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.
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 goat barn at the Great Frederick 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.
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 the 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 playset 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.