The Lives of Goats

Goat Emotion & Cognition

Goats are incredibly complex, unique, and intelligent animals. They are natural foragers with distinctive rectangular-shaped pupils. The unique shape of their eyes allows them to keep their eyes horizontal when they are foraging, so they remain aware of their surroundings and can see danger approaching from their peripheral vision.

Many people think that goats have voracious appetites. But, in reality, they have sensitive lips and thus tend to be a bit picky, eating only what they deem clean and tasty. Goats commonly enjoy a wide array of veggies and fruits, including strawberries, watermelon, and grapes. However, if they eat too much, they can get “bloat,” which can be quite painful and even deadly.

Goats, when not in confinement, live in complex social herds. Within their groups there is a hierarchy, with the most aggressive/dominant goats — usually the ones with the largest horns — being head of the herd. They function better in groups, and when they are isolated from their group, they become stressed. They can be taught their names, but unlike dogs, they should not be kept as “pets,” as they are highly social animals; without the companionship of conspecifics, they can experience depression.

Goats are extremely intelligent and have highly advanced cognitive skills. For instance, studies show that goats have exceptional memories and the ability to learn fairly complex tasks quickly. In one particular study, several goats were taught how to obtain food from a box by solving a complex puzzle. The goats, on average, figured out how to solve the puzzle and obtain the food within four tries. However, what was most impressive is that, ten months later, these goats were able to complete the very same task within two minutes, indicating that they have fantastic long-term memories.

Research also indicates that goats are drawn to humans with happy facial expressions. In one study, goats were shown two photos of the same person: one was of the person making an angry facial expression and the other was a photo of the person “wearing” a happy facial expression. The goats went towards the photo of the person making a happy facial expression. This indicates that goats are able to understand human facial expressions and that they prefer expressions of happiness.

Research also shows that goats sometimes rely on humans for assistance. In one study, researchers placed an uncooked piece of penne pasta in a container without a clasped lid, and the goat participants were able to access the pasta without issue. However, as soon as the researchers put the penne in a container that was clasped shut, the goats would look at the box, look at the human (researcher), and look back to the box again, indicating that they wanted the human to help them open the box. These studies demonstrate that goats have highly complex cognitive skills, including the ability to complete and remember puzzles in order to gain a reward, an understanding of their own inabilities, an understanding of humans, and the ability to communicate intentionally with humans.

Goats on Today’s Farms

Because goats are very versatile and easily adaptable to most conditions, they are farmed globally– on six continents! Some people use them for their meat, while others use them for their fur and milk. Worldwide, about 440 million goats are slaughtered every year. In the United States, 1.5 million goats, many of whom are raised on factory farms, are killed every year for food.

The goats who reside on factory farms are subjected to terrible abuse and live in horrible conditions. They often are kept in filthy, overcrowded feedlots without proper care, which leads to all kinds of physical ailments. Goats who live on the “range” don’t have it much better, as they aren’t protected from inclement weather. It’s common for baby goats (kids) and adult goats to have their horn buds seared off with an iron. This is done without anesthetic, which causes them excruciating pain, and it often causes infections, since the wounds are not properly taken care of. Males are usually castrated without pain relief.

Female goats are often kept impregnated, forced to produce milk for human consumption. Their babies are usually ripped away from them immediately after they give birth, which causes both mother and offspring severe emotional distress. After dairy goats stop producing milk, which is usually when they are 3 years old, they are sent to slaughter. On the other hand, the lifespan of male goats who are raised for their meