I’ve seen it happen to the sanest people. They buy an acre or two, or merely get a place with a decent-sized backyard in a town with lax zoning, and after a drink and a trip along the Internet highway, all hell breaks loose. One day, they’re sitting on the back porch happily. Then someone says, “The grass is getting kind of long.”
The only proper responses to this statement are: a) to get the mower or b) to begin referring to the yard as “the meadow,” sow wildflower seeds, and pour another drink. Instead, someone invariably says, “We should get a goat.”
Another sangria and three clicks later, the formerly goat-free family is now in the livestock business.
I’ve heard it many times. “We’re going to get a goat. Just for a pet.” Then someone adds, “maybe two goats, so they won’t be lonely.” And the next person chimes in, “well, we had talked about wanting the milk, too…”
Goats are gateway livestock. The transition from interest to addiction is insidious and surprisingly rapid.
Goats are amusing looking, playful, curious, and make entertaining sounds. Some of them also come in sizes that are reasonably back-yard compatible. These traits make them compelling as pets.
However, goats do not see themselves in the role of “pet." The average goat (much like the average cat) sees herself in the role of “Supreme Diva and Queen of the Known Universe.” Like cats, goats prefer to interact with the world on their own terms. Also like with cats, this preference manifests in a desire to crawl into and/or eat anything you wish them to leave alone, and to venture nowhere near anywhere you want them. In another weird feline parallel, goats can seemingly melt their bones at will in order to fit through impossible spaces. As a goat-ranching client of mine once told me, “If you can pour water through it, a goat can fit through.”
Before you pour that next drink and boot up your computer to seek caprine companionship, consider the following:
1. Location, location, location: Real estate is everything when it comes to livestock. How much property do you have? How much of that property can be reasonably taken over by goats (and they WILL take over)? What sort of fencing do you have? Keep the aforementioned “pouring water” rule of thumb in mind. Can you provide shade from the heat and at least a three-sided shed for wind/rain/snow shelter? What are your local zoning laws? Or, how much do your neighbors like you? Goats may be cute, but they are not shy about speaking their minds, a characteristic that makes concealing them a bit like hiding a drunken opera diva.
2. I don’t care what anyone says; Size Does Matter: Goats come in three basic styles – small, dairy, and meat. Each category has its own quirks and benefits.
a. Small – pygmy and dwarf breeds fall into this category. Pygmy goats are the smaller of the two types, and generally resemble furry footballs with legs, ears, and a tail. Breeds such as the Nigerian dwarf are larger and look more like mobile ottomans. These are the most common “gateway” goats since they are the only livestock breeds allowed to be used as project animals by younger 4-Hers. These critters are adorable, fluffy, and don’t take up a ton of space. However, should you fall victim to the “Oh, we should breed her, let her have babies, and milk her” fantasy, you may watch your bank account take a long walk off of a short pier. Smaller breed goats, much like small breed dogs, tend to give birth to offspring that are disproportionate in size to the hole from which the offspring are expected by nature to exit. Short version: save money for a 2 a.m. goat C-section.
b. Milk – (aka dairy goats) When you think dairy goat, think Heidi. In fact, dairy goat breeds tend to have Heidi-esque names such as “Alpine,” “Toggenburg,” “Saanen,” “Oberhasli,” and “La Mancha” (Ok, that last is more Quixotic than Heidi-esque) and “Nubians” fall into another continent altogether, but you get the point. Dairy goats have been selected over time for – suspenseful drum roll – milk production! This means that the dairy goat metabolism says “Hey look, a calorie! Cool, send it to the udder.” As a result, dairy goats tend to be lean and angular – if you enter a wrestling match with one, presumably with the desired end result of administering a vaccine or medication, you will find that dairy goats are pretty much nothing but a moving, squawking assortment of pointy angles and edges. As a rule, vaccines aside, dairy breeds tend to be fairly human friendly. However, since they can weigh over 100 pounds, owning one is rather like having a very large, hooved dog with the climbing abilities and curiosity of a cat.
c. Meat – Goats may be comical and cute, but they are also quite tasty. Since goat is a popular alternative to beef or lamb in a number of cultures – for reasons of religion or resource efficiency – it follows that certain breeds have been selected for the muscle mass that makes them ideal for dinner. In the U.S., the most popular meat goat breed is by far the Boer. Do not be led astray by the floppy ears and whimsically Roman nose – these guys are pure muscle. Full grown bucks can push 300 pounds and pretty much have their way with fences, humans, and small cities. Despite their Terminator-like stature, I’ve generally found Boer goats to be pretty easy-going as long as you aren’t trying to get them to actually go anywhere.
After all of this, you may think that I am anti-goat. Not at all – some of my best patients have been goats. However, I am anti-lack-of-goat-preparation. If you are contemplating a caprine commune, do your research. Find a local veterinarian with goat experience. Research proper feeds for your type of goat and your area. Learn about necessary vaccines and effective deworming strategies for your region. Build your facilities before bringing in the goats. If you plan to milk your goats, research proper milking hygiene and pasteurization. (Don’t get me started on the risks of raw milk. That, as they say, is another story.) Budget. Remember that you are acquiring live animals, not just four-legged lawnmowers.
Anything else really gets my goat.