The Goatherd’s Tale


One of the things about a university professor's professional life is that you never know what odd skills you're going to need. My beautiful Egyptian graduate student S— was doing a study of the development of the microvasculature of the placenta in goats. For two years she’d been developing her techniques and taking classes, and in the third year of her time with me she began her actual experimental project, big time.

“Big time” as in 50 doe goats for her first experiment. In order to use these beasts effectively we needed to do what’s called “timed breeding,” in which the female goats’ estrous cycles are synchronized so that they're all in the same phase at the same time. This is sort of like the well-known phenomenon of sorority sisters who, after living together in the same house for months, find that all their menstrual cycles coincide; the only functional difference is that in the case of the goats, we were going to force it to happen by administering hormones.

Once all the does were simultaneously in "season" and ready to receive gentleman callers, the male goats (bucks) can be placed into the pens with them for a couple of weeks. Imagine, if you will, a pack of randy frat boys dumped into that sorority house and told to help themselves. That's pretty much what the bucks are supposed to do: start Making Whoopee, with the intention of engendering as many goatlings as possible before dropping from exhaustion.


We had bought a flock of 50 does about two months before, but after they’d been in our pasture a few weeks they were found to have an infection from a soil bacterium.  S— flatly refused to use those goats, and insisted on getting new ones.  I wasn’t really happy about this: we had spent a huge sum of money on the first flock and goats are seasonal breeders. We were getting perilously close to the time of year when they MUST breed, or they won’t breed at all until the next year.  But S— is a Force of Nature and she ALWAYS gets what she wants, so I docilely sent the first flock off to the stock auction, took the financial bath that entailed, and started hunting for more goats from a clean flock.

S— is the most persistent and driven person I know, and when set to a task—for example, finding a source of "clean" goats—she never stops till she finds what she wants.  She managed to track down a goat farmer in Amherst VA, about 2 hours away who had exactly what she wanted. Furthermore, he was, believe it or not, willing to give us a health guarantee on them.  I was skeptical about this, but having been bitten once, she was twice shy, and she insisted that the sales contract include a clause that if any of the goats turned up sick, the seller would take them back

Now, no sane farmer would agree to such a thing, and this one balked, but he underestimated S—'s obstinate refusal to understand the word "no." With the patience of water wearing away a rock, not only did she get the health guarantee she wanted, she also got him to agree that if any of them were pregnant on delivery they would go back; and he agreed to deliver them to our research facility. She then tackled him on the price, and we ended up with 50 age-matched doe goats, all of the same lineage, all guaranteed healthy and "open," for less than the first seller had wanted for his diseased animals!

I really don’t know why S— is wasting her talents in veterinary medicine: she can out-negotiate a Hollywood talent agent and could make millions in that business if she tried it.  She used to be a pharmaceutical sales representative, and made a very good living doing it, too; I'm certain she could sell snow to Eskimos if she put her mind to it.


Having found the farm, we arranged a day trip up there for the selection process.  I drove a state vehicle, and with us came Dr. Hussien, a sabbatical visitor from Cairo University. Dr Hussien is an animal hygiene expert and agreed to come along to check the flock. We also dragged along my colleague Dr Beverly, who’s a reproduction specialist.  She brought along her portable ultrasound unit so we could check the goats on site and reject any preggies. So off we all rode Forks of Buffalo, Virginia one beautiful day, through some of the loveliest and most rural parts of this state, and when we got there the farmer had sequestered 100 or so goats for us to examine. 

We set up a process that was reminiscent of a selection parade at Auschwitz, with the goats playing the role of the Jews.  The guards—sorry, the farm hands—would herd 30 or so into a pen, and one by one pass them out to us.  S— and Hussien would check their teeth (for aging them) and palpate the lymph nodes, and accept or reject the goat based on age and apparent health status.  At least half of them were rejected: “Zis one, to ze labor camp...und ZIS one...TO ZE SHOWERS, HA! HA!” The goats that passed the initial screening were passed over to Beverly and me; we ultrasounded them and then moved them to the holding pen reserved for those making The Long Trip To Blacksburg. 

