In addition to my previously mentioned career in burlesque, I also used to make my living raising the internet’s second favorite animal, a ruminant quadruped that gives us milk, meat, fiber, and hilarious videos. Legend has it they also discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, cataract surgery, and coffee. They can climb seemingly impossible heights and escape every kind of fence mankind has invented. They feature in the zodiac and the mythologies of most of the world.
Goats and humans have a long and productive history together. They were first domesticated some 11,000 years ago in the Near East, one of our earliest livestock species, as we transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture-based societies. There are approximately 500 million goats in the world, of which China has 170 million. Much of the worldwide goat population is in the developing world. Bonus fact right off the bat: Developing nation is the preferred term over third world country. For starters, third world was a reference to a country’s alignment, or lack thereof, during the Cold War, with the US and capitalistic nations being the first world and the eastern bloc nations being the second world. The largest importer of goats is the U.S. and the largest exporter of goats is Australia.
Goats do well in almost any environment and really outpace cow and sheep when it comes to desert climates, which is probably why the 3 million goats in the US are heavily concentrated in the Southwest, in Texas in particular. Edwards County, TX boasts 46k goats and less than 2,000 people in its 2,100 square miles. That’s roughly one person per square mile and 22 goats. Nearly 80% of America’s non-pet goats are raised for meat, 15% are raised for milk, with the remaining 5% raised for their coats.
Goats were on some of the first boats to reach North America from Europe, not only to set up shop in the New World, but as a compact and productive source of milk and meat along the way. By 1630, a Jamestown census listed goats as one of that colony’s most valuable possessions. The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis helped their popularity to soar. The fair was host to the first dairy goat show in America as well as an exhibit featuring 300 Angora goats, the most ever shown at one time. With their heavy coats of curly mohair, the Angoras drew swarms of fans to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and increased national recognition for the breed. Among the many pets that populated the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s time in office were two goats, Nanny and Nanko. They were particularly beloved by Lincoln’s son, Tad, who even used them for chariot rides around the White House. And Nanny and Nanko are easier to pronounce than Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, which you’ll hear more about later.
Speaking of Nanny, “nanny” is the casual name for a doe or adult female goat. The doe in charge of the herd is the herd queen. Males are called colloquially a billy and professionally a buck, unless he’s been castrated, in which case he’s a wether. A baby goat is called a kid, which is no surprise if you’ve see how they run and jump around making noise and bad smells. According to my friend Brisky at Turn of Phrases podcast, goats were “kids” about 300 years before human children were. The act of giving birth is called, no joke, kidding. Young goats can also be called bucklings and doelings. As the doe begins to give milk after giving birth, that’s called freshening. A group of goats can also be called a flock, trip, or tribe, but you remember that from our episodes on things you didn’t know had names, entitled Lunules, Tittles and Barms, Oh My. Both male and female goats can have horns and beards, though a certain percentage of goats are genetically hornless. Speaking of being horny, goats come by that reputation honestly. Male goats can breed as early as 4 months old, and females at 7 months old. Their gestation period 5 months. Does usually have one kid in their first freshening. From year two on, twins are more common, but they’re as likely to drop triplets as a single. Twins make sense since goats have two teats.
Goats generally live 8 to 12 years. There are over 200 recognized breeds of goats around the world, though there are only a dozen or so breeds to be found in the US. Goat size varies based on their breed, with meat goats being heavier than dairy goats. Females can range from 22 to 300 pounds with males ranging slightly larger at 27 to 380 pounds. That was one of the reasons I raised goats instead of cows. I could move a 100 lb goat where I wanted it to go; a 1,000 lb cow, not so much.
Goats much prefer “browse” (leaves of woody plants) to grass. If you are buying a goat to eat grass, you will probably be disappointed as they will only eat this in large quantities if there is no other food available. They really seem to prefer to eat things that are on eye level. Goats will eat all your shrubs before they touch your lawn. They’re not only willing to eat thorny bushes (like my roses, right down to the ground), but they seem to actually like it. That’s odd when you consider that goats have no top teeth in the front. Instead, they just have a strong dental pad. They also have quite dextrous lips to help them grasp their food.
