Whenever I walk out to the barn to do the chores, I am hooted and jeered. By my goats.
The jeering is sharp, loud, and to the point—a quick, nasal “baah” that is presumptuous and annoying. Goats are the cable talk show panelists of the animal world, ready at a moment’s notice to interject, interrupt, and opine. They have something to say about everything, little of it complimentary. They are the most impertinent animals I have ever known.
I love them, of course.
“Nuts to you, goats!” I yelled when they catcalled me a few mornings ago. “You don’t know anything. Bug off. Be quiet.” They will not be. They can’t be. You might as well tell the wind to stop blowing.
The jeering continued that morning, as it always does, first as I fed the donkeys, then as I checked on the cows, then as I walked the dogs. It abated a bit when I brought the goats some cookies, then resumed when I headed for the car.
Goats are not like sheep. Sheep have no interest in me or my life, unless I come at them with a border collie or am hauling grain around. And once the dog has moved them to another pasture or they’ve eaten their grain, their lack of interest resumes. The cows are even more laissez faire. If I bring them apples or corn, they are very concerned about me. Otherwise, they gaze out at the fields around them. They are not about to move their big bottoms to check me out or comment on what I am doing. The donkeys are curious but also quiet and soulful. If they have anything to say about me, they keep it to themselves or share it with each other. I sometimes suspect the donkeys do laugh at me, but they are discreet about it. They are not rude like goats.
My goats are not contemplative, accepting, or introspective. They are the Greek chorus of my farm, sometimes of my life. They watch me closely and remind me that I am foolish. Unlike cows, they are not accepting. Unlike sheep, they are smart. Unlike donkeys, they are intrusive. Unlike dogs, they are useless, except to annoy me (also just like the guests on cable talk shows).
My goats were all bought from the same farmer at the same time, for $150 apiece, and the only bit of wisdom he wanted to share about them was this: “Sheep eat low, goats eat high.” This turned out to be so. Sheep eat grass low to the ground. Goats eat branches of trees, tall grass, shrubs, and weeds. But to me, it missed the point about goats. They jeer.
The farmer didn’t tell me they talk a lot and mind everybody’s business but their own. Or that they hop up on things, open gates, stick their noses in your pants pockets. They razz me when I get off the phone, get on the four-wheeler, herd the sheep. The goats, who are stocky, short, and agile, have luminous green and yellow eyes that miss nothing, and live in a large pen right behind the house, so they see and hear everything that goes on. My goats watch me like computer geeks staring at a game: They follow my every move, rush back and forth along the fence when I’m nearby. They watch me when I come outside, but they even comment when I move around in the house. When I come into the kitchen and turn on the light, for example, I hear some sharp, short “baaahs.” Or when I go upstairs. Or when I do laundry. Or walk the dogs. Or unpack groceries. Or get into the tractor. Sometimes, when I get out of the shower and slam the shower door, I hear faint sounds of ridicule (or second-guessing, or analysis) from the back yard. A cow could care less if I’m hauling garbage out to the cans. To goats, it’s like a presidential inaugural parade.
Murray is the ringleader of my three goats, usually the one to kick off the jeering, the first at the fence, the loudest, the most insistent. But Ruth and Honey are not much quieter. Honey likes to hop up on the picnic table—her Matterhorn—and bait me from there. They have three goat sheds to choose from—two built for them, the third a co-opted antique doghouse. They are playful, chasing one another around, butting heads every now and then. It is not true that they will eat anything. Quite the opposite. My goats like fresh hay, Paul Newman’s low-fat popcorn, oat cookies, and multigrain wheat bran. They turn up their noses at almost anything else. The only time they are remotely respectful to me is when I bring them a bag of popcorn and dump it on the ground.
They’re smart. When it rains or snows, they go inside their sheds and pop their heads out to check on my comings and goings, and provide muted commentary from inside. Sometimes, when I come out, they will all be standing on rocks, dog houses, tables, even the lower branches of trees, so they can get a better view. They don’t jeer only at me. They are the only creatures on the farm who regularly laugh at Rose, my working dog, and pay no attention to her. They scoff when my cow Luna goes into heat and gets frisky. They poke fun at Winston, my venerable rooster, and find the spirituality of the donkeys ludicrous. They do like Annie, my farm helper, who chatters endlessly with them, and they yak at her more than they sass her.
A few months after the goats came, I began jeering back at them. I am not proud of the fact that late in middle age, I am exchanging insults with these imperious little creatures, but there it is. So, I begin just about every day of my life exchanging insults with three goats. I get that this reveals more about me than them. And it’s not that I’m not fond of my goats. Quite the opposite. I love goats, something I did not do for the great bulk of my years on this planet. I love their insouciance, their curiosity, their authority issues, their rapt fascination with almost everything. Living with all of these other animals who revere me for taking care of them, it’s refreshing to have goats who regularly nip the hand that feeds them.
Last week, I decided to spend some quality time with my goats, which I am not always drawn to do. I brought some cookies, opened the gate, entered the goat pen, and sat down. All three came up to nose me, sniff my pockets, and stare at me, as if to say, what are you up to? Who do you think you are? Where are the other cookies? First Honey, then Murray, then Ruth nuzzled me, put their heads in my hand, sniffed me, and for once were quiet. For a little bit. After a few minutes of uncharacteristic calm, I stood up and was immediately jeered, booed, taunted, and ridiculed.
“The hell with you, goats,” I said and went back into the house.