Ultrasounding a goat isn’t like doing doing the same thing to a human, mainly because the goat hasn’t got a clue what is happening and she isn’t terribly enthusiastic about whatever it is in any event.  My job was to immobilize the hind legs and lift them off the ground, so that Beverly could swab off the belly and run the ultrasound probe under it, looking for fetuses.  Juan, the farm manager, would hold the horns to immobilize the head; I’d grab the hind legs and hoist, and Beverly would check. 

Those horns are convenient handles.  They allow you to get hold of the critter and hang on tight (one goat was rejected specifically because she didn’t have horns).  Two humans can effectively immobilize a goat, despite her vigorous objections, mainly because they aren’t vicious and they can’t bite.  Goats have no teeth in their upper jaws, and apparently in Goat School they never learned about kicking.  Nor do they attempt to gore you.  If they ever figure THAT one out, they’re admirably equipped for it, and could seriously injure a human with their horns.  But the closest I’ve come to getting hurt so far is chapped hands and having my glasses knocked off by one I caught in mid-leap.

Whenever a goat to be ultrasounded would get obstreperous, I’d quietly lean over and whisper in her ear, “Listen, sweetheart: I am a carnivore; you are an herbivore.  Carnivores EAT herbivores.  If you want to be eaten right here, right now, on the spot, just keep struggling!”  That always calmed them down.  It’s a trick I saw in a movie once; Robert Redford was doing it with horses.

No preggies showed up in the first 30 goats, and then the power in the barn went out and we were stuck with 20 goats to go and a two-and-a-half hour return trip to lead the trailer back.  We decided eventually that we’d simply leave and finish the ultrasound at Tech, as it seemed unlikely any of them would turn up pregnant. 

Juan and his gang of helpers (mostly Mexicans, all of them very genial and helpful, greatly entertained by watching the Professors struggle with the goats and admiring the sight of S— in her coveralls) loaded them into the trailer in two sections.  The un-ultrasounded gals were marked with paint and off we went, me leading and Juan driving a 35-foot gooseneck rig loaded with three tons of nervous ambulatory cabrito down Interstate 81. We got to the Tech farm, where we had disinfected the pastures on which the first flock of goats had been held (I will spare you the agony of this process, it’s too painful to discuss) and Juan disgorged a flowing river of bleating panic into our paddocks about 5:00 PM.  We sorted them out by ultrasounded versus non-ultrasounded, and made plans to return to the farm two days later to check on the rest of them.


These goats were BIG.  They’re a cross of Boer and Spanish breeds, two “meat” goats substantially larger than the dairy breeds most people see in petting zoos.  I’d guess the biggest must have been 100 pounds, easily, nearly as big as a white-tailed deer, though they have much shorter legs.  They can’t jump as high as a deer but can easily go four feet straight up in the air.  It’s no trick for them outrun a tubby middle-aged anatomy professor who is clumsy enough to let one get away.  Not only are they fast, strong, and agile, they’re much smarter than sheep (which isn’t saying a lot) and most of all, desperate to escape.  They can find any hole in a fence, or in a line of herders, and dodge through it like an NFL running back avoiding tacklers. 

Moving them around takes a little practice, but they’re herd animals. Once you figure out their “flight distance” it’s fairly easy to do if there are fences and gates to channel them where you want them to go.  They’re always a leader in every group, and if you can get her through the gate you want the rest will follow.  More than once I wished that Meg, my Border Collie, had been with us.  She’d have figured out what I wanted the goats to do and made them do it.  In her absence it took three of us to get them from one pasture to another, or into the holding pen where we could catch them for whatever we needed to do.

A couple of days after we came back, Beverly brought her portable machine to the research farm to finish the ultrasounding. She also brought along her new Large Animal clinical resident, a strapping Cajun lad from the bayous whose name was something like Pierre Beauregard Toussaint Broussard. He had an accent exactly like the late Justin Wilson’s.  He was learning ultrasound technique and did the remaining goats under her tutelage.  We herded the 20 un-checked ladies into the capture pen. Chris, our research farm manager, caught them and passed them to me; I muscled the goat into Pierre’s lap, and he passed the probe.  No preggies, back into the pasture they all went.


