Category Archives: goats

Chapter 5

Alpaca Research Rant

Suri alpaca with children
Casey and Nick visit a Suri alpaca at The Great Frederick Fair

Mention alpaca farming to a group of random people and several of them will immediately lose their minds and begin to rant about “exotic livestock”, “farming fads”, “pyramid schemes”, “latest market bubble” and also, “emus!” and/or “llamas!” It will be very, very unlikely that these people have experience in livestock farming, any kind of farming, or know what the end product of an alpaca or llama is. This will not stop them from KNOWING that they are right, and you are doomed if you do not heed their advice.

On the other side of the proverbial coin are those who advertise and talk about cute, fluffy “livestock investments” and encourage you to spend your retirement years raising alpacas. You will spend your golden years sitting on your porch watching your adorable, livestock investments frolic through your fields and, also, multiply exponentially causing you to become filthy rich with hardly any effort on your part.

 

Con artists and their naive followers exist in every type of business. If there is good money to be made deceiving others, someone will be willing to do it, but they can’t do it without people who refuse to do their own research. I know there are people who do not enjoy researching a new and exotic subject, but I don’t really understand them. Doing research is one of the great joys and privileges of life. It’s what separates us from the people who bought Windows ME. I’m not saying that people who don’t do their research deserve to be conned, but remember that it is the alpacas that suffer the most due to lack of research and preparation on the part of their owners, and some suffer pretty terribly.

So, while people were lining up to tell me how crazy I was, I was in research commando mode. I ordered the only three books I could find about alpacas, two of which were mainly about llamas with a little alpaca information thrown in. My favorite was The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM. It was 255 pages and published in 1995. [2] This book cost $70, and offered a great deal of scary information about alpaca diseases, parasites, infections, developmental problems and a list of possible birth defects printed in very small type, and covering one and one half pages. A thorough reading of this book would cure anyone of the idea that alpacas are adorable,

carefree “investments.”   It wasn’t all unpleasant though. The first paragraph offered a lovely, poetic view of the relationship between the Andean people and the Alpaca. I reproduce it here,

 

“Ausangate is a magnificent snow-covered peak south of Cuzco, Peru, and the legendary source of llamas and alpacas. According to legend, Pachamama [mother earth] loaned alpacas and llamas so people of the puna could survive. Since the animals belong to Pachamama, they must be well fed and never be treated cruelly. If they aren’t properly cared for, Pachamama will call them back to Ausangate and people will disappear.”

The above quotation is attributed to an “ancient Quechua legend.” Some people could read this and think only about the thrilling adventure of raising a mystical, magical animal. Others would focus on the idea that, if you don’t take good care of your alpacas, the Goddess takes them away, and you could be disappearing too! Both parts of the paragraph are important. Alpacas are a link to an ancient way of life, and raising them can feel very magical at times, but we must be committed to caring for our animals to the absolute best of our ability. A big part of that is doing the research.

 

photo of The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM
The Alpaca Book

 

I already knew that alpacas were one of four members of the South American camel family. The alpaca has traditionally been used for fleece, while the much larger llama was used for packing on steep, mountain trails.   The guanaco is even larger than the llama, and usually allowed to run wild, while the vicuña has the most valuable fleece of the four, but has never been successfully domesticated. All four can interbreed and produce live offspring. I knew that alpacas and llamas in the U.S. were not slaughtered for meat.

I was already a knitter, and a serious lover of natural fibers, both animal and plant. For as long as I can remember, I have had the habit of stroking and admiring the weaves, knitting patterns and textures of my own clothing. Thanks to my Bostonian mother, I grew up wearing wool, mohair, linen, silk, angora, camel hair and goose down.   A lot of my childhood wardrobe consisted of wool sweaters and skirts, especially Fair Isle sweaters, and plaid, wool skirts. Many of these came from thrift shops because we were not rich, and these materials can last almost forever if properly cared for. Some people would call this wardrobe style, “preppy”, but I think it was common to most New Englanders of my mother’s generation.   People who live in cold climates have to know about warm, durable clothing. When it comes to keeping warm while “breathing” and venting sweat, no manmade fiber can do what Mother Nature can do. In my research, I had learned that Huacaya alpacas (one of two varieties of alpaca) produced a fleece that is very similar to sheep wool, but not nearly as itchy as most types of sheep wool. As I had spent an entire childhood warm but itchy, it seemed that alpaca fleece and I might just be made for each other.

