Tampa Bay's 'Project G.O.A.T.' fights human trafficking

CL Tampa Bay's Gasparilla Arts Month guide.

click to enlarge GOAT HOARDER: Rob Canton with his barn full of Grady Goats. - JENNIFER RING
GOAT HOARDER: Rob Canton with his barn full of Grady Goats.

In 2015, Rob and Debbie Canton rescued seven goats from slaughter. The goats were put to work on the couple’s Thonotosassa ranch, where their constant chewing would help clear an overgrown section of the property. On March 16, 2017, one of their goats gave birth to a blind, deaf and charmingly clumsy goat. The Cantons named it Grady.

“I used to come in and tell my husband Rob the funny stories about what the baby goats were doing,” Debbie told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Then Rob said, ‘You know, you just need to write a children’s book.’”


She remembers being unsure of the idea. Then Grady was born, and Debbie reconsidered.

“I [thought something] based on Grady would be a good book—how a little disabled goat gets around on a farm and makes friends,” she added. Then Rob asked, “Why don’t you do one step better? Why don’t you start a foundation? We’ll do goat yoga and we’ll raise money for children with disabilities.’ That’s how it started. Grady was our inspiration.”

Grady Goat Farm started with seven goats. Now the Cantons have 150. Sixty of them took turns casually munching on my jeans, my shoelaces, my backpack and my camera bag while I observed a recent Sunday morning session of goat yoga at Grady Goat Farm. I’m not exactly wearing Louis Vuitton, so I think it’s cute. But I’m not here to do goat yoga. I’m here to find out why all these local artists are suddenly talking about goats.

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Sat. Feb. 29 (9 a.m.-6 p.m.)-Sun. March 1 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.). Free.
Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, 1001 N. Blvd., Tampa.

When Kalup Linzy told me he was bringing a goat to his Gallery 221 show back in January, I thought I misheard him.

“Did you say ‘a goat’?” I asked, confused.

“A sculpture,” he quickly clarified. “It’s called Project G.O.A.T., and they’re helping raise money and awareness for human trafficking.”

So what is Project G.O.A.T. and how is it raising money for the fight against human trafficking?

This part of the story begins in 2019, when Rob Canton discovered a blog post by Bill Gates pondering the question, “Can Goats Empower Women?” In the article, Gates describes how goats are already empowering women in one of the poorest parts of India, where they serve as an important source of income. Without that income, these women would be vulnerable to the fraudulent job offers traffickers often use to recruit their victims. Now, instead of becoming victims of forced labor, women are gaining financial independence raising and selling goats.

“It was touching to see that goats are actually really saving women from being trafficked in these countries,” Rob told CL. “That’s when I came up with that acronym of Project G.O.A.T.—Global Offense Against Trafficking.”

The Cantons commissioned Scott Moore to sculpt 55 identical goat sculptures, so each of them would be painted by a different artist. How did a farmer-businessman from Thonotosassa get 55 artists to paint a bunch of goat sculptures to fight human trafficking?

“That was not easy. The first four or five [artists were] difficult to convince… they didn’t get it. But I had a lot of friends still that were artists or who knew artists,” Rob said, adding that Moore created the original sculpture, the mold from it, and then all of the original castings. “[Moore] has a lot of experience in the market, so he knew a lot of artists that he started suggesting as well.”

The project started with a single goat, just to test the waters. Miami-based artist Frankie Gonzalez painted the original goat sculpture with all 16 Astros 2019 Hall of Fame inductees ahead of Astros Hall of Fame weekend. When the piece retrieved $15,000 at auction, the Cantons knew they were onto something.

“That told us, ‘We think we can sell these. We think we can raise some money for charity and reach out to Donny,’” Rob Canton told CL. Donny is Donald Gialanella, the second sculptor the Canton’s approached. “[Donny] came to us with this idea of adding 250 pounds of chains [to Moore’s goat], which makes it a very heavy goat."

“The idea that I had of covering it with chains seemed so perfect to represent the human trafficking subject that I was compelled to do it,” Gialanella told CL. “But going from the idea to the actual object. Man, it was really hard to put those chains on there. It was much more difficult than I thought. And it took 275 pounds of chains. So I had to reinforce the goat, and the interior, and add a metal armature at the bottom so it wouldn’t collapse. And moving that thing was a job, but the effect was so great.”