There’s an old adage, where the goats go, the desert follows, and truer words have never been spoken. Being browsers with a wide diet, no plant is safe from them. If I ran down the list of things I planted that my goats destroyed, we’d be here all day. They are happy to eat invasive species, like kudzu, that threaten to squeeze out native plants. They also help to keep wildfires at bay with their multi-chambered stomachs. The California Department of Forestry and Fire reported the number of acres damaged by wildfires increased by 60% from 2015 to 2016, and it’s only getting worse. The goats can’t do anything about droughts brought on by climate change or careless humans with their cigarettes and untended campfires. Where they come into play is clearing dry vegetation near structures, forming a fire break that would normally require machinery to dig trenches or bulldoze the area or, ironically, a controlled burn. Some of the major industries using the contract grazing today include real estate developers, vineyards and solar energy companies that need to remove plants as not only fire fuel by from blocking solar panels. The Ventura County Fire Department even used a flock of 400 goats to remove grass around below the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Goat are safer to use than machinery for cleaning firebreaks; a stray rocked kicked up by a wheel or tread could create the spark that lights the dry grass the machine is supposed to be clearing. Goats don’t make sparks, plus they’re more carbon-neutral and leave behind, let’s call it, soil enrichment.
There are any other number of anatomical peculiarities with goats. The best well-known of these is probably their eyes, which look more like they belong on Kermit the frog than a farm animals. Along with those of the octopus, goat pupils are rectangular. Goats are thought to have excellent night vision and can often be found browsing at night. This unusual shape, shared by sheep and several other ungulates, or hoofed animals, gives them a fuller range of vision than humans and other animals with round pupils. They can see nearly 320 degrees around them, everywhere but where their horns are, which is useful in avoiding predators. The drawback to the flattened pupil is that goats are unable to look up or down without moving their heads.
The eyes of goats feature in an apocryphal tale of medical discovery. In the adventures of Sinbad the sailor, the people of a particular island related to him how goats who had gone blind could cure themselves by rubbing their faces through thorn bushes. Sinbad watched the goats so this and found they were rubbing their eyes directly on the thorns. But why? How could such a cringe-inducing act be beneficial? The cause of their blindness was an opaque body on the lens of the eye, what we know as a cataract. The only remedy for cataracts at that time was basically what they goats did for themselves, excising the cataract or at least poking a hole over the center of the pupil to restore. Sinbad also reported that some goats would later lose their eye completely to infection, so maybe skip this particular home remedy when grandma’s eyesight starts to go. Even in modern times, goat eyes still pop up in the topic of cataract surgery. Seva, a Canadian charity whose mission is to “restore sight and prevent blindness in the developing world,” sometimes hits a roadblock of misconceptions in their patients. Many people are reluctant to accept surgery because they’ve been told the surgeon will replace their eye with that of a goat. The other common belief is that the surgeon will take your eye out and work on it on a table, like a small engine mechanic, before putting it back in. You can see where that would be off-putting to a person.
Goats are also ruminants, meaning they have a special four-chambered stomach helps them digest tough roughage like grass and hay. Food enters the rumen first and then passes to the honeycombed reticulum where non-digestible objects are separated out. In the omasum chamber, water is removed from the food before it finally enters the “true” stomach, the abomasums. The umbrella of ruminants includes sheep, deer, cows, bison and even giraffes, Ibex, and antelopes. While they have a diet as wide as they food available, goats DO NOT eat tin cans or garbage. This old-fashioned cartoon trope comes from goats eating the paper label from the can. They can actually be surprisingly picky eaters. Don’t believe me? Try getting their bagged feed from a different feed store. They won’t touch it.
Throughout the world, it is estimated that more people eat goat meat and drink goat milk than any other animal, even including cows and chickens. In fact, it is estimated that 72% of the world’s milk consumption is from goats. It’s naturally homogenized. Milk is about 80% water and 20% stuff, like butterfat, proteins and sugars. Homogenized means all that stuff stays evenly distributed and doesn’t separate into layers like cream rising in cow’s milk. Its fats are also quite small, a fifth the size of that in cow milk, making it easier to digest, even for people who are lactose intolerant. The taste of goat’s milk is nearly indistinguishable from cow’s milk. The flavor comes more from the animal’s diet and the cleanliness of the milking parlor than from the species. Goat milk is fairly similar in nutrients to cow’s milk, though it’s higher in calcium and vitamin A.
