Goats Gone Wild: The World’s First Farm Animal

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Goats have provided humankind with essential products for centuries. They bear the noble distinction of being the first domesticated farm animal. From providing milk and meat for sustenance and fiber and hides for clothing and shelter to carrying packs and clearing brush, there isn’t much that goats cannot do.

Managing goats successfully requires an understanding of how nature designed them to thrive, including nutritional and psychological needs, as well as how to identify a problem and intercede before it’s too late. There is plenty to learn about the behavior of “the world’s first farm animal”.

Whether your herd is two or two hundred, Holistic Goat Care will help you keep your goats healthy, safe, and productive and give you a deep and enjoyable insight into this wondrous creature.

The following excerpt from Holistic Goat Care by Gianaclis Caldwell has been adapted for the web to give you an introduction to what kind of knowledge would be crucial in maintaining a happy, healthy, and productive herd.


Understanding Goats

Understanding an animal’s complete needs—including mental and physical requirements – is the basis for giving proper care. Although we humans often eagerly apply this holistic, whole-animal approach to our pets, we tend to treat livestock—hardworking farm animals—more one-dimensionally. It doesn’t help that goats, or caprines, have a reputation for being trouble-free in regard to feeding and housing, but troublesome in their behavior. (Indeed, the word capricious, which means “unpredictable and impulsive,” has at its root the word capra, meaning “goat.”) It’s a reputation that is sometimes upheld by reality and sometimes not. This stereotype, unfortunately, often leads people to put goats in situations where they don’t thrive and that might even lead to animal suffering, which also results in unhappy and unsuccessful goat owners.

Getting inside the psyche of goats is the best way to understand not only why they behave the way they do, but why you must be considerate of that when working with them. To help you understand the nature of goats, it’s revealing to learn about the ancestors of the modern goat—wild goats, which are the forebears of all domestic goats, and the first types of goats used as livestock. This includes understanding the historical habitat of the goat and the unusual ability of all goats, even today, to successfully return to a wild, feral state. It’s amazing that the diversity of today’s specialized caprine categories of meat, milk, and fiber goats all arose from a common ancestor. Goat psychology is important, too—being a small prey animal defines a goat’s behavior and reactions to situations including confinement, handling by humans, and herd dynamics. And each category of working goats faces specific health challenges.

The World’s First Farm Animal

Goats hold the title of “first livestock”: the first animals successfully raised for food, materials, and labor. The partnership between goats and humans began at least 100 centuries ago during Neolithic times, when humans also first began to grow crops. Humans tamed dogs even before that, but although many types of dogs are farm dogs, they aren’t considered livestock. Before working with goats, humans also tried to domesticate the elegant gazelle. Both gazelles and goats could provide meat and hides, but goats proved much easier to breed successfully in captivity. Sheep became a part of the Neolithic farm about 500 years after goats.

Historians agree that the manner in which humans first managed goats was similar to the way goats existed naturally before their domestication. The animals roamed and browsed over large areas of land in a rather arid climate where a diverse selection of shrubs and leafy plants abounded. Today when goats are allowed to forage freely over extensive acreage (this type of management is called extensive), they are usually at their best, because this style of management more closely resembles how nature and time tweaked their physiological functions for optimal health.

There are several species of wild goats, or ibex, still capriciously climbing and leaping in wild and remote areas of the world. These all belong to the genus Capra, the same as our modern domestic goat. However, the so-called Rocky Mountain goat of North America is not actually a goat; it’s part of the same family as cattle and antelope. Current research indicates that a single species from the genus Capra provided the genetics for our farm goats of today—the Bezoar ibex, or goat, Capra aegagrus.1 The domestic goat is considered a subspecies of the Bezoar; its scientific name is Capra aegagrus hircus. The magnificent Bezoar—whose males have horns that are proportionally (compared with body size) the longest of any living creature—can still be found roaming its native range throughout several countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe. If you’re a fan of ancient medicine or Harry Potter, you might know that a bezoar is a hard mass, or stone, formed in the stomach of goats and some other animals, that was believed to have the power to neutralize poisons. In the fictional world created by J. K. Rowling, unlike medieval medicine, bezoars actually worked.

The farming of plant crops combined with the ability to grow successive crops of animals allowed for the switch from what anthropologists refer to as a dead animal economy, in which animals are hunted or captured only for slaughter, to a live animal economy, in which animals are valued as mothers with the ability to create new generations and therefore the possibility of wealth, trade, and sustenance. Goats continue to provide these amazing assets for peoples throughout the world today.

