Free Goats – Mid July update

21 Jul
Mid July update: the goats are doing well and there is a brown baby not visible in this shot.

Last fall, my husband and I were driving up to Wolf Laurel in Madison County, North Carolina, to a post-Thanksgiving gathering. Around a bend in the road we encountered a group of five small goats—four white and one black—running in our path. “Whose are you guys?” I mused while shooting a short video of them. The goats, who were wearing bright red collars, leapt off the road, trotted up a hill and disappeared into the forested landscape as we passed by. Later, one of our group said they thought these particular goats belonged to someone in the area, and perhaps had gotten loose. 

Although goats are often “kept” by people for their milk, meat, fur and skins—or even just as pets—their cloven-hooved ancestors once roamed free. Today’s common goat is probably descended from a beast called the bezoar ibex—a wild bovid that still clambers around the rocks in certain parts of the Middle East and likely dates back to the prehistoric period; the earliest known remains of goats were found in Iran. Capra aegagrus hircus was one of first animals to be domesticated by humans about 9,000 years ago when Neolithic farmers started herding them for their milk and meat, and to use their dung for fuel. 

Goats are extremely gregarious social animals and love to be with others of their kind or with any other animal so as to form a hierarchy and structure within which to carry out their complex and often humorous shenanigans. They possess high intelligence, are extremely aware of even minor changes in their routine or surroundings, and have an astounding memory. I know because, once upon a time, I had three goats. 

Back in the early 1990s, I had a job at a newspaper and lived in a rambling old farmhouse between Winchester and Lexington, Kentucky. I shared this well-preserved turn-of-the-century manor with several roommates, each of whom had his or her own large room and fireplace; we heated with wood and propane. Maybe it was over-zealous joy at having my own cool pad in the country or maybe I wanted to make life more complex than it needed to be: I’m not sure how it started, but a got a yen for goats. I found and bought three young kids—two brown males and a white female—for a very modest price, carrying them home in the back of my teal Geo Metro; they were so small, it was a perfect fit. Being an English major, I named them Virgil, Dante and Lysistrata—those of you with the interest can probably discern why. When it was time to take the two males to be castrated, the vet at first was going to perform this necessary act sans any anesthesia, as was the typical practice for livestock. But I insisted these were pets, and deserving of any decency due a cat or dog.

A couple of seasons were spent delighting in the goats and their cavorting antics. They loved to “dance” with me by jumping towards me with their stubby horns and butting up against my hips. It seemed to be their form of a hug. We fed them hay and sweet feed from Southern States and they frolicked in a large fenced-in area inside which a large pink doghouse-like enclosure served as both shelter and jungle gym. I cannot remember why it was pink; maybe that was a paint color from one of the rooms and we had some to spare. What I do recall is that the goats’ primary pastime was escaping the fence—which had actually been built by some farmer, years back, and was now vulnerable to the goats’ tenacious ingenuity at many junctures. Sometimes we would come home to find “the goaters” nibbling smugly on the plastic that we had painstakingly used to cover the farmhouse windows for warmth during winter; other times we would find them skipping and capering through our vain attempt at a vegetable garden, having ravaged the freshly grown lettuce, beans, corn and potatoes. They never really wanted to go far, but they did want to use their smarts to sassily obtain their freedom. They wanted to frisk, gambol and romp their way to exercising free will. 

After what I realize now was probably only a few months of this, it became clear that my three prancing critters named for literary legends would be happier and better cared for on an actual farm than at a farmhouse full of young writers, designers, teachers and social workers who were gone all day and didn’t know the first thing about making a goat-proof fence. So I loaded the now much larger goaters up, bleating and baaing, into the Geo Metro and drove them about 20 miles to my good friend’s well-fenced acreage on Wills-Rupard Road in the community of Trapp, near where I had grown up. Here they were welcomed into a complex social structure that included cattle, horses, mules, pigs and a family of other goats. The addition of Virgil, Dante and Lissie brought the herd to a dozen goats in all; we adoringly referred to them as the twelve disciples. 

Any time I visited them, although they hadn’t seen me in years, my goats would recognize me as soon as I got out of my vehicle—even when I had graduated to a Toyota RAV4—and would greet me enthusiastically with plaintive baas and hip butts. It was great fun to go visit them and all the other farm animals my friend kept in her care. A few years into the goats’ tenure there, a pack of coyotes attacked and killed half the Wills-Rupard herd, leaving only hooves, horns, beards and a few other select pieces behind. My three goats, who were now some of the larger and stronger members of the group, made it through this natural atrocity physically unscathed, yet apparently emotionally shaken from the trauma of seeing their comrades slaughtered. 

Over the years, as I traveled farther from home, my visits grew less and less frequent, but I always knew the goats were in good hands, and eagerly absorbed any news about them. Years later, Virgil, who had grown the longest horns, died suddenly of unknown causes in his teens; the vet said it was possibly a heart attack. Both Dante and Lissie lived into their 20s; Dante, who for some reason grew only nubs for horns, finally passed away only a few years back. 

Not long ago, my husband and I were traveling Highway I-26 from our home in Flag Pond, Tennessee, down to Asheville. Climbing up the mountain to what’s known as Sam’s Gap, we spotted some color and movement on a field adjacent to a runaway truck ramp. Three white and one black furry bodies basking in the sunlight and dining on green grass: It was the Wolf Laurel goats! They were missing one of their white cohorts, but these four still sported their red collars and looked healthy and happy. 

We’ve been seeing them up there for almost a month now, living on their own, not near any shepherding caretakers or fenced lands. Sometimes during the day they are grazing the open field, but early in the morning or closer to nightfall, they can be seen high up in the rocky outcrops and out on the dizzying precipices of the high-elevation pass, acting like true mountain goats. 

However wonderfully they may have been treated by the humans who kept them in the past, the Wolf Laurel goats followed their instincts and their intellects and chose a home on their own. They took risks to get there, crossing several miles of various properties, and losing one of their herd mates, which I know is a painful thing for them. No one knows exactly how far they traveled or how many roads they may have crossed. But they are doing what they want to do. No longer burdened by the perpetual desire to be escape artists, they are fending for themselves, living the life they choose—at whatever cost, for however long. 

Early in the morning, sometimes late at night, I wonder about their fate. How long can these rogue goats keep up their tenuous livelihood on the edge of the cliff beside a busy highway? I expect to one day find some disaster has befallen them. But I delight to know that, at least for now, they are free.


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5 Responses to “Free Goats – Mid July update”

  1. Loretta D. Melancon March 24, 2019 at 9:28 am #

    As always, Frances, your stories take me “right there” in the moment. Goats have brought much joy into my life both here in NC at a friend’s farm and on our son’s farm in Sonoma, CA. Hugs of love to you and John!

    • Frances Figart March 25, 2019 at 5:18 pm #

      Thanks, Loretta! It’s always great to hear from you! Come and visit.

  2. artistwithcamera March 24, 2019 at 6:23 pm #

    Great story. I didn’t know you had goats. Lib and I helped deliver one kinda for one of our neighbors.

    Joye Ardyn Durham http://www.artistwithcamera.com

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Frances Figart March 24, 2019 at 6:31 pm #

      There’s so much we don’t know about each other, isn’t there? (Extra points if you know what film that’s from.)

  3. Tammy Lee Adcock August 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm #

    I’ve been seeing the goats over the last week my family thought I was crazy. I had only seen the black one until today I seen the others as well.

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