 

In addition to reading books, I subscribed to Alpacas Magazine as part of my research. It was mostly advertising, feel-good stories about alpaca breeding, and many photos of high fashion alpaca garments from Peru, but it had a useful article in it now and then. I read everything I could find on the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), as well as the International Llama Registry website (ILR)[3]. From these sources I found out that importation of alpacas to the U.S. began in the mid 1980s, mainly from Peru, but also from Chile and Bolivia, and blood typing for DNA registration in the U.S. began in 1988.

Some alpaca breeders were fighting to close the registry to newly imported alpacas, making the alpaca herds already in the U.S. the only breeding stock available to new buyers. Scarcity of a product is key to keeping the prices high, and alpaca prices were very high in the beginning of the business. They ranged from $18,000 to $40,000 for a bred female, and even more for a beautiful male “herd sire.” Some breeders felt that the size of the U.S. alpaca herd did not contain enough genetic diversity.   Others claimed that it already had too much diversity. I was not qualified to have an opinion on this topic in 1998, but I did see many alpacas that looked more like llamas during my early years of alpaca farming. In any case, the registration of newly imported alpacas would be closed in 1999, effectively ending alpaca importation.

 

Alpaca DNA registration card
Alpaca DNA registration kit with 3 drops of blood

I liked what I had found out so far, so I went to a couple of “Alpaca 101” seminars at nearby alpaca farms. The first was run by “Breeder A.”[4], a female, ex-horse breeder.   I would meet many of these during my alpaca farm years. Horses and alpacas seem to appeal to women far more often than men, and a person who is comfortable controlling 1,000 pounds of horse will find a 140 pound alpaca very easy to handle. Horse breeders usually pay a veterinarian to find out when their mare is about to ovulate.   Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning an open female should ovulate when she is bred. That is a very useful trait, and not one that is found in most mammals. Compared to horse breeding, alpaca breeding is far easier and much cheaper.

 

Breeder A shows us how alpaca breeders use a male to “test” the females that they want to breed, usually by penning up the female inside the barn, and bringing the male to her on a halter and lead rope. The male will get excited, begin to make a loud noise called “orgling”, and then try to mount the female. If she crouches down, bending all four knees, or “cushes” for him, she is open and ready to breed. If she refuses, she may already be bred. This refusal is not very ladylike. The female spits on the male, and what she spits is not saliva but partially digested cud from one of her stomachs. It’s green, gooey and smells like vomit. Adding insult to injury, many breeders use gelded males to test several females in a row.   Each of the females that cush may be bred to a different male; one that is carefully chosen to compliment the female’s phenotype and genetic background. Stud males should, ideally, have some name recognition from a famous bloodline and/or show ribbons and, of course, not be gelded.   The fact that the unlucky, testing gelding never refuses to try to breed females, even after he is either harshly refused, or yanked off the willing female, every single time, is a powerful testament to the strength of the breeding urge in mammals. This poor guy never gets the memo that he can’t really have the job.

It is at this seminar that I am allowed to give my first worming shot to an alpaca. Nervous about breaking off the needle, I stick it in too hard. People nearby wince and I feel like a monster. I do much better at trimming the toenails, since they are very similar to those of my goats. Breeder A. impresses upon us the absolute importance of monthly worming, especially for the Meningeal Worm. This terrible parasite is adapted to the body of the white-tailed deer. The adult worms live in the lining of the deer’s brains and spinal chords, usually without harming them. The larvae are shed in the deer’s droppings and subsequently take up residence in snails and slugs. If alpacas or llamas accidentally eat these snails or slugs in their pastures, the result is paralysis and a lingering, miserable death. Unfortunately, we had many white tailed deer in our area of Maryland.

 

I tried to pay attention to all of this vital information but the fact that it was my first time being near live alpacas made it very difficult. They are absolutely gorgeous up close. The heads of the tallest ones are still a few inches below my own height of 5’5”. The body seems to be about the size of a female deer’s but the neck is much longer and thinner.   The fluffy Huacayas look like long-legged, long necked Teddy Bears. The Suris have shiny, silky locks rather than the springy fleecy coats of the Huacayas. All have eyes are large and luminous. Their faces range from grave to serene to comical, depending on their temperament and coloring. Many are white, but some are fawn-colored, black, brown or a dappled gray. One is a brown and white pinto.

