Test results released this week indicate that an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia apparently caused the deaths of more than 40 goats that had been grazing on city hillsides as part of a fire-prevention program.
The goats, who create fire breaks on often rugged terrain by eating dry vegetation, suddenly began dying last week, prompting an investigation by the Fire Department and county health officials.
"There is no mystery disease, no major problem," said Dr. Richard Evans, chief of veterinary services for the Orange County Health Care Agency. "Everything seems to be under control now."
He said it does not appear that the animals had been grazing on poisoned vegetation.
No new cases of pneumonia have been reported since Friday, he said. The sick goats have been isolated from the rest of the herd and are being treated with penicillin. About a dozen of the animals remain ill, and one died Tuesday.
Evans said it is difficult to explain what caused the deadly outbreak, but he suspects that a highly contagious form of bacteria had been circulating in the herd of about 800 goats.
"Probably most of the goats picked it up, but some couldn't fight it off," he said.
Within the next 10 days, Evans plans to issue a series of recommendations to the Fire Department on ways to minimize outbreaks of such diseases. He added, however, that given the large herd size, the number of deaths "seems like a lot, but it isn't."
Fire Chief Richard Dewberry said the goats have become popular among Laguna Beach residents since the grazing program began in July. He also said it is much more cost-effective for goats to clear out excess vegetation than it is for human work crews to do the job.
"We think it's the best one out there," he said of the program.