Goat meat is called chevon or cabrito and is popular in cuisines throughout the world, from jerked in the Caribbean to curry in India, from roasts in the middle east to stews in Africa. One reason for this is that, like lamb, no religion that allows eating meat prohibits practitioners from eating goat meat. Cabrito is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork and even chicken. Goat meat also contains higher potassium content with lower sodium levels. I’ve never had the chance to try it myself, but if you have a favorite recipe, post it on our social media.
The third major class of “professional” goat is fiber goats chiefly Cashmere and Angora. That incredibly soft and expensive cashmere sweater in your closet is made of the downy winter undercoat of goats. The process of hand separating the silky material from the goat’s wiry outer coat is time-consuming and labor-intensive, hence the cost. Also, it takes at least two goats to make every sweater, as each goat only produces about one pound of fleece per year. Compare that to the average of 7 pounds of wool a single sheep can produce. You get better production from the Angora goat, who gives us mohair. Mohair is one of the warmest fibers in the world. Angora goats produce about 4 pounds of fiber a year, because they can be shorn twice. Angora the fiber actually comes from rabbits. Unlike in dairy goats, the wethered male is the most valuable fiber goat. You will get the most fiber from a neutered male because the goat doesn’t have to use energy producing hormones and young. South Africa and the U.S. lead the way in worldwide mohair production, while China leads the way in worldwide cashmere production.
Meat, dairy, and fiber are the most popular uses for goats, but by no means the only ones. Goats are sometimes kept with racehorses as a companion animal. This is thought to have a calming effect on the horse as it provides the horse with company. The term “Get your goat” is rumored to have originated from the practice of stealing the companion goat so the racehorse would get stressed out and do poorly. The evidence for this is clunky at best, but the practice of keeping goats with horses is good for the goats too. They are herd animals and need a family unit of some kind. When people would tell me their uncle or grandfather had a goat and it would chase and butt them, I would ask if it was kept alone; invariably it was. Goats in insolation can become so ornery that even their owner can’t get near them or so sad they just lay down and die. Luckily for them, though, goats will also readily accept animals of other species as long as their at least a little similar, like the horses. Goats can be trained to pull carts and carry packs. Since they are smaller than donkeys and horses, they are more maneuverable in thick brush or up steep inclines, and they cause less trail damage thanks to smaller hoofs. A trained “pack goat” can carry 30% of its weight in cargo.
When he’s not flying by dint of his mystical star-stuff hammer Mjolnir, the Norse god of thunder gets around on a chariot pulled by two goats. Tanngrisni and Tanngnost (Toothgnasher and Tooth-barer) are Thor’s companions, pulling his chariot, and intrestingly, providing him with sustenance while he trips. Tanngrisni and Tanngnost can be eaten, and as long as the bones are kept whole, a little wave of the hammer will bring them back alive and well again the next day to continue the journey. One legend tells of Thor staying overnight with a farmer and his family. Since the humble farmer could hardly be expected to satisfy Thor’s great appetite, Thor slaughtered his goats, instructing the family to save the bones on the goatskins next to the fire. However, the farmer’s son split one of the goat’s bone to get the marrow. When Thor woke the next day and set out, one of his resurrected goats was lame, and his wrath was only eased when the family gave him two of their children as his servants. Tannsrisni and Tanngnost aren’t the only goats to feature in Norse mythology. The goat Heidrun eats leaves from the world-tree Yggdrasil, which she converts into the mead that flows from her udders. This mead is what Odin and the fallen warriors of Valhalla drink.
Review: Choughtling – I’m hooked on this show! I love a very structured, informational podcast, so this is perfect for me. I’ve been listening to it at work and it makes data entry fly by (as much as data entry can fly by). CTA poll results
The most popular breed of goat on YouTube is one whose special characteristics are antithetical to working life and that’s fainting goats. These goats freeze up, go stiff as a board, and fall over when frightened or overstimulated, sometimes when at a full run. To say that the goats are fainting is a misnomer as the animals never actually lose consciousness. The proper name for the breed is Myotonic goats, but they are also called Tennessee fainting goats, stiff leg goats, and nervous goats. They get their name from a genetic condition called myotonia congenita, which causes their muscles to briefly stiffen after they are startled. Myotonia congenita is not unique to goats or livestock and can also affect human beings, though not as a response to fear.
