Twelve years ago next month, I published a blog about the death of our goat Sophia entitled “Goats and Grief.” There is seldom a day that that blog is not read, and usually at least two or three times. I have been curious why this blog, among the hundreds of others I have written over the last 12 years, has been the most popular. People love or hate goats. That may be part of it.
But I suspect the title holds the key. Animals break open our hearts in ways that bring us to our knees. Through our love of our animal companions, are we becoming more attuned to the sentience of the non-human world? The world is so alive, so mysterious! I think we long for this connection with the animating spirit of the world, whether that is in the body of a goat or an ancient oak. That awareness is especially important now as we face our treatment of the natural world in this time of great climatic change.
Here I reprint “Goats and Grief.” It begins and ends with two poems about beloved goat companions, both poems part of a series called “Meditation at First Light.”
She didn’t grow
her winter coat.
Nothing we could do.
Our veterinarian told us that goats grieve deeply after we lost four within a few months.
First, there was Natalie, 14 1/2 years, old by any goat standards, although I had high hopes that she would make 18. But we made a terrible mistake in allowing our vineyard manager to bring a couple of horned pygmies, or “devil goats” as we came to call them.
These “devils” had been attacked and mauled by dogs. We naively gave them a new home before the dogs returned to finish them off. Almost immediately, the two new goats set out to kill Natalie, certain, I suspect, that she was a threat to their food supply and herd rank (Natalie was the queen goat). We were appalled when they used their huge, foot-long horns to roll Natalie on her back, a dangerous position for a goat. We separated the devils from the herd, but their work had been done. Natalie, already arthritic and in decline, died within a couple of weeks of their arrival. My scientific sister suggested that goats have a different idea of compassion, killing off those they perceive as not viable. Nevertheless, I could not forgive them and found another home for them.
After Natalie’s death, Boris became morose. It was clear that he, too, at age 14, would be passing on very soon. His body was also lean and boney, as often happens with the aged. I let him eat plums outside the goat pen at his own leisure, and two days before his death, he and I leaned against the barn door and shared an ice cream bar, one of his favorite things. Then he fell asleep, head on my heart, snoring loudly for 20 minutes. It was his goodbye. Two and a half weeks after Natalie’s death, Boris was gone as well.
Within a month, Toyon was strangled in a freak accident. We were all in shock, but none of us was more upset than Sophia. Sophia was Toyon’s mother. She was also the first goat I midwifed into this world, helping Natalie ease her into the world a decade before. In a two-month period, Sophia lost not only her mother but her daughter as well. Slowly over the next months, Sophia declined, also becoming boney. No amount of medical help or homeopathy could restore her will to live. It was then Claudia, our vet, made her pronouncement: “Goats grieve deeply.”
Attributing certain feeling states like grief, jealousy, or joy to animals is often condemned as anthropomorphism, based on the fallacy that only humans have feelings. Most humans with animal companions know this is simply untrue. Furthermore, animals offer an opening into feeling: an animal’s shorter life span means we cycle through the elation of birth, the joy of companionship, and then the loss when we have to let them go, and we do this over and over if we have the good fortune of having a relationship with more than one animal. We are afforded the “opportunity” to grieve and stay open-hearted to the living. This is an important task, one that also can repair early attachment wounds.
But animals also offer a bridge into the non-human world. Goats form strong social relationships within the herd. They do not do well farmed “industrially,” thriving only if they have consistent caretakers they accept as part of the herd(1).
At night when I enter the barn, I find the goats sleeping in their family groups: These days, it is Gaviota with Dasher and Valley, Lily with Petunia and Boey, but in earlier days, I’d find Natalie with her newest kids, beside Sophia and Toyon. When Boris became jealous and hurt (yes, goats are very prone to hurt and jealousy!) when Natalie kidded, he tended to sleep with Racu, the llama, also a male. He became best friends with Anna, Sophia’s twin sister’s kid. When Anna’s mother died of a sudden digestive condition, I was away. When I returned two days later, Anna and her brother, then three years old, met me at the gate, both leaning their foreheads hard against my leg for comfort, something they seldom did. We all grieved together.
In becoming aware of these goat friendships and attachments, I have become more sensitive to the non-human world. Goats are sentient beings. My care for them is based on that fact.
One estimate says there are probably as many as 700 million goats in the world, most in the Middle East and Asia (2). While it is beyond me to imagine my own goats as meat, I know goats are an important source of sustenance for many of the world’s people. In Ireland, they were called “the poor man’s cow.” They can subsist on many terrains other animals cannot, and they take less room. They are also one of the earliest domesticated animals, although, left untended, they return to the wild quite easily, something untrue of most domestic animals.
What if, like the so-called primitive, we honored the animal we kill for meat, recognizing it as a sentient being with, yes, emotional and psychological needs? Animals open our hearts if we let them. What violence do we do to even our own souls in allowing animals to be taken from their mothers at birth and raised in feedlots with food not meant for their digestive systems? Our life depends on killing plants and animals for food. What does it mean that our killing is done by others, out of our sight, and almost always inhumane?
To hold that the animal we eat is a sentient being opens the issue that sentient beings, including humans, are a part of the food chain. Our physical bodies are meant to nourish the earth, including other animals. We are not “above” this.
I hold this knowledge each early morning I greet the goats as they wait impatiently to be fed. They have bestowed upon me the gift of membership to the herd, and I follow the rules. Always pet Agaleah, the current queen goat, first, then Gaviota, then Lily. When we walk, I pay attention. Agaleah and I share the lead, but it is also my job not to let the stragglers, always Lily and Star, fall behind. There are coyotes and mountain lions; the herd is safety.
This “goat walk” is one of my favorite times of the day. Goats are fun-loving. They leap onto steep banks, chasing each other through the forest edge. The pygmies slide down hills on their bellies. For me, they are also a natural anti-depressant.
When it is time for them to pass from this world, I, too, will grieve deeply, grateful for their lives and for mine. It is their parting gift.
Poem on the Grave of an Old Goat
You have become wild
strawberries and poison oak,
you always loved.
1 Pat Coleby, Natural Goat Care. (Austin, TX: Acres USA, 2001),116