No kid­ding, goats make the most won­der­ful com­pan­ions

New study leads to an­i­mal en­joy­ing some­thing of a mo­ment in the spot­light

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By OLIVIA PARKER

Ahand­ful of my dress has dis­ap­peared be­tween a hairy set of jaws. Their owner is the mostly tooth­less Dolly, but she’s do­ing her best to prove the adage about goats and wash­ing lines. As she aban­dons the cloth and wraps her gums around a chunk of note­book, her de­fence team leaps into ac­tion like an overzeal­ous PR man­ager.

“They do go around and ‘taste’ stuff, but they don’t just eat any­thing,” in­sists Dr Alan McEl­lig­ott, a se­nior lec­turer in an­i­mal be­hav­iour from QueenMaryUniver­sity ofLon­don (QMUL). “They’re very cu­ri­ous — andthat’s what­makesthem­inter­est­ing to work with.”

Dr McEl­lig­ott has been study­ing Dolly and her 135 goat pals at the But­ter­cups Goat Sanc­tu­ary in Kent for seven years now, hav­ing iden­ti­fied a niche in goat stud­ies in 2006. “There was only one other lab in the world that I knew of work­ing on goats, in Ger­many,” he says. “But there are about a bil­lion goats on the planet.”

His team’s find­ings about the in­tel­li­gence and emo­tional so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the goat — typ­i­cally dis­missed as a dim, foul-smelling eat­ing ma­chine — have en­joyed sig­nif­i­cant sci­en­tific and pub­lic ac­claim. The lat­est study, pub­lished last month in the jour­nal Bi­ol­ogy Let­ters, has led to goats en­joy­ing some­thing of a mo­ment in the spot­light.

“Goats are as lov­ing and clever as dogs” ran the head­lines af­terMcEl­lig­ott’s col­league, Dr Christian Nawroth, proved for the first time that goats were ca­pa­ble of form­ing emo­tional bonds with hu­mans.

The re­sponse to this an­nounce­ment proved that a Great Bri­tish Goat Fan Club is al­ready very much in ex­is­tence. De­fra es­ti­mates that there were 85,000 goats in Eng­land and North­ern Ire­land at the last count, with around 25,000 to 30,000 be­ing kept ei­ther as pets or at vis­i­tor at­trac­tions, ac­cord­ing to the Goat Ve­teri­nary So­ci­ety — and their own­ers are vo­cal about their charms. The But­ter­cups goats have these in spades, breath­ing softly on the backs of my legs and star­ing point­edly at a tree branch they’d like me to pull down for them. No won­der theQMULs­tu­dents love com­ing here— as does for­merMPAnn Wid­de­combe, But­ter­cups’ pa­tron. The goats don’t even smell— only un­cas­trated males give off that po­tent musk — and they’re ob­vi­ously fond of hu­man con­tact.

They’re also more fam­ily-ori­en­tated than you’d think. One ofMcEl­lig­ott’s ear­li­est dis­cov­er­ies was that mother goats re­mem­bered the calls of their kids as much as a year af­ter the kids had been taken away. An­other ex­per­i­ment proved that goat kids dis­played vo­cal learn­ing, like hu­man chil­dren: they learn to “speak” by mim­ick­ing sounds around them. This also means that in­di­vid­ual kids de­velop a sim­i­lar type of call to the goats they grow up with. “Goat ac­cents”, the me­dia called it, when this re­port was re­leased in 2012.

Think goats don’t have feel­ings? McEl­lig­ott at­tests that, in fact, they have clear “moods”, which he has proved by mon­i­tor­ing their calls and heart rate ac­tiv­ity in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. “When­goats are in a pos­i­tive state, for ex­am­ple when they’re about to get fed, the pitch of their voice is quite stable,” he says. “But when they’re in a neg­a­tive state, the tone of their calls is un­sta­ble. It’s a bit like when you give a talk at a con­fer­ence and you’re ner­vous and your voice is wa­ver­ing a lit­tle bit.”

