The Ruminant Romp

Keeping goats inside the fence is an exercise.

Escape artists

Keeping pygmy goats fenced in turned out to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated.

illustration by Brian Orr

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The document that would change my life was modest, unassuming and hand-lettered. It hung on the bulletin board of the local grocery and contained only the words, Pygmy goats for sale. Cheap. The information was accompanied by tear-off slips with a phone number.

Ten years previously, my husband and I had visited a county fair in rural western Washington state and had seen baby pygmy goats just a couple of hours after they were born. They were so adorable we vowed to have some of our own one day. Now that we were settling into retirement in the outback of the Ozark wilderness, what time could be better?

After calling the number and making an appointment, we drove farther into the wilderness to find the goats living in conditions I can only describe as “Third World.” The humans who owned the goats lived in conditions only slightly less squalid than the animals. Neither running water nor electricity was in evidence, and the ancient trailer they occupied had a roof that was structurally challenged in the extreme. In fact, the roof appeared to be sinking in the middle and was held up only on either end, so it resembled the letter ‘M.’ However, the people were pleasant, the animals all looked healthy and seemed to be thriving, so we struck a deal, and they promised to deliver the goats the following day.

The entire next day passed with no word from the goat people, and we decided they had changed their minds about selling the goats. To console ourselves, we took out one of our precious take-and-bake pizzas purchased during a recent trip to the metropolis of Springfield and planned an Italian feast for dinner. As any country dweller will tell you, “real” pizza that is not from a freezer box labeled “self-rising” is pretty rare. And just as we slid the impending feast from the oven, an ancient truck, composed almost entirely of rust, shot past the front of the house and headed for the barn.

Three of the five goats we purchased were being delivered. The other two, a doe and her baby, had refused to be caught and would be “fetched along later.” We had spent a good deal of time cleaning out the pens in the barn and shoring up the fencing for the surrounding pasture, so we felt secure in unceremoniously dumping the three goats into the small pasture while we headed back to the house to devour our gala banquet and wait for the second installment of goats.

Twenty minutes later, we went back to the pasture to find not a goat in sight. We found them nestled in a creek bed and spent the next 45 minutes chasing them as they bleated piteously. We were by turns exasperated and sympathetic. My husband Steve, who has obviously been a goat herd or cattle dog in a previous incarnation, managed with my dubious help, to drive them back into the pen. The last two goats were delivered via the Rustmobile and, when it became dark, we went back to the house, too tired to really care if all of them or any of them got out again.

They didn’t get out again until the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. We repaired the fence so many times that the people at the local ag supply store finally asked us what kind of critters we were trying to keep penned. When I told them we had goats, the good old boy behind the counter removed his ball cap, scratched his head and said, “There just ain’t a fence built to hold any goat that really wants out.”

Truer words were never spoken. These five adorable little escape artists quickly became tame enough to eat from our hands but continued to find ways to get out when there were no ways. The only explanation was that they were climbing over the gate.

We thought our reprieve had finally arrived in the form of a stifling heat wave. We were thrilled when we arrived at the pen several times on several consecutive 100-degree-plus days to find the goats languishing in the shade or standing in the cool creek. It was just too hot to make the effort to get out!

One evening as we sat in the pen with the animals, my husband and I congratulated each other because the goats had finally seemed to accept the enclosure and were no longer escaping. Our worries were over; we had tamed the demon caprine spirit. Then, as if on cue, Cher, the alpha female, raised her head and literally dove through a previously unseen hole in the fence with the rest of the herd in tow.

We immediately ran outside the pen and proceeded to chase them back through. The re-entry went smoothly until Becky Sue, who is great with kids, became stuck in the fence with all four feet off the ground and began to thrash wildly. This set off a goat-human frenzy that lasted until Becky Sue disentangled herself and, with as much dignity as she could muster, returned to the barn.

Two months after their arrival, the goats continue to get out of their pen at will. However, the goats do not roam far and, at the first noise, they return to the safety of the enclosure. We drive a golf cart down to the barn, and when they hear the cart they race back to the barn and affect a casual pose, denying that they have ever been out, or would ever try to escape again. Neither group is fooling the other: We know they’ve been out, and they know we know.

We heard that llamas make good guardian animals for goats so on September 1, we purchased three llamas to keep the goats company. The llamas and goats peacefully co-exist and thankfully, the llamas do not exhibit the same wanderlust as their pasture mates. In fact, during a recent jail break, the llamas looked at the goats and then looked at us as if to say, “Goats are so stupid.”