 

They seem nervous of the crowd of people there, but curious as well. Some let out an alarmed squeak when they are touched. Of course I stick my hand into a couple of alpaca fleeces when I hope no one is looking. They are so soft! There is no lanolin-type oil on the fleece, nothing but a bit of dust. There is a very faint but pleasant smell to their skin. They are nearly irresistible. It’s very hard not to buy one on the spot. Breeder A. knows this of course. That is the point of “educating” would-be alpaca owners, getting them to visit and buy from your alpaca farm first.

 

Surprisingly, a couple of hours of this seminar are dedicated to a talk by our host’s accountant. I learn about pass through entity tax write-offs, limited liability corporations, farm building depreciation, and how not to be labeled a “hobby farm”. The pass through entity was not a dangerous alien life form, but a way to reduce our income tax payments.   As Tom was keeping his job at the FDA, we would be able to write off farm equipment, barn building, fencing and other expenditures against his income, unless we ended up earning the dreaded hobby farm label!

 

If the IRS decides that a person is pretending to have a farm business, but is not really trying to make money, this business is labeled a “hobby farm.” The IRS will refuse any tax write-offs, and levy their usual financial penalties against the owners of the farm. Apparently, many people who want to own horses, cattle, open fields, orchards, grape arbors, alpacas, emus and the like, also feel that they should be subsidized in this lifestyle by having reduced taxes. They want the life of the “gentlemen farmer,” but they would also like to be able to write off some of their expenses and reduce their tax burden as if they were a real farmer. Why not breed that horse once or twice, or sell a couple of cows, and get a big tax break? Answer: because the IRS does not agree that hobby farms are businesses. In fact, the accountant warned us that the IRS is likely to audit any small farm business that does not make a profit in two out of five years, especially those containing “exotic” livestock.

 

The funniest part of the day happens when Breeder A. discusses the size and firmness of the male alpaca’s testicles as indicators of fertility, and demonstrates this by lifting the tail of one of her males and cupping his testicles in her hand. I am in awe of her aplomb. I try imagining myself doing something similar without laughing nervously but I can’t.   Catholic school has ruined my chances of being a serious-minded livestock breeder.

 

Whilst I read, visit, and read some more, Tom is doing his own research about fencing, pasture-seeding and management, barn building, livestock trailers, tractor accessories and vaccination shots. If you have to vaccinate livestock, it is very helpful to have a pharmacist in the family so he can figure out the dosages. Tom invites the county agricultural extension agent to our farm to test and discuss our soil. He later takes some soil management classes from the Agricultural Extension Office. He talks to anyone who might know something about farming, our neighbors, random guys at the Southern States Co-op, the veterinarian who cares for the goats, and the dairy farmer who rents one of our fields for a dollar per year.

 

Of course our farm research included our local agricultural fair. Since moving to Frederick County, we had always attended the Great Frederick Fair. And this fair was great in every sense. It was not a county fair, but a huge regional fair lasting almost two weeks, and including participants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware, as well as Maryland. In 1998 the fair was in its 136th year, and a new llama and alpaca show had been added to the multitude of livestock shows offered. We were eager to attend. Llamas having gained popularity in the U.S. before alpacas, there were four classes of llama handling and only one class of alpaca handling that year.

 

The alpaca class turned out to contain only one entry. We didn’t learn much about alpaca handling, but this indicated that the local market was not yet saturated, and also that this large fair was willing to change with the times and add livestock that some other farmers dismissively called “exotic” to their fair schedule. In fact, we were doubly blessed in our location because, not only did we live very near to one of the largest and most important agricultural fairs in the U.S., we also lived 30 minutes away from the largest fleece and wool show in North America, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Frederick County and Mount Airy seemed like a perfect spot for would-be alpaca breeders and fleece sellers.

 

Children showing llamas at The Great Frederick Fair 1998
Llama Show at The Great Frederick Fair 1998

Even if you do research your plans thoroughly, and have a good idea of how you can succeed, you will still have the doomsayers trying to drag you down. People buy into the idea that only those who follow the socially accepted paths to success will be rewarded, and all others will be a failure. If people refused to work endless overtime, drive in 2 or more hours of traffic per day, and rarely see their own children, all while doing a job they didn’t even love, what would happen to our society?   It’s an interesting question.

