In Over My Caprine Head

When my first novel sold, I wasn’t sure what I should do first: cash the check and roll around on the bed in the money, or go buy a car. But when the confetti settled, I told my husband what I really wanted was a goat. We live on a handful of acres about 13 miles from Philadelphia in a town that is farm-animal friendly. In fact, the lot where we built our house has a small barn and is still bordered by split rail that once housed horses.

Our property has a stream that trickles through it, complete with waterfall, mossy rocks, crayfish, salamanders, and even the occasional bass or sunfish from the pond upstream. I have planted bulbs along the bank, and we see the daffodils in early April, but by summer this little mecca of waterlife is completely obscured, surrounded by thick jewelweed, twisting porcelain vine and its itchy pal, poison ivy.

I have three children who spend their afternoons turning over rocks and damming the waterways, filling lemonade pitchers with creatures from the stream. My middle son, Max, is especially prone to dramatic skin reactions and by mid summer he can be one blistering bubble of poison ivy.

Enter Neeko. I did a little research—did you know that goats adore poison ivy? I called the neighbor girl to see if their wether (neutered male) Neeko would like to come over and be our rental ruminant. She said her father was pleased not to have him eating everything, pestering their sheep and knocking down fences.

I offered her $5/day, thinking our 100 yards of stream border would be cleared in a week. Rebecca walked him across the road on a leash and pounded a heavy, metal orange stake in the ground at a random spot on the bank. He did nothing the first few days but pace anxious crop circles into our yard at the farthest length of his tether and wrap himself around trees.

We quickly extended our contract but reduced the rate, which was good; it would be nine months before Neeko went home.

My kids loved him, the way he ‘did the dinosaur’ standing up on his hind legs to reach the silver maple leaves. They also gave him wary and worthy respect. Neeko is a disbudded goat—meaning he had his horns removed as a baby. This did not stop him from using his forehead to toss my five-year-old.

Once he settled in, our rental goat was a veritable weedwhacker. I learned unlike grazing animals (horses, sheep) goats love ‘woody browse’. Poison ivy is their fancy arugula salad. Soon our trees were stripped and the kids could make their way down to the water.

Still, I knew Neeko was going home eventually. I wanted a goat of my own. Enter Phoebe, $65 off Craigslist.

I drove to a farm in Southern New Jersey that had a smoking, badly-lipsticked, sliding-bra-strap heft of a woman who instructed “Sonny” to bring in the herd from the back forty, and to hurry up about it—she had a date to the county fair. Somewhere, a banjo played. The ad had said these goats were tame babies, bottle fed and friendly. When Sonny grabbed Phoebe, a six week old buckskin one of my kids pointed to, squealing, by a hind leg, it was obvious she had never seen a human in her short life. He tossed her in the back of my SUV, which didn’t startle my kids nearly so much as when I screamed and tried to climb the slippery side windows of the car while being gored in the leg by Phoebe’s understandably irate mother. “Bottle feed her every coupla hours!” Sonny hollered as we drove away.

We might as well have gone into the forest and snagged a fawn—that’s how skittish poor Phoebs was. Bottle feeding never happened. By the third night of trying, I was planning what we would tell the kids when she was dead, wondering whether it was illegal to put her body in a Hefty bag and leave it on the curb for the trash men, when something amazing happened. In desperation, I had mixed powdered sheep milk in a cake pan and Atticus, our leggy adolescent kitten started lapping it up. Phoebe followed tentative suit. While she never felt as comfortable with people as her future companion, never properly appreciated the nights I sat up with her trying to get the bottle between her stubborn goaty lips, she became a member of the family, often curling up with Atticus on the hay bales.

We knew Neeko was eventually going home, though he was still doing a champion job on every overgrown corner of our property, so I convinced my husband that we couldn’t just get one goat—GOAT MAGAZINE said so. I headed north to posh Bucks County for a pedigreed, disbudded, weaned, silky black Pygmy-Angora mix we named Gertie, partially after my great-grandmother, but mostly because both names, Gertie and Phoebe, sound great when you call them with a bleating noise in the middle, like the sorceress-turned-goat in the movie Willow.

Gertie was the baby goat I thought I was getting when I drove on to that dusty, trailer-strewn farm in Jersey and Phoebe was plucked from the anxious, smelly herd. Gertie was bottle-raised by the children on the hobby farm and came to us gentle and affectionate. She followed me around like Mary’s little lamb, went for evening walks, and after dinner on the patio she would clamber up onto my lap and fall asleep in my arms like a baby. After a car ride to my son’s preschool for show and tell, she would come running and bleating whenever she heard my keys jingling, leaping into her favorite spot—the console between the front two seats, where she had a good view of the road and could rest a head on my shoulder while I drove.

