Taming Pygoras

Lolo with Oliver and Ella. (c) Jennifer Neves.

Goats make perfect pets, or so I was told. About eight months ago, I decided I wanted one. Nathan was at work. He’s the adult in the house, who asks adult questions like, “Is this a good idea?” and “Where will we put it?” So, with him out of the way, I had free reign to explore the internet for goat listings. It didn’t take me long to find one. A surprising number of people try to sell their goats online.

Asking someone why they’ve decided to get rid of their pets is a touchy subject. No one appreciates a stranger asking questions like, “Does this animal have psychological problems?” or “Will this animal attack my children?” It’s like asking someone trying to sell you their 1976 Volvo why, after owning it for thirty years, they’re finally selling. Everyone knows that the answer to these questions is exactly what we fear it is, but human nature prevails and, whether it’s a goat or a beat up car, we want to believe whatever they tell us. “Oh, you know, I just don’t have space for them anymore.” Or “I’ve finally decided to get a new car. This one still runs great though.”

I began corresponding with a woman selling pygmy angora goats—or “Pygoras”, if you’re in the industry. I wasn’t sure why short legged, extra hairy goats would be a particularly desirable commodity, but she assured me that they were.  The list of things I didn’t know about goats was staggering, so I took her word for it. I’ve long believed that miniature creatures are better than regular ones, so the idea of pygmies delighted me. Goats can be quite tall, and I was working with a Honda hatchback and a dog carrier wedged in the back seat. I agreed to drive to the middle of nowhere and meet this woman the next day to decide whether her goats were right for me. Since I had no way of identifying a good goat from a bad goat, my only requirement was that it fit in the dog carrier.

When Nathan got home from work that night, I mentioned the idea of maybe having goats someday.

“Where would we put them?” he asked.

I showed him. That morning, after making the arrangements for the goat-and-greet, I cleaned the old chicken coop, put up a few feet of horse fence, and goat-proofed the enclosure. Nathan seemed impressed by my efforts.

I’m sure he thought he had some time to mull things over before we made the big decision—a misunderstanding I made no effort to dispel—but I was already certain I was going to swap money for a goat within the next 24 hours. Not telling Nathan made it feel like I was on some kind of covert op; foreknowledge can taint the full impact of an experience, and I wanted Nathan to experience the joy of goat ownership—untainted.

The next morning, I contacted Nathan’s brother, Tyler, who was in town for a visit.

“Hey Tyler, I need some help with a goat situation. Are you available for a drive?” I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice, but he must have picked up on it, because he started to laugh.

“What kind of a goat situation?” he asked. Then, before I could answer, he said, “Yes. I’m in.”

We drove, Tyler in the passenger seat—suggesting goat names like Dirk, Gordon, and Barack Obama—and me behind the wheel, imagining beautiful, friendly goats the size of beagles.

When we arrived at an old farmhouse in Yelm, a girl came running out in her pajamas and bare feet. She seemed awful young for goat trafficking, but I didn’t say anything for fear of ruining our chances as prospective buyers. She motioned for Tyler and I to follow her in our vehicle. Then she jumped into a rusty pickup and spun out of the driveway, flinging mud onto my windshield.

We drove along a steep dirt road until the sound of my Honda bottoming out caught the girl’s attention. Thankfully, she slowed and made a gesture through her open window that we took as an invitation to carpool. I parked by the side of the road and Tyler and I hopped into the bucket seat of her truck. She was still barefoot, barely able to reach the pedals.

“The goats usually graze at the top of the hill when they’re not in their pen,” she offered.

“Grazing? Aren’t pens, by definition, enclosures that keep animals in?” I looked over at Tyler and saw his eyebrows raised. He was thinking the same thing. I continued awkwardly, “So, the pen… its doors… are open? And the goats just… leave it?”

The girl laughed gaily. “Oh no, the pen doesn’t even have a door. I’m not sure how they get out.”

On hindsight, alarm bells should have started ringing loudly inside my head. I can’t say exactly why they didn’t—maybe it was because at that very moment, the girl’s truck began to slide off of the road.

She pressed her foot on the pedal all the way to the floor as her tires spun wildly over slick leaves and mud. But the truck began sliding faster, backwards instead of sideways, down the narrow road with rocks and gullies to either side. The girl’s giggles changed pitch. It was like sitting next to the Joker from Batman. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her.