In Washington D.C. and its environs, these were just the kind of working conditions that most “professionals” put up with throughout their working lives. I wanted out of that system. I think a lot of other people did too, but it’s frightening to take the risk. If I do it, if I am allowed to give up a well-paying career to go and play with fluffy animals and keep my kids home with me, instead of at daycare, AND it turns out that I make good money, and my family has a fun adventure together, that wouldn’t seem fair to all those who stayed on the corporate treadmill. But life isn’t fair. Taking a chance sometimes pays off in a whole lot more than just money.

[2] Later editions of this book would have a much higher page count as our knowledge of alpacas grew.

[3] The ILR maintained the alpaca registration database before the existence of the Alpaca Registry.

[4] I have mostly avoided naming other alpaca breeders and, in some cases, have even changed inconsequential facts so as to hide their true identity due to the tendency of some breeders to be litigious.

Chapter 4

The Storm Comes

watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson
watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson

“Why?”  This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm.  How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?

I was currently living on a farm, with livestock,  and a husband who wanted to start a farm business.  Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer.  He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards.  He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish.  Finally he started mentioning alpacas.  I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky.  Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all?  I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that!  I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.

For the last few years I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom.  Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom.  He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career.  Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey.  It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.

Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s,  during the Great Depression.  My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began.  He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa.  He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.  

Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart.  He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry and literature as well.  He was crazy about art, and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs.  It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare.  The rest of his company moved on to Italy.  Most of them would die there.

No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college.  For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, college was something only rich people did.  The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life.  He graduated from West Point with honors, and a degree in engineering.  The Army sent him to several more schools including the  famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.

He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world.  In addition to WWII, Col. Tom  served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates.  During his long career he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander.  He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil and New York.  He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy.  He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.

Man in beret black and white
Col Tom with his corny beret looking dashing in postwar Germany

Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew.  Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders.  They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare.  Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.  

On my latest visit my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera.  Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again.  He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him.  This purchase especially frightened me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.  

Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last years or her death. We were living in Asia then.   I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but  we knew of erratic, confused behavior that required her to have a live in caretaker for several years.    By the time of my dad’s illness we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited .  I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities.  I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either.  I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him.  On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.  

I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel.  Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible.  We had to claim my parents as  dependents of my husband, who was then active duty U.S. Public Health Service.  This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it. 

 My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful.  She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening.  I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either.  I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.

We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon.  The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning.  The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle.  The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa. 

The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling.  The storm began to look more and more serious.  The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet.  Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway.  In a few hours the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway.  Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.

Tom on the tractor in the snow
Tom on the tractor in the snow

I was starting to panic.  I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass.  What if we couldn’t make the appointment now?  Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again?  And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time?  Was the Universe just screwing with me now?   

I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor.  He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before.  When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats.  How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock?  Who knew when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?

This last fear turned out to be unfounded.  While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan.  They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over an over, all during the storm.  They would end up doing this for two full days.  In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open.  Once again, the goats had proven their superiority as a species. 

Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall.  The tractor was out of diesel fuel.  The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly.  Our situation was looking hopeless.  This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.

Sunday morning came.  Snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened.  The diesel fuel fairy had visited.  One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway.  We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out.  We had fuel!

Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the long, winding driveway, a few feet from the main road.   This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while.  It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it.  Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I nervously steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.  

With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait.  Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job.  He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him and dumps the snow over.  He does this for almost another full day.    Sometime in the afternoon he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news.  The tractor’s axle has broken.  

We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared.  We might be able to shovel the rest by hand.   Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig.  It is miserable work.  I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls.  Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka.  Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces.  We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing.  We are not going to make it.  We head back down before the dark overtakes us.  I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof.  Others have not been that lucky.  The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.

Our driveway after snow removal
Our driveway after snow removal

Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation.  Another miracle has occurred.  Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road.  This time our guardian angel will turn out to be the Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner  of the auto repair garage in town.  Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father.  We are going to keep our appointment!

We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed.  The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall.  Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around.  The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty.    Most of them have no patients to care for.  This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day.  He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken.  A CAT scan is performed.  Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us.  The tests last for almost 7 hours.  This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments,  but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father.  He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on. 

By the end of the day we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle.  My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious.  We have to talk him into going home with us.  He does not trust us, especially me.  He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain.  He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make him appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease.  Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.  

My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things  are forever connected in my brain.  The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know.  My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.  

