding his horns like motorcycle handlebars. Tom recalled that a "Name the Goat" contest brought in multiple suggestions, but Sister Paula preferred its working title, "Garbage Goat," and that's the name that stuck.

"Garbage Goat became Spokane's universal pet," said Karen. "It's not some heavy thing making a statement. It's a goofy goat that eats your trash. Cities all over the world wish they had something that iconic."

Garbage Goat's 40th birthday was a major event in Spokane. Sister Paula was there, age 93, and fed the goat a piece of cake, which Karen, who hosted the ceremony, said was something that people really shouldn't do. The Parks Dept. provided figures documenting that the goat had eaten more than 14,000 cubic yards of trash in his 40 years, mostly napkins, tissues, leaves, popcorn, and an occasional child's mitten. "Sister Paula was all dressed up," said Karen, "and there were TV cameras, and little kids who were writing papers about the goat for their class, and all the nuns who came from the convent. I remember standing up there with the microphone by the goat, saying to myself, 'This is the nuttiest thing I've been to, maybe ever.'"

Silhouette of a metal goat head from behind, looking out over an open area free of trash.
No trash in sight: Garbage Goat surveys his litter-free domain.

Garbage Goat quickly returned to his regular trash-sucking duties, and the welding nun remained busy with her blowtorch almost until the day she died in 2018. In addition to a considerable body of religious artwork, Sister Paula's sculptures around Spokane include a memorial to a man who drowned in a sewage tank; a copper-tube Sasquatch at Spokane Community College; an Irish harp that plays at the touch of a button; and a miniature Eddie Gaedel, the smallest-ever Major League baseball player, displayed in a pub across the street from the goat, where Sister Paula liked to go for a beer and a reuben sandwich. "I've made a lot of interesting art," she told Tom, "but the one I'll be remembered for is Garbage Goat." According to Tom, she was okay with that.

"Seattle has its Space Needle, Spokane has its Garbage Goat," said Tom. "The goat has become a symbol of the city for a lot of people. He's developed his own constituency, one sack of garbage at a time."

Garbage Goat of the Welding Nun

Riverfront Park

507 N. Howard St., Spokane, WA
Riverfront Park. On the north side of W. Spokane Falls Blvd, just west of N. Stevens St. and just east of the Looff Carrousel.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

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In the region:
Steel Yard Art, Spokane, WA - 1 mi.

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