No kidding, goats make the most wonderful companions
New study leads to animal enjoying something of a moment in the spotlight
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.
Goats are as loving and clever as dogs.
On farm Alan McElligott, a senior lecturer in animal behaviour from Queen Mary University of London