It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him.  During the next few years I will often hope for a  magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”  This being real life, that moment won’t come.

Slowly I will begin to understand certain things.  We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate.  Playing it safe does not make us safe.  We are never really safe.  I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them.  I am ready to take a crazy chance.  I’m ready to live a braver life.  I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.

Man and child in snow storm
Col. Tom and his granddaughter brave the storm

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

goat on playset
Heidi goat queen of Mount Airy

Judging by the frequency with which one sees their image represented on cozy, “country” décor, ducks and chickens can be seen as charming.  So cute in wallpaper motifs and ceramic kitchenware!  Goats are another story.  Once you have gone goat, there is no going back. Nothing screams “hillbilly” quite like owning a goat.  And, if you own a goat, don’t choose a billy!

 

Our goat came as a cast off from an NRA-hat-topped, tobacco pipe smoking, rodeo belt buckle-wearing neighbor.  He informed me that he had a goat he planned to shoot, if no one wanted her, because she was jealous of his kids and kept trying to kill them.  I know he planned this statement happily anticipating my confusion and resulting horror.  Good old boys are like that; they like to get a rise out of the “city folk.”

 

Of course the “kids” in question were of the newborn goat variety.  I realized that in time to avoid an embarrassing verbal outburst, but he did get the satisfaction of my momentarily horrified facial expression.  He also got the satisfaction of unloading an unwanted goat from the back of his pickup truck into our paddock and driving off into the proverbial sunset.

 

Heidi the goat was our first four-legged livestock acquisition.  A goat is neither dumb like a chicken, nor meek like a Pekin duck.  They are technically domesticated, but in no way are they lacking in wildness.  They will obey when they feel like it because they are very sociable.  If they don’t feel like it, good luck doing anything about it!

 

Heidi was white with large, irregular, brown spots on her fur, and she weighed about 60 pounds.  Her cutesy name turned out to be the only thing girly about her.  Heidi was no demure little lass. She had a beard and horns and a big, big attitude.  She was like a small, but powerful tornado, and she loved her new family very much.

 

Casey and Nick were anxious to play with Heidi, and she was equally excited about playing with them.  She trotted right over to them, lowered her head, and quickly butted each of them in turn.  She moved so fast that it was like watching a badly edited movie.  One minute the child was standing in one spot and a second later the child appeared a foot behind the previous spot.  No actual movement seemed to occur.

 

Heidi was not trying to hurt the children, she didn’t even knock them down; she just wanted them to understand that they were lower than her.  Goats have a simplified social order based on the fact that the animal who is higher up – literally – is the one in charge.

 

This was the last time that my kids would consent to be around Heidi if she was not on a leash.  They still liked her; they just didn’t trust her.  I, being considerably taller than Heidi, had no trouble with her unless I let her climb up something and get higher than me.  In fact, Heidi accepted me as her mother immediately, and would follow me around with or without a leash whenever I allowed her to.  She often rubbed the side of her face on my thigh, scent marking me as hers.    If I sat on the ground, she would plop down beside me and allow me to scratch her between the horns.

 

pet goat with children
Heidi with her family

While we set out to build a goat barn in the paddock previously occupied by the cow, I read two books on goat care from the local library.  Both books advised that goats must never be kept alone.  They are herd animals and suffer terribly when they have no herd. Poor Heidi was living alone in a large “dogloo” dog house with only the intermittent company of her human family.  We would need another goat.

 

Tom laid a foundation for the small barn and moved an old shack onto it with the help of my brother Kevin.  He then walled off half of the shack for hay and grain storage and added a hinged goat door that Heidi could walk through on her own.  We christened it “the goat palace.”

 

A few weeks later, I waltzed into the show goat barn at the Great Frederick Agricultural Fair and stupidly announced to the teenaged girls present that I wanted to purchase a goat as a companion animal.  Never do this!

 

I knew these goats were usually sold after the goat show, but failed to realize that they were being sold for meat.  What DID I think they were raised for?  Milk?  Fancy soap? Pulling a cart with granny in it like in a Heidi movie?  I don’t know.  I am a stupid person.

 

The typical goat here has been raised by a young girl as if it were a pet.  It is bottle fed, trained to walk on a lead, groomed and fussed over.  Many have fancy collars.  All have cute names.  They are loved as pets but sold as meat.