The Development of Diversity

The Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science website lists and describes an amazing 81 breeds of domestic goats. (The site is well worth visiting and spending some time there enjoying the interesting variety of caprines throughout the world.) Many of these breeds are in danger of disappearing because of increased pressures on farmers to improve productivity; others are newly developed or revived.

How did the transformation from one uniformly standard wild goat, the Bezoar, to the incredible variety of goats today come about? The wild goat has erect ears; many domestic goats around the world have long, floppy ears. The Bezoar has distinctive horns that arch backward with a sharp edge; many domestic goats have spiraling horns. The Angora goat, a very ancient breed, has silky fleece. The Valais Blackneck goat of the Alps has a long skirted coat. Most domestic goats have amber-colored eyes, but some Nigerian Dwarf goats have blue eyes. The list of variations goes on. The impressive diversity seen in today’s goats is the result of two distinct factors: the forces of domestication and selective breeding by humans and the isolation of populations from the influence of humans and outside genetics.

Today close to 100 goat breeds are claimed across the globe.2 Most have developed relatively slowly thanks to the previously mentioned forces. Humans continue to develop new breeds by crossing goats of different breeds and then selecting offspring for the desired traits. In some cases breeders trademark the name of the newly developed breed, as is the case with the meat breeds Genemaster, TexMaster, and Tennessee Meat Goat. Some breeders also continue to improve the stock they have through selection and crossing with other breeds, while others maintain a strictly purebred approach, which keeps the genes of other breeds off the family tree. The available gene pool of breeds in any country is somewhat restricted by import and export laws designed to limit the spread of animal-borne illnesses. This can be an obstacle for those desiring to improve an existing breed or to outcross to another that has desirable characteristics, because the genetics may not be available to them. For example, a Nigerian Dwarf goat breeder in Australia contacted my farm about bringing our proven genetics into their herd. However, the import of live goats or frozen semen to Australia is not allowed. Only embryos that are harvested at a controlled facility in the United States can be brought into Australia, and then only after the donor doe has been euthanized and conclusively tested free of disease. Basically the donor doe must be sacrificed for the potential of a new generation. It wasn’t a scheme I was willing to commit our animals to, although I do feel sympathy for farmers in these predicaments. It’s also understandable that nations are concerned about animal and human health.

Isolated populations of feral or semi-feral goats will grow to have uniform distinguishing characteristics and so over time create their own look, or phenotype, and genetics, or genotype. Examples include the San Clemente goat from the island of the same name off the coast of Southern California and the Arapawa Island goat from the island of Arapawa off the coast of New Zealand. Both breeds developed from domesticated goats left on the islands by sea explorers to provide a meat supply upon the sailors’ return.

No matter how much apparent diversity goats have developed, as a whole they have retained their original preferences for arid land and climate—there’s no such thing as “swamp goats.” This long-enduring characteristic is a source of potential problems for those trying to raise goats in any climate that differs too much from their ancestral habitats.

Goats Gone Wild

Among domesticated livestock, goats win the prize for being the most capable of adapting to the wild if they escape from their farm’s confines.

The San Clemente and Arapawa goats as well as goats on the Hawaiian Islands were all too successful utilizing their island environment, to the detriment of native species, and ultimately had to be controlled (albeit through extermination programs that were distasteful in the extreme to many people).

In Australia and New Zealand the feral goat population is made up of goats released by sailors in the 1700s, goats that have escaped from farms, and Angora goats purposefully released in the 1920s when the fiber market became unprofitable. In New Zealand feral goats are estimated to number several hundred thousand; in Australia, over three million. Although these animals, many of which sport the Bezoar’s coat pattern, are considered an invasive species and a pest, they are also the basis of a huge goat meat industry. The United States alone imports just under 20,000 metric tons (that’s about 22,000 US tons) of goat meat per year, 97 percent of which comes from Australia. There are news reports of feral goats wreaking destruction and chaos on gardens and yards in New Zealand. In parts of Ireland, though, residents regard feral goats fondly; the goats have learned to live in an amicable balance with humans and native animals.

However you feel about feral goats running amok, it’s smart to respect the innate adaptability of the species and try to use that to your advantage in managing your goat farm. At its core, the goat is more likely to trust its primal instincts than to trust humans. As a goat farmer you must anticipate these instincts. For example, you’ll need to find a way to protect tasty ornamental or poisonous plants on your property from becoming a goat’s dinner or to keep a hormonally needy doe from wriggling her way into the buck pen. You may decide to hand-raise kids that you want to remain tame.


 

1. Saeid Naderi et al. “The Goat Domestication Process Inferred from Large-Scale Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of Wild and Domestic Individuals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105, no. 46 (2008): 17659–64.

2. Oklahoma State University, “Breeds of Livestock—Goat Breeds,” http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/goats.

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