The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Notes And Comments

For the Love of Goats

Matthew Denton-Edmundson

Elaine Caron, COMPTON, QC/Canada photograph

Cats, dogs...or goats?

The world is divided, as we all know, between lovers of dogs and lovers of cats. Most of us prefer one or the other’s company; we lap up the canine’s devotion or take keen pleasure in the feline’s detached elegance. Dog lovers like parceling out rewards of affection and treats as they see fit. They love knowing better and knowing more, and what they often desire most in a dog is a sidekick. Cat lovers, by contrast, love being around an animal they never truly own, one they can’t quite control or manipulate or even really understand. Cat lovers are comfortable with the mysteries of nature in a way most dog lovers aren’t.

So, where do you fall on a spectrum from crazy cat person to domineering German shepherd trainer? For the sake of self-knowledge, it’s a question we all might profitably ask ourselves.

And to all who answer, like me, by saying they like both, I suggest there might be another, possibly more revealing, answer: “Goats. Our kind likes goats even more.”


A goat possesses attributes of both cat and dog. That is, goats engage the two parts of us that long—in conflictingly equal measure—to dominate and be dominated, to know everything and to bask in mystery. In the Old Testament, the domesticated goat is a symbol of man’s dominion over the animals, and also—by its use as a sacrificial animal—of man’s subservience to God. In Buddhist and Confucian texts, most notably in the essential Confucian work the Lunyu, goats are the center of a debate about ritual and compassion. And though their blood makes a particularly fit offering to one’s ancestors, there’s grave risk in showing anything but kindness to a goat, Chuan Cheng relates in Ethical Treatment of Animals in Early Chinese Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices. In the Divyavadana, writes Andy Rotman in Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna, Buddhists are counseled that a man who sacrifices a goat is reincarnated over and over as that goat, to be sacrificed hundreds of times. (Goats were domesticated by Homo sapiens perhaps as long as 11,000 years ago—around the same time as cats.) It is unclear if the Greek word for tragedy, tragōidia, which literally means “goat-song,” derives from the practice of goats being offered as rewards at performances, as Horace suggests, or from the fact that the Greeks saw the animal as embodying the tragic ethos, as Aristotle claims. Perhaps it derives from both.

A domesticated goat will beg for its food the way a dog does. We have a herd of dairy goats on the southwestern Virginia farm where I live and work. When I walk into the barn in the morning, they are already lowing for their grain, and when the dog (a Great Pyrenees, their guardian) gets fed first, they look at me piteously from over the stall door, sometimes whimpering. They seem to be as dependent on us as any dog is on its master. I can walk out into the field at any time during the day and call, and no matter how far they have roamed, they will come clippity-clopping and press their noses into my side, wanting to be scratched in the sweet spot where the neck meets the shoulder.

When I was growing up, my family had a dog that was an absurd mix of a dachshund and a border collie, who thought himself a handsome and noble beast. We always got a good laugh out of watching him strike poses—chest thrust forward, head high, belly almost touching the grass. I get from goats, albeit in smaller doses, the same pleasure my family got from that dog. Playful goats will clamber confidently onto a plastic barrel only to have one hoof slip and go whirling down to the ground. While one is being milked, the others stick their long necks under the stall door and work their lips in gestures of helpless frustration. If the gods didn’t laugh at human folly with the same knowing pleasure with which I laugh at a goat’s clumsiness, I’d be very surprised. Then, too, goats can be nearly as companionable as dogs—we’ve taken ours on numerous hikes, and they always follow faithfully behind. There are books dedicated to training goats to carry packs and pull children’s carts, just as there are ones on training dogs to pull sleds. People care for goats as if they were their own children, bringing the newborns into the house to bottle-feed and dote on as they would a puppy. In Goat Song, Brad Kessler describes goats outside the Indian city of Jaisalmer, wandering in herds during the day, searching for grass and shrubs, then splitting up at night, each animal returning to its owner’s home to be milked and fed and bedded.

I suspect that the part of us that loves dogs and loves owning goats is itself domestic; we take comfort in knowing we are safe, that we have ensured that our loved ones and our animals are safe and at ease, that everything is perfectly under (our) control. The cornucopia, the horn of plenty—a symbol of lush domesticity—is a goat horn filled with nature’s bounty, set out for human enjoyment. It is the broken horn of the she-goat goddess Amalthea, who protected and nurtured the infant Zeus. It represents the highest hope of farmers for their homes and families. Every day I feel this hope strongly, and work doggedly to fulfill it.