That was pretty much it until two days later, when the real fun started.  S—’s synchronization protocol required two prostaglandin injections and an ear implant of a hormone-releasing stick.  So Monday was Grab-Inject-and-Ear-Tag-Goats-Day.  Chris caught them, passed them to me, and I held them while S— injected them; then Chris clipped off the old ear tag and replaced them with new ones.  By the time we’d done three or four we had the routine pretty well down: grab a goat, pass it; S— sits on the goat, sticks the goat in the ass with the needle, then holds the goat while Chris replaces ear tags.  We also had help from Harry, a pleasant but somewhat slow-witted young day laborer S— scrounged up somewhere.  Harry was unable to lift things but he was pretty good at liming pastures and other light work; so his job was to refill the ear tagger. 

That was all done in the rain, but even so it only took us an hour and half to do all 50. We were feeling pretty good about our goat-wrangling abilities, and had a good warm-up for The Main Event: The Virginia State Goat-Wrangling Championship.  We did ear implants.

The goats were broken up into groups of ten following ear tagging.  S—, Harry, and I went out and ran one group at a time into the pen.  I had had the foresight to get our clinic’s “Calf Cart” out and schlepped it over there.  A Calf Cart is a small portable livestock chute: at one end there’s a hole for the head and a stanchion lever you can swing over to hold the critter by the neck.  At the other end there’s a door through which the calf (or goat) is shoved and which can be locked behind it.  Calves and goats are about the same size, and getting this gadget was a stroke of genius on my part, if I do say it myself.  It was worth three sets of hands when it came to immobilizing them for the rather unpleasant procedure they were slated to undergo.

Chris was busy and Harry couldn't do heavy work so I was tapped to be the Chief Goat Wrangler.  This is a job for someone a good deal younger and more agile than I, but I have to say that I did a creditable job for a kid from Da Bronx who saw his first cow (and his first goat, for that matter) in the zoo.  Of course, 20 years of dog-wrestling have given me some insight into animal psychology; the fact is that goats are somewhat easier than dogs, even if they’re much stronger than any dog I’ve ever owned.  A dog’s strong points are speed, agility, and sharp teeth; a dog will argue with you because he figures (with good reason) that he has some chance of winning.  But a goat, once you have hold of it, just goes into Passive Resistance Mode.  Thank God they don’t kick.  They can wiggle like nobody’s business, and fling themselves around to the point where you think they’ll tie themselves into knots or break your hand; but if you maintain a firm grip on the horns, they’re manageable.


We’d start with 10 goats in the pen.  I’d go in, and they would immediately retreat into the back end, up against the fence, huddled in a mass, each one hoping I’d take some other goat.  I’d approach them in a low crouch, arms spread apart, and fix my eye firmly on one.  Except for the fact that I have only two legs and walk more or less upright, this is much the same strategy that Meg would use in cutting one out of a flock.  If you move slowly enough, and if there are enough goats in the pen, you can get close enough to grab a horn. Then the wrestling match starts in earnest.  While you’re hanging onto one, the others start milling around in panic, leaping like chamois and bumping into the walls and the gates, but never, ever, into The Carnivore Who Caught That Other Goat, lest he change his mind about who is going to be the victim.

Once I had the goat in hand, so to speak, I’d drag it (literally; they dig in their feet and sit, just like mules do) out to the cart, and shove it through the door.  Strangely enough they didn’t usually balk at going into it, don’t ask me why.  Once inside with the door shut, Harry and I’d work the horns through the front head hole; I’d lock the stanchion into place, and hold the head steady.  Harry would clip the fur off the ear, and I’d swab with alcohol; then S— descended with THE SYRINGE.

The hormone implants are little sticks about half an inch long and an eighth inch in diameter, inserted under the skin with a sharp needle on the end of modified syringe. That damned needle looks like a shotgun barrel, though it isn’t much larger than the implant, really.  It’s wicked sharp. Once the ear was trimmed and wiped, S— would insert the needle under the skin, sliding it all the way in and pressing the plunger.  That pushed the implant out and left it under the skin, and also left a hole about an eighth-inch across in the ear.  She’d swab it with iodine and the goat would be released, and we’d do the entire ballet again. 

She’s very good at this process: one or two of the first tries she nicked a vein and there was some blood, but often there was none at all.  Surprisingly few of them made much noise; if someone had been sticking that whacking big needle into my ear I’d have yelled bloody murder, but that wasn’t the rule.  These gals are stoics, I guess.  Maybe being a goat does that to you.