Because myotonia congenita is a recessive gene, goats that are crossbred with other breeds typically do not display fainting behaviors. The breed is one of only a few types of goats native to North America and, as their name might indicate, they are commonly found in Tennessee and neighboring states in the South. While many are kept for their meat, some have escaped the chopping block by finding an appeal as pets. Theories abound as to why people would have intentionally perpetuated this strange trait in their herds. One obvious reason would be for amusement, but that would require the person breeding the goats isn’t trying to subsist on the animals or on income from them. The theory that sounds logical to this reporter is that the fainting goats were a minority in a herd of more normal animals. In the event that predators descended on the flock, the fainting goats would drop and your more valuable dairy or meat goats could get away.
The quantity of goats throughout the world means that they feature widely in myths and legends. The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Cephranes was said to have been buried with more than 2,000 goats, though that’s the only thing Google seems to know about him. In Greek mythology, the constellation of Capricorn is identified as Amalthea, who was interchangeably a goat or goat-tending nymph. Amalthea acted as a foster mother to Zeus when his mother Rhea stowed him away in the mountains of Crete to save him from being eaten by his father Cronos.
Legend said that as little Zeus played with Amalthea, he accidentally broke off one of her horns, which he then transformed into Cornucopia, the horn of plenty, which we use as a symbol of abundance to this day, usually in the form of Thanksgiving arts & crafts.
It is from goats that the Chinese city of Guangzhou gets its name. Long ago, the city, then called Chuting, was hit by a severe famine. People prayed day and night. Their piety eventually moved 5 celestial beings, so they descended from heaven riding five goats of different colors, and each of them brought an ear of grain. They gave the grain to people and blessed them that there should never be another famine. The city was renamed Guangzhou, meaning City of Five Goats, and had good weather for its crops every year. In order to commemorate those five celestial beings, people built Wuxian Temple at the place where those five celestial beings arrived and made their goats the symbol of Guangzhou. The Statue of the Five Goats was built in Yuexiou Park in 1959 and has attracted thousands of tourists through the years.
The most persistent legend involving goats is that they discovered one of mankind’s most important trappings, coffee. There is a popular Ethiopian legend wherein coffee is discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi, who found his goats frolicking and full of energy after eating the red fruit of the coffee shrub. Kaldi tried the fruit for himself and had a similar reaction. After witnessing their strange behavior, a monk took some of the fruit back to his fellow monks; they too spent the night awake and alert. Of course, they would have been reacting to coffee’s high dose of caffeine. While there’s no way to prove or disprove the story, it’s not so far-fetched as some animal-coffee links we have today. There are a number of coffee varieties made from beans that have first been eaten, and expelled, by an animals. The best well known is kopi luwak, for which the coffee fruits were eaten by the adorable Asian palm civet, and costs about $160/lb. If you’ve got even more money to burn, you can spend $500/lb on coffee that has been pooped out by an elephant. Though you would think that would be cheaper, what with economy of scale.
Goats factor twice in the story of the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1947, a Bedouin teenager named Mohammed found a cache of clay jars in a cave while he was tending his goats. Inside these jars were vellum and papyrus scrolls that were upwards of 2,000 years old. Dubbed the Dead Sea Scrolls, they were written between 150 BCE and 70 CE and remain the subject of scholarly debate to this day. The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments from every book of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther, written in multiple languages. The first step to analyzing the scrolls is to piece the fragile, fragmented parchments back together. How do goats help here? While about 15 complete or nearly complete scrolls having been translated, there are still thousands of thumbnail-sized fragments. The edges of these scraps are too decayed to allow them to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and the writing on them is limited to a few characters per fragment, so no help there. Science comes to the rescue with DNA testing. The texts were written on the skins of animals, such as goats, and amazingly they retain enough DNA for scholars to apply the DNA-typing technique. In the last six months Dr. Scott R. Woodward of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and his colleagues at Hebrew University in Jerusalem have extracted DNA without harming the scrolls, allowing scientists to identify not only the species but the herd and individual animal the parchment came from. When researchers are able to tell that two fragments came from the same animal hide, they know that they are part of the same passage, getting them that much closer to assembling the words.
