A recurring theme in my writings is the overwhelming power and complexity of nature. Farming is a great way to experience and study the nature of life. I marvel at the subtle beauty of the natural world that surrounds our farm, from the animals we raise and keep on our farm to the truly wild creatures that hide in the woods during the day and creep out of the shadows in the evening to celebrate their freedom at night. It’s as though we live within the laboratory itself. I find it humbling to contemplate the diversity of life and how firmly interconnected it is. If we study it closely, it will ultimately teach us how life functions, even as its mind-boggling complexity inspires us to ask even more questions about its essence and meaning.
I find that people have a difficult time accepting the thought that we are a part of the animal world that surrounds us. While I will admit that our sentience and dexterity to manipulate the world around us sets us apart from almost all other species, they also empower us to glibly ignore the fact that we share much more in common with all the other animals than we may wish to believe. When I study all the animals that share our farm with us, I can see almost every element of human social behavior displayed by them. Aggression, fear, desperation, affection, dependency, competition and many other human behavioral characteristics are clearly reflected in the behavior patterns I see in all other complex animals I observe, from the birds in the sky to the dairy goats we raise. I guess the fact that most people live frantic, self-absorbed modern lives makes it much less likely that they will observe and comprehend that simple fact. Yet, it remains the primary reason why I and so many other farm-raised children learned to understand the basic facts of life at an early age. Just consider it to be another reason to value the benefits of traditional farm life. Living as intimately with nature as we do has taught me a great deal about our basic human nature.
Now that I have been milking Essie for more than two weeks and have been monitoring closely the growth and development of her rapidly growing kids, I have enjoyed learning more about the behavioral traits of our goats. Since goats are driven more by instinct than their own independent thoughts and aspirations, their behavior patterns are more transparent to the watchful eye. Perhaps the first essential characteristic of goats we can observe is their herd nature. You really can’t raise one goat in isolation. In the wild, goats are very vulnerable prey for powerful hunters. While they have horns to use for self-defense, and they are swift runners, their overall defensive capabilities are not as strong as in other animals. Therefore, they tend to live in herds and have a natural fear of being in isolation, which leaves them most vulnerable.
Knowing this aspect of their nature, we made sure that we obtained a companion goat for Essie when we brought her back to our farm in July 2019. Although our dwarf-Nigerian goat, Snowball, was just a baby when we brought her home, she quickly developed a strong natural attachment to Essie. Everywhere Essie went, Snowball clung to her like a small, white shadow. They became inseparable—a fact that concerned us if anything were to happen to her or Essie. Just taking one of them out of sight from the other would cause them both to panic and cry out. When I had to take Snowball to our local veterinarian in Franklin, Barb had to stay in the goat barn with Essie until I returned, and I had to put Snowball in a cat carrier so she could ride in the cab of the pickup truck with me. Fortunately, we haven’t had to separate them as adults for the full year-and-a-half that we kept them before Essie added two newborn doe kids to our small herd.
Now that we have four goats, we can rest assured that we won’t have a sudden emotional security issue should something terrible happen to one of our goats. However, I have noticed how Snowball’s status has changed since the kids were born. She no longer receives as much attention from Essie, as the new momma has become intensely focused on her babies and their immediate needs. Where Snowball would cling almost constantly to Essie’s side, she now stands and lays by herself more often and regards Essie’s babies with indifference and a slight glint of jealousy in her eyes. I discovered that Snowball is much more willing to approach me for attention than she was motivated to do before the kids were born. Overall, it is becoming apparent that Snowball is learning what it feels like to become a fifth wheel in a four-goat herd.
An intriguing dichotomy in goat behavior is their competitive nature, which often seems to contradict their strong herd instinct. You don’t have to watch goats for very long before you will see them challenge one another to a head-butting contest. It occurs so often that it seems more like play than a serious challenge. When Essie and Snowball shared their goat barn and pens between themselves, Snowball would often challenge Essie, who (being the larger and more powerful goat) was the established leader. Snowball’s challenges eventually became increasingly bold and aggressive, despite her persistent losses in “head-to-head” combat. Snowball would rear up straight on her hind legs and lower her head to display an intimidating height advantage in her challenges to Essie. It never seemed to matter, as Essie would wait for her drop down on all four hooves before delivering a convincingly powerful blow to her head. At times, the competition for dominance within the herd (even when there are only two goats) can appear to be painful or dangerous, but it is simply part of their nature. Goats have an instinctive need to establish a hierarchy within their herd, even though it might seem to be inherently incompatible with their herd instinct.
Now that the two babies, Eleanor and Gracie, are growing, they are beginning to challenge each other for dominance. Eleanor seems to be winning the competition, and she has begun to challenge Snowball as the family works to establish a complete hierarchy within the herd. Soon, they will all have a perceived status with Essie as the leader and Gracie at the bottom of the totem pole. Even when their status within the herd has been established, they will continue to challenge each other for dominance because it is also part of their nature to improve or reaffirm their positions within the herd. I should add that goats are not the only species to exhibit these behavioral patterns, but they are the example that we can study most closely.
If you stop and think a moment about the behavior I have seen in our goats and the lesson it teaches us about animal behavior, you will notice many curious similarities in human behavior. People today advocate aggressively for an egalitarian society, where everyone will be treated equally and respected for who and what they are. Like goats, we also have a herding inclination motivated by our basic need for social connection and interaction. People aspire to live in groups and we increasingly extol the virtues of urban living. Yet, like goats, we also compete amongst ourselves for status and power within our society. Humans create hierarchies at all levels of society, from government, to the military, to the business world. Boards and clubs elect presidents, vice-presidents, and other officers to formalize their hierarchies. Status within professional associations—like the acting profession—is validated and reinforced by awards and fan endorsement. Even as schoolchildren, social cliques form a status hierarchy, as though it was a natural aspect of our behavior. However, this pattern of hierarchies often appears inherently contradictory to our expressed desire for egalitarianism and equality in our society.
Perhaps we should think more carefully about why our behavior and our societal aspirations seem so contradictory. Do we honestly believe we can decide for ourselves what our own nature is even though the behavior we seek to change is reflected in the natural order of many other species? Are we trying to change our natural behavior because we think we are better than all other species? What attitude is most conducive to understanding and accepting that we are part of the natural world, rather than something superior that stands above it? Do we become better than other species by being arrogant or humble? It strikes me as ironic that goats seem to treat each other with greater respect when they compete for supremacy than it would appear that humans do (especially in today’s society).
I sometimes wonder if we need to think more carefully about how and why nature works as it does before deciding for ourselves what we are or choose to be. In asking these questions, I am not suggesting or implying any specific answers. I’m just encouraging us all to think about the patterns we see in nature and what broader meaning they may hold to better understand our own human nature and the intimate connections we have with the other species with whom we share our planet. Also, please bear in mind, just because I don’t have immediate answers to my own questions does not mean they aren’t important to consider. After all, isn’t thinking a basic defining element of sentience?
Consider these random thoughts and observations to be just another provocative lesson about the wonderous power and complexity of nature from all of us (human and animal) here at Peeper Pond Farm.