 

A crowd of desperately hopeful little girls rushes toward me.  Apparently goats are not perceived as livestock for guys, because there are none here, just sweet little girls and the goats they adore.  I feel like I am choosing who gets a reprieve from the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but I pick one goat, refusing all others, even if those with teary owners.    I am a terrible person.

 

Our new goat has markings that make him look like a miniature Holstein cow but he is reddish in some spots.  He is wearing a pink, rhinestone collar.  His name is Cinnamax, but we  will end up calling him Max.  He is sweet and hornless and does not butt the children, but he does butt Heidi right back when she goes after him.  They race around together joyfully.  They smack their foreheads together alarmingly.  We now have goats – plural.

goats with human family
Heidi and Max

 

The goat paddock is quite large, and it was mostly made up of very large weeds.  Its fence line encompassed part of our brook, so there was plenty of clean water to drink, but very little grass.  Looking at it closely, I wondered if the cow might have been a prop used by the wily former owners of this place to make it seem more bucolic.  One cow with very little grass and no shelter?

 

I needn’t have worried because it turned out that Heidi and Max did not like grass, but loved to eat weeds.  It is not true that goats will eat tin cans as they sometimes do in cartoons, but they will eat huge multiflora bushes with inch long thorns, and they will eat these right to the ground, killing them completely.  They will eat bull thistle, poison ivy and tree bark.

 

Goats are often used to clear underbrush and weedy lots, and they will do this better than a bush hog or any other machine.  As they will only eat grass as a last option and their manure is a very good fertilizer, the paddock would wind up looking like it was maintained by a high-end lawn service.

 

Heidi, and Max could often be seen perfectly balanced on the branches of the apple trees in their paddock, happily stripping the bark off with their teeth.  We lost two nice apple trees in this fashion.

 

When Heidi escaped from her enclosure, which she did regularly, she had several favorite pursuits.  One was to climb the steps of the children’s play set and slide down the slide standing up.  Another was to jump on top of any available car, truck or tractor and do a little tap dance of glee, gaily scratching the paint.  Then she would eat any available roses, race around the pond over and over as if she were a demented track star, and end up on the back porch looking into the sliding glass door trying to find her family.

 

If you have not seen a goat in action, it would be hard for you to believe just how well-coordinated and agile they are.  I have seen Heidi race through her paddock at top speed, leap into the air with all four hooves apart like a Kung Fu master and come to a dead stop on top of her slippery dogloo. I would not have believed this to be possible if I had not seen it more than once.

 

A friend told me about a goat of hers that would race across her lawn and leap onto the outside ledge of her living room window  to tease her dogs and make them bark frantically.  And the goat would do this over and over again, landing on a 4 inch ledge, next to a large glass window without ever touching the window itself, until the dogs were mad with frustration and rage.

 

Max was equally good at escaping.  He eventually taught himself to jump a five foot stock fence by ricocheting at an upward angle off of a nearby tree.  We saw him do this.  He grew to be larger than Heidi, but he remained her second in command.  His genteel upbringing and his gelding may have accounted for his slightly calmer behavior.  He was every bit as funny as Heidi, but far less manic.

 

Owning a goat will not only make you question the laws of physics, but also your Judeo-Christian upbringing. Goats are scary smart, while sheep are famously dumb.  Sheep are easily frightened and seem unable to act independently.   Goats are exuberant, funny, brave, and very independent.  They have big personalities.  Sheep can literally get stuck if they fall over and then die within hours because they cannot right themselves.  This is called being “cast.”  Goats are survivors.

 

Why are sheep the ideal biblical metaphor for God’s people while goats are so often portrayed as demonic or devilish?  Goats express a fierce joy in daily living and a will to survive that is incredibly inspiring.  They make us laugh and they love us .  Are they sometimes a little devilish?  Well, yes.  But I’d still rather be a goat than a sheep.

 

With the goats came worming, never-ending fence repairs and trips to the farm store for straw bales and sweet feed in 50 lb. bags.  The goat barn had to be mucked out and fresh straw put down.  The goats had to have their toenails trimmed.  Our lives were getting ever more farmy.  Our friends begin to include “They have goats!” as part of our introduction to other people.  We pose with the children and the goats for a Christmas card photo but find it too hard to control two excitable toddlers, two excited goats and one remote camera.  We use a photo of ourselves on the tractor instead.

 

 

Farm family on tractor
Christmas card