In 1959, some fishermen released three goats on the island of Pinta in the Galapagos archipelago, so they could hunt them for food later, as an apparent back-up plan to their fishing. Goats’ reputation for lustiness is well-founded and within twenty years, three goats had turned into 40,000. Tens of thousands of goats on a 60 km/38 mi island meant cataclysmic destruction to the plant life. Goats were not native to Galapagos and they make awful island tenants, similar to rabbits, deer and wild pigs. Goats breed fast, have few known predators — none on Galapagos — and are indiscriminate eaters. On a chain of islands known for its delicate ecology, they threaten to ruin everything.Two decades later, and the population had swelled into six figures. Some goats had even swum to nearby islands and began breeding there. The situation got so dire that a massive, multi-agency project called Project Isabela had to be assembled. Their plan – platoons of goat-hunters scoured three islands, on foot and in helicopters. Logistically, this was no mean feat. According to Dr. Karl Campbell, the field manager who ran Project Isabela’s operations, “We had to bring helicopters, rifles, and munitions to one of the remotest parts of the world. This was a time when the U.S. State Dept. was trying to restrict that stuff anywhere near Colombia.”
After being shot, the carcasses of the goats were left to decompose. “It can be hard to see so many goats lying dead out there,” says Dr. Linda Cayot, science advisor for the Galapagos Conservancy. “But those goats were destroying the habitat of the tortoises. In my heart and mind are the tortoises.” Leaving the carcasses may seem wasteful or cruel, but the reasoning was sound. The goats had consumed valuable nutrients. Exporting their meat or cremating the carcasses would remove these nutrients from the island forever. “It could be very destructive, like removing 10,000 trees from a rainforest,” Campbell says. “Better to let the bodies decompose into the soil.” That being said, a certain number of goats *were eaten by the eradication team, but not many.
For Project Isabela to be considered a success, it required total eradication. “It took the same effort to get rid of the last 5 percent as it did for the first 95 percent,” says Cayot. To get rid of the stragglers, the team employed something called a “Judas goat.” Judas goats were sterilized and injected with hormones to make them permanently in estrus, or in heat, looking for a mate. The Judas goats were then set free around the islands, irresistible bait for the fugitive 5%. A major impediment to total goat removal is the residents of the islands. Some residents hunt goats for food and it’s been tough persuading them that the goats need to go. The goats have also become an odd form of bargaining chip. When local fishermen are displeased with government fishing regulation, they retaliated by releasing new goats on the islands out of spite.
PR can be tricky when the invasive species is cute. Some people like goat so much, they incorporate them into their fitness regimen. A farm in Oregon offers goat yoga. The idea came about when farm owner Lainey Morse was hosting a child birthday party and one of the moms suggested the farm would be a nice setting for yoga classes. Morse liked the idea, provided her goats could participate. It didn’t take long for word to spread and the waitlist for the novelty class grew. The goats don’t actually do yoga with you. If anything, they’re a cute distraction. As such, people enjoy it as a form of animal therapy, like horseback riding or swimming with dolphins. Naturally, other farms have seen Morse’s success and started goat yoga classes of their own. All I can say, to quote a friends of mine, “stop clapping, white people.” Having a goat with it’s hard little cloven hooves jump up on your back while you’re in downward dog will not feel good.
For a more laid-back goat interaction, if you’re in Tokyo, check out Sakuragaoka Cafe, where you can enjoy a light lunch and a cafe latte while petting goats named Chocolate and Sakura, which means cherry blossom. The goats live in a little wooden cabin, with a pink Himalayan salt lick. They get taken for walks by the staff; you can call and reserve your own walking session on Mondays and Wednesdays.
That’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. If you want the experience of goats without having to physically interact with goats, or even leave the house, there’s always Goat Simulator. Goat Simulator is a video game, explained by its creators as” a small, broken and stupid game. It was made in a couple of weeks so don’t expect a game in the size and scope of GTA with goats. In fact, you’re better off not expecting anything at all.” You control a goat in a small open-world, walking around and butting things, like people and gas canisters. It’s the sort of game the internet loves – easy, vacuous and and endless source of meme-able screenshots. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.