One char­ac­ter­is­tic that most goat fans would recog­nise is the an­i­mal’s re­source­ful­ness, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to food. The But­ter­cups goats have been known to un­lock dou­ble bolts in a bid for an early break­fast. McEl­lig­ott quan­ti­fied this “ad­vanced cog­ni­tion” by test­ing whether they could learn a linked se­quence of steps — pulling a lever then lift­ing it— to re­lease food. The goats took an av­er­age of 12 at­tempts to mas­ter the trick — fewer than chim­panzees given the same task— and could still re­mem­ber it 10 months later.

The team’s most re­cent ex­per­i­ment was a de­vel­op­ment of this study, de­signed to see whether goats un­der­stood that hu­mans can help them solve prob­lems.

McEl­lig­ott and one of hisPhDs­tu­dents, Luigi Ba­ci­adonna, recre­ate it formeat But­ter­cups. The lid of a box is nailed to a wooden board and a few pieces of dry pasta — goats’ favourite food — are placed on top and cov­ered with the box. Our test goat, Felix, ap­proaches and noses the lid off to get to the food. Af­ter three trial runs, the sci­en­tists lock the box onto its lid so Felix can no longer push it away.

In videos demon­strat­ing the ex­per­i­ment, ev­ery goat in this co­nun­drum looks im­me­di­ately at a nearby hu­man, clearly hint­ing “help me!” Of the 34 an­i­mals tested, says McEl­lig­ott, nearly ev­ery sin­gle one con­sis­tently had the same reaction.

To­day, hi­lar­i­ously, Felix has other ideas. Per­haps it’s the pres­sure of the cam­era or the swel­ter­ing heat of the day, but af­ter a fee­ble at­tempt to get at the pasta he throws a strop, wan­ders off and di­rects his gaze into the nearby grass. The sci­en­tists de­spair. We re­sort to calling in­Na­dia, a more de­pend­able pupil, who oblig­ingly turns to Ba­ci­adonna and pushes her whiskery muz­zle into his neck for ex­tra ef­fect.

Felix’s re­cal­ci­trance aside, the re­sult is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant be­cause this ex­per­i­ment has pre­vi­ously only been car­ried out on dogs. Dogs do, as you might ex­pect, look to­wards hu­mans for help — but then dogs, McEl­lig­ott points out, have been do­mes­ti­cated over thou­sands of years as com­pan­ion an­i­mals, se­lec­tively bred for the qual­i­ties that make them use­ful to hu­mans. “Then we come along and show that goats do it as well,” says McEl­lig­ott, with pride. “This opens the door for sim­i­lar such ex­per­i­ments with other an­i­mals.”

As well as draw­ing the goat a lit­tle closer in our na­tional af­fec­tions, the ul­ti­mate goal of all these tests is to im­prove aware­ness about goat hus­bandry. “Very of­ten I have seen wel­fare guide­lines for goats that are based on sheep,” McEl­lig­ott says. “They as­sume a goat is a sheep — any­one who has worked with them knows they are very dif­fer­ent.”

The sad re­al­ity is that sanc­tu­ar­ies like But­ter­cups— the only one in the UK that fo­cuses solely on goats — have to ex­ist be­cause of how fre­quently the an­i­mals are mis­treated or ne­glected. One res­i­dent, Pick­les, was de­liv­ered to the sanc­tu­ary af­ter he’d had his throat slit and been thrown into a pond; an­other was found cov­ered in engine oil. But if goats could imag­ine par­adise, But­ter­cups would no doubt be it: an open field for day­time and a warm, clean stall at night, plus all the food and medicine they need.

McEl­lig­ott hopes that the at­ten­tion his ex­per­i­ments get will en­cour­age peo­ple to think again about the hum­ble goat. His next projects aim to prove that they form “pair bonds” — es­sen­tially that they have a best friend — and move in “so­cial net­works”. If we don’t wise up to their ca­pa­bil­i­ties soon, they’ll be run­ning Face­book be­fore we know it.

But­ter­cups Sanc­tu­ary for Goats runs vis­i­tor days and hus­bandry cour­ses on Sundays. For details or to do­nate to the char­ity, visit but­ter­cups.

with an­i­mals.


Goats are as lov­ing and clever as dogs.


On farm Alan McEl­lig­ott, a se­nior lec­turer in an­i­mal be­hav­iour from Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don

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