It took us a total of four hours or so to do all 50 goats this way, in groups of 10.  Catching them was easier as I got more practiced, but I found that when there are only one or two in a pen they get harder to catch.  There’s more room to run and they will leap in the air to get around you, almost as if they were wearing Flubber on their hooves.  One of them, a big black-and-white bruiser with a mean glint in her eye, actually leaped over the back fence of the pen and we had to run her down.  But in the end we got them all done.  The next step was to inject them again, and take the implants OUT, a full-day operation.


Ten days later S— removed the implants, without my help.  I was in class on the day they had to come out, but she borrowed Kevin, the assistant farm manager, and sweet-talked another graduate student into helping.  The three of them managed the task of catching goats and penning them up.  S— made a small incision, removed the implant, and then used a surgical stapler to close the wound.  Apparently everything went well and they were done in a couple of hours.  At that point the does were all synchronized and ready to receive their Gentleman Callers.


The bucks had been brought two days before by the faithful Juan, and had been sequestered in their own pasture, out of sight of the does but not, presumably, out of scent.  There were ten of them, big raunchy fellows with shaggy coats, heavy beards, and horns twice the size of the ones on the does.  They also had a serious attitude problem.  Unlike the does they were quite willing to dispute the issue of who’s boss.  (The old cartoon gag about billy goats butting someone is based on fact:  if you're careless enough to turn your back on them and bend over, you will get a butting.  Not so serious as one from a 1200 pound Holstein bull, but Boer bucks are bigger than our local whitetails, though their legs are shorter. They run 150 pounds and up, and can knock you down pretty easily if you give them half a chance.)

They also stink.  They smell like....well, they smell like billy goats.  A sort of rank, musty, sweetish smell, almost leathery in texture.  Stand anywhere within 40 yards and it will be evident; within 15 it’s overpowering.  The research farm staff had separated the bucks into the pens at a ratio of 10 does to two bucks, and the next day we went over to observe the caprine bacchanalia.

S— had borrowed my binoculars, and was deeply dissatisfied with what was going on. Contrary to expectation, it was nothing like turning frat boys loose in a house full of horny sorority girls. “Zose stupide bocks!  Zey are more interested in fighting each ozzer than in ze does!”

Male humans in this situation wouldn’t even have to discuss the issue of how to divide the spoils. Each one would just mount the nearest female, and if the one he wanted to boff next was already in use, well, what the hell, there are plenty of others waiting their turn.  But buck goats operate on the all-or-none principle: if the dominant buck can’t have ALL the does, he won’t let the lesser-ranked buck have ANY of them, and he’ll expend his energy on driving the lower-ranked one away from any doe he tries to mount. 

No doubt this can be attributed to the bucks’ inability to comprehend that their time in the Pen Of Iniquity was limited. We rented them for the occasion, like smelly, horned gigolos; five days was all they got wallowing in the fleshpots of Blacksburg. Then it was back to the Old Routine.  I think each one assumed that once the junior bucks were convinced they weren't going to get any, there’d be plenty of time for Mr Big Buck to ravish all the ladies at his leisure. There was no way to explain it to them, so we had to take other steps to ensure that each of our does got her equal share of the attention.

S— had made some studies of which bucks were particularly ornery, and which pairs had agreed to just divvy the babes up between them, without all the butting nonsense. She then decided who had to be moved around.  We spent four hours at this exercise.  S— would indicate which buck of a pair should be given his own pen and how many females he was to be allocated, and then we’d herd them around.  Eventually we got them all sorted out into little enclaves where each buck had a harem of his own, out of sight of any potential rivals. No doubt some of the bucks felt they'd been fobbed off with the ugly ones, but what the heck, we couldn't tell what makes a doe attractive. In the end it didn't matter: to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, "In the dark, all does are gray," and in any event, the bucks weren't looking at their faces, right? Sorting them out according to S—'s orders got things started with—ahem—a bang. The bucks stopped tearing up the pasture fences trying to get at each other and concentrated on the business at hand.

And they did their job well. At the end of their brief idyll, Juan retrieved them and returned them to Forks of Buffalo, worn out, but no doubt with a feeling of accomplishment: they'd left behind a flock of does of whom 90% were knocked up. They averaged 2.5 kids apiece, and all of them dropped kids within a 72 hour period. That's synchronization! I hope they look back on their service to Science with satisfaction. They should have a banner on their pens that reads "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! "

I’m not cut out to be a farmer, but it’s more fun than mowing grass.