Finally, Tyler spoke up. “Maybe if you just let off the gas a little, and then pull the emergency brake, we can not die. I’m fine with walking the rest of the way.”

I nodded vigorously.

When the truck finally slid to a stop, however, I was exhilarated. The adventure had officially begun. At the top of the hill, the goats were grazing just like the girl said they would be. They were bigger than beagles—more like retrievers. They were also covered in thick, natty angora wool (for some reason, I had neglected to factor the “angora” part of their name into my mental image.) They could have passed for sheep in almost any flock. They waddled as they moved, white overcoats bouncing jauntily over thin frames. Goats have creepy eyes, and yet, I couldn’t help staring into the blue marbled bulbs perched on either side of their twitchy heads. These were good goats. I wanted one.

Negotiations began.

“How much are you hoping to get for one of them?” I asked nonchalantly.

“Well,” she said, “I’m actually not willing to sell just one. Goats are social animals, and these two are mother and daughter. One doesn’t go anywhere without the other, and I don’t think the mother would make it without her daughter.”

This was slightly unexpected information. Tyler was smiling. “There’s only one thing better than one goat,” he said.

The girl made a small coughing noise, the kind people make in movies when they’ve been concealing information, and are about to reveal it. “Well, I think they might both be pregnant, so…”

I jumped in. “This is great! I’d love baby pygmy goats!”

Tyler was nodding in agreement. Almost certainly, he was imagining his brother delivering goat babies.

We agreed on a price and lured the two goats back to my car with a baggie full of grain. Then we went about finding a way to transport them. The dog carrier was only big enough for one goat, so we had to clear out the trunk and make room for the second. There should probably be regulations about transporting livestock in hatchbacks, because as it turned out, goats don’t like confined spaces, evidenced by the immediate and overwhelming smell of goat urine.

As soon as money exchanged hands, the girl sped off in her pickup. Tyler and I looked at each other, and then back at our passengers, who were bleating urgently to one another. We were both giddy with accomplishment.

The drive back was a blur. Tyler and I picked the goats’ names—Lolo and Ninny Muggins—and then I turned my focus to our next challenge: once home, we would have to remove the goats from the vehicle and put them into the pen. How, when they didn’t have collars and didn’t seem particularly interested in having anything to do with us?

When we arrived, Tyler—for reasons I could not, and still cannot, comprehend—imagined that Ninnny Muggins would jump willingly from the car and prance herself into her new home. He opened the trunk serenely, without a care in the world, with utter confidence that things would go smoothly. Sure enough, as soon as she smelled freedom, Ninny Muggins threw herself from the vehicle. She rolled like an FBI agent avoiding gunfire, jumped to her feet and ran at breakneck speed—but away. For creatures with such short legs, pygmy goats can really move.

We had been assured that one goat would not go anywhere without the other, so we used this information against them. We carefully walked Lolo to the pen, holding her fur tightly, keeping her snug between us. Tyler agreed to hold her in the pen, with the door open, while I tried to herd Ninny Muggins toward them. This plan would have worked if Tyler had waited until Ninny Muggins was safely inside the pen to let go of Lolo. But he jumped the gun.

Lolo bolted straight at her mother, who immediately switched directions. The both of them came tearing through the yard toward me. I did the only thing I could think of: I dove—arms stretched, legs straight, suspended horizontally above the grass—gracefully through the air, my muscles taut with anticipation. I don’t know what I was anticipating—maybe to latch onto some wool, an ankle, or a hoof. Instead, I missed and landed flat on my stomach, knocking the wind from my lungs. Tyler doubled over laughing, his guffaws sending a new wave of panic through the already flustered goats.

When we’d regrouped, we decided on a less delicate mode of capture. We chased the two goats into the bushes, where their fur became tangled, their movements restricted. Eventually, we were able to corner them. With painstaking care, we led them back to the pen, making sure the door was closed and locked before releasing our grips.

Outside the pen, we laid down in the grass to recover. Tyler was quiet for a few minutes, then turned to me and said, “That was awesome. I’m going to stay for dinner. I have to be here when Nathan gets home.”

Nathan arrived just past seven. He looked from my face to Tyler’s face, then back at my face again. We were obviously up to something.

Tyler and I walked silently past him, out the door. Nathan followed cautiously.

When we got within twenty feet of the pen, the goats began their irritated bleating.

Nathan’s eyes snapped up, his jaw going slack. “You bought a sheep?”

I smiled. “Goats. And no, I bought two.”