When I visited Grady Goat Farm earlier this month, the Cantons already had a battalion of about 30 goat sculptures lined up in their barn (aka yoga studio), including Gialanella’s goat in chains. Rob walked me across rows of goat sculptures to show me some of his favorites.

 “Probably the artist that we’re most thrilled to have gotten—he isn’t really an artist—is Yann Weymouth,” Rob said. Weymouth is an internationally-known architect based in St. Petersburg. Early in his career, he served at I.M. Pei’s Chief of Design on the Louvre Museum update completed in 1989. Later, he designed St. Pete’s Dalí and the James museums. Weymouth painted his goat to look like a blueprint, showcasing some of his best designs, including the Dali’s helical staircase.

St. Petersburg artist Geff Strik’s goat looks like hell, and I mean this in the best possible way. The charcoal gray sculpture is covered in scars and blood.

“[Strik] decided to make his goat a battle lord,” Rob said. “This goat—it’s been through hell, like these women and children have been. He’s still standing. He’s survived…”

Tampa artist Alicia Campos painted her goat with images from the Jeffrey Epstein trial. Prior to settling in West Tampa with her family, Campos used art therapy to rehabilitate victims of human trafficking in Mexico.

“So she’s very passionate about it,” Rob told CL. Campos painted a portrait of Epstein with a snake’s tongue on the back of her goat. On the goat’s side, she’s painted some of Epstein’s victims with gags in their mouths.

GOAT WHISPERER: Debbie Canton’s special relationship with the original Grady gave way to a big idea. - JENNIFER RING
GOAT WHISPERER: Debbie Canton’s special relationship with the original Grady gave way to a big idea.

The goats by Gialanella, Weymouth, Strik, and Campos are just four of 50 goat sculptures making their official Tampa debut at the 50th Anniversary Gasparilla Festival of the Arts this Saturday. Participating artists mostly hail from central Florida, including several Tampa Bay-based artists. After the festival, all 55 painted goat sculptures get auctioned off at the Project G.O.A.T. Gala during Super Bowl Weekend in Tampa.

“I want to replicate this every year at the Super Bowl. We’ve got 55 [goat sculptures] in advance of Super Bowl LV. That’s the magic number,” Rob added. “Next year we want to have 56 in advance of Super Bowl LVI.”

Proceeds from the goat sculpture sales will go to organizations that help fight human trafficking both locally and globally.

“This is a major issue, human trafficking, that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” Rob Canton told CL. Because of this, there are a lot of misconceptions about where and how human trafficking occurs.

“The best definition I’ve heard for human trafficking is ‘the exploitation of vulnerability,’” Natasha Nascimento told CL. Nascimento runs Redefining Refuge, a Tampa-based charity that provides services to victims of human trafficking. The United Nations defines human trafficking as a modern form of slavery that can happen to anyone in any country, including the U.S. (but it’s far more prevalent in vulnerable populations like children and the poor.) About half the children Redefining Refuge serves are sold into trafficking by their own parents or primary caregivers.

“In these scenarios, it’s very common that mom, dad or the primary care provider had a substance abuse issue,” Nascimento told CL. “They learned very quickly that there are people willing to pay money to exploit their children.”

Rob added that, “In way too many cases, these kids, under 18, are being arrested for prostitution because they’re not being recognized as victims of trafficking.”.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. doubled between 2015-2018. The hotline identified 10,949 human trafficking cases in 2018; 767 of them were in Florida.

“[Florida has] consistently been ranked third in the nation for number of calls to the [hotline],” Nascimento told CL. More than anything, the Cantons hope their goats will help raise awareness for human trafficking.

“Awareness is a big part of it,” Rob Canton told CL. “Even if we don’t raise a single dime, I think we can sit back and say we’ve been successful.”

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About The Author

Jennifer Ring

Jennifer studied biology for six years, planning for a career in science, but the Universe had other plans. In 2011, Jen was diagnosed with a rare lung disease that sidelined her from scientific research. Her immune system, plagued by Scleroderma, had attacked her lungs to the point of no return. She now required...
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