Here is where I should explain that the property we live on was set up for horses, with a nice split rail perimeter fence. Based on the neighbor goat, who has been tethered his whole life, I just assumed we would tie up little Phoebe and Gertie next to him and put them in the barn at night so the local foxes and dogs wouldn’t eat them. I spent the first few weeks constantly untangling the girls, who crisscrossed like badly trained puppies. It was no way for them to live—I told my husband as we took them on their nightly leashed walk. “I think they know we’re their home now—I think they’ll stay around if I let them loose.”

Amazingly, they did, trusting the fence and the stream as their border (goats hate water) and as spunky, free-spirited baby goats, they provided us with hours of entertainment. Every morning when I let them out of the barn, our family had breakfast theater to what we called The Goat Show, a thirty minute high energy display of bucking, kicking, head-butting and frolicking on the stone wall of our patio and porch as they cavorted in laps around our house. Besides, it was fall, and my gardens and browning flowerbeds needed to be trimmed back—I didn’t care what they ate.

Though Neeko was our main worker, still steadfastly munching through the overgrowth at the end of his tether, grateful for the compost bowl from our kitchen, the girls were picky little things, nibbling only the dried corn out of their sweet feed, the choicest pieces of expensive hay I bought, eating absolutely nothing in the wild. Worse, they scampered free down among Neeko in the poison ivy patches, and then Gertie sat on my lap, tucking her ivy-oiled head under my chin, or Phoebe rubbed against my shins on our evening walk—I got goats to get rid of poison ivy, and now I was covered in it.

The other trouble was the house—now the girls felt like they owned it. The bench on the front porch was their favorite spot to ruminate, chins on each other’s backs, and if a door opened, to a car or the house, they made a beeline. Friends dropping off playdates were used to it—the girls usually cleaned up the stray goldfish crackers and granola bits on the floors of their minivans before I ushered them out, but the UPS man hated us.

My husband was very serious about this: NO GOATS IN THE HOUSE, so we rarely let them in when he was home. But then it was winter, and they cried like they were being led to slaughter when I put them in their barn at night, exhibiting their famous caprine escape artist skills. One night, after the third time of putting them back in, I huffed back up the hill to the house in the freezing dark, only to have them literally greeting me from inside our cozy kitchen door. My kids thought it was hilarious, until we got our Christmas tree, and the girls would clamber in and make short work of its lower branches and the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.

Still, I loved them, even as they ate every exposed piece of green ornamental bush poking out of the snow down to the nubs. On Christmas day, I put on one of my kids’ santa hats and headed out for a jog in the freezing drizzle. Gertie and Phoebe scampered off the porch and kept me company, trotting gamely beside me for three miles.

Then it was spring, and the rains came, bringing flooding that took out our perimeter fencing, the mental barrier between my goats and the road. The police called—someone said our girls had been out in traffic. I went back to tethering Phoebe and Gertie, which they hated, as spring bulbs came up in our flowerbeds. It was time, I told my husband, to put up a proper goat pasture. We got a bid--$6,000—and then in a windfall of luck, the construction project uphill from us took responsibility for the veritable river that had crushed our old splitrail, that continued to flood our lower pasture every time it rained. They planned to put the water underground on our property, they told us, would even replace the lost fencing. The catch—it would tear up our current pasture and it could happen any time in the next four to eight months. Until then, the girls would have to be tethered.

I cried like I haven’t in a long time—it wasn’t fair to leave Gertie and Phoebs tied up for months. They were free-spirited little ladies who needed to run. I found a family who was looking for pygmy goats for their children involved in 4-H. They had two hundred acres that they sublet to farmers of organic corn and apples—the girls could have all the leftovers they wanted. They had pastures and barns, a small herd of their own. We made an open-ended agreement—when our fencing was fixed, we would talk about whether or not the girls, or perhaps one of their babies, could come home.

No money changed hands. The girls left on the laps of their new family looking out at us through the car windows, their favorite way to travel. Neeko went across the street to his family for several months too; he is here again now to graze back the overgrowth. He looks for the girls sometimes, poking his head into the barn and then hanging it, heartbroken.

The construction churns on up the hill but there is no sign of the water management system starting any time soon—I know I made the right choice for the girls. But I miss them terribly. Did you know that if you have goats who free range and eat poison ivy, and you milk them and drink this milk, you can develop immunity yourself? As soon as we get our fencing/flooding fixed, I know there are goats in our future. And maybe even a pony.

Chandra Hoffman is a freelance writer who lives outside of Philadelphia and dreams of goats, ponies and chickens. Her debut novel, CHOSEN, an account of infertility, infidelity, adoption and extortion is coming out in August, 2010.

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