But there is another side of goats—something otherworldly, that can’t be bred or trained away. A dog’s eye is much like a human’s, the pupil expanding and contracting but always remaining circular. But both cats and goats have pupils that contract into ellipses or rectangles; the shape is horizontal in a goat’s sclera and vertical in a cat’s. The slitting in both cases helps the animals filter out bright light that would otherwise overwhelm an ocular organ adapted to see in the dark. There is something a little unsettling about creatures that are able to observe obscure goings-on that we others can only imagine. Both goats and cats are acquainted, I imagine, with the uncertain forms we occasionally glimpse flickering just beyond the cone of the car’s headlights as we round a corner on a country night. People who have spent a long time around goats know that they have an air of ancient knowledge about them. Now and then, for reasons known only to themselves, they will refuse a scratch or a treat and turn one eye to look into the distance toward the mountaintops or an oncoming storm, or into the starry night.

Much has been written about male goats, notably about the expressiveness of their desire. Both does and bucks come into heat only briefly every fall, but when they do, they turn from docile, obedient creatures into unruly fiends. The bucks develop a distinctive sweet fermenting odor. Presented with a doe, they’ll lift their upper lip over their top teeth, turn to the sky like a tiger snarling at the moon, and bellow, rearing and then hoofing at the ground. Watching this performance, we understand why goats have long been seen as symbols of the demonic. Though the goat’s moves and noises may appear absurd, the intensity of its desire produces more uneasiness than mirth in most human spectators. The Greeks often cast male goats and satyrs as comedic figures in the tragedies, but there was always a hint of menace behind their antic capering. Dionysus’s band of satyrs were always wandering and pursuing, never content with the same partner two nights in a row. Sometimes they gave into fits of drunkenness or violence. They were ruled not by their heads but by their reproductive organs and instincts—supreme forces of untamable nature.

Goats, like cats, are closer to nature than most domesticated animals, both species going feral more easily than domesticated dogs, which are rarely able to acclimate to life in the wild. Appalachia is full of stories of escaped goats living on cliffs. There is a billy goat on House Mountain, just an hour’s drive north of Roanoke, where I live. Another is rumored to live on a cliff above the James River not ten minutes from my house, though I’ve never seen him. Recently, the Park Service spent several weeks rounding up a band of Boer goats that were roaming along the verges of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Years ago, I worked in the wildlands of New Mexico on a farm where forty-five goats were let out each morning to roam several thousand acres. When the moon was full, they’d stay out all night, sometimes for several nights in a row, indulging their wilder instincts before returning as if nothing had happened.

So what have goats taught me about myself? About other human beings?

Goats are animals best owned by the ambivalent. By people who are enthralled with the natural world on its own terms, who enjoy its rawness and its mystery, but who also want—contrarily, even perversely—to assert control over nature, who take pleasure in ownership perhaps more than they’d readily admit, who enjoy domesticity despite themselves, who are discomfited by uncertainty and fortified by knowledge. Those possessed by this strange constellation of desires elude class or type. That is why you’ll find suburban moms who dote on their Lamancha’s “gopher ears,” New Age farmers who supplement their herd’s diet with bacteria-fighting colloidal silver, poor rural folk who breed pedigree Nubians and feed their animals top-notch organic feed, a Vietnam vet who simply enjoys the animals’ company, a high school chemistry teacher who keeps goats in his backyard because that’s what he’s always done. But despite such apparent differences, I’ve always known there was something we goat owners all had in common. “Don’t romanticize goat ownership,” advise Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal in the Essential Urban Farmer. “Goat ownership is not for everyone.” Goat people are a weird bunch, a ragtag crew. Our needs and desires are conflicting and contradictory, as unstraightforward as they come. In this sense, perhaps we’re simply victims of an all-too-human condition. But we’re also luckier than most: Our animals reflect, express, and, in the best of moments, satisfy our mixed impulses.

And the only thing better than that, perhaps, is a glass of fresh goat’s milk on a brisk autumn day.