Tyler couldn’t resist, “They’re both pregnant.”

Nathan’s eyes narrowed, as if adjusting his level of scrutiny.  “No they’re not.”

His disbelieving face swiveled back to me.

“Oh yes they are,” I confirmed. “You’re gonna be a dad!”

It didn’t take us long to realize that Lolo and Ninny Muggins hated us. They hated all people. They also climbed trees, ate wood, and kept us up all night with their terrible screaming. I had nightmares about Ninny Muggins getting loose, lurking outside my bedroom window. Nathan admitted to having the same nightmare, though he just called it a dream.

We waited and waited for kids, but after six months we lost hope. The miniature goat sweaters I’d knitted were put away in storage, and the Christmas stockings made for goat hooves were boxed up with the ornaments. We decided that the pregnancies had been speculation, not fact.

Then, one February afternoon, as we were about to leave for the weekend for a trip, something unexpected happened.

I found Lolo frozen in agony, back arched, teeth bared, her glossy eyes wide with panic. Nathan should have been with me, but he was inside getting our things together. I needed him, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t leave Lolo alone. I must have been hormonally empathic, because suddenly I was the one in labor and my partner, the one who had gotten me into this, was nowhere to be found. Lolo and I were in the same boat, and I was furious that we had been taken unawares.

The adrenaline had me dazed and slightly queasy. I thought I might be paralyzed. But when the mucus plug flew from Lolo’s body and hit the barn wall with a sickening splat, I sprang into action.

This was happening.

I ran as fast as I could to the kitchen door, opened it about four inches, and screamed a bloodcurdling scream. I can’t be sure what came out, but I think it was something along the lines of “emergency”, “help”, and “mucus plug”, which I guarantee were four words Nathan never expected, or wanted, to hear me scream. To his credit, he came running. By the time he reached the door, I was already back in the pen with Lolo, telling her everything was going to be alright, because that’s what you tell people when they’re scared and you don’t know how things are going to turn out.

While I squatted beside Lolo, I got the distinct feeling that she hated me a little less. Her breathing was ragged and her tongue, a flattened sausage covered in taste buds the size of pimples, hung limp from her gaping mouth. She turned away from me, as if to shield me from her pain, and my breath caught in my throat. I saw tiny hooves poking out from her body, poised to dive from some internal springboard. They were a blurry ivory, perfect little feet encased by the watery sac bulging from her body. I started to scream, “PUSH, LOLO! PUSH!” And she screamed back—a terrifying, final shriek full of fear, pain, and frustrated exhaustion.

Nathan showed up again just in time with warm towels and flashlights. As Lolo gave one final push, a red-brown blob of wetness, blood and fur plopped onto the ground at our feet. Nathan cleaned the afterbirth from the kid’s mouth and dried him with towels; I tied the umbilical cord with dental floss and dipped it in alcohol. We were jubilant, and for the first time, a family.

But Lolo wasn’t done yet. She grunted an irritated afterthought, and a second blob plopped onto the hay at her feet. Two of them! This time, the coat was black, slick, and steaming. We jumped into action a second time—cleaning, warming, wiping.

By the time the second kid was clean, the first was on his feet, stumbling for his mother, hungry for his first meal. We called him Oliver; he couldn’t have been anything else. I’ve always wanted to name my first son Oliver—that he happened to be a goat was irrelevant. I asked Nathan if he wanted to name the girl, but he could tell I had something in mind. “You already know her name. What is it?”

“Ella. She has a set of pipes like Ella Fitzgerald.”

We sat back on our heels, watching Oliver and Ella wobble around on their disproportionally long legs. Rounded snouts and floppy ears made them look like caricatures of goats, like the stuffed animal versions of the real thing.

Watching Lolo give birth had been more sobering than anything I had ever experienced. Human births seemed tame in comparison. Lolo hadn’t had any idea what was happening. A hundred and fifty something days ago she had flirted with a buck and then, all of the sudden, she was screaming in agony. I felt lucky, incredibly lucky, not to be a goat. I couldn’t imagine being taken by surprise by something as important as a baby. Inexplicably, I still wanted one of my own.

Oliver and Ella are several months old now. They love us. They climb trees, eat flowers, escape regularly, and follow us around the yard when they want something. I’ve put pictures of Lolo and Ninny Muggins on the internet, hoping someone might be in the market for a couple of Pygoras.

Underneath their picture, I put a short note: “They’re great animals, I just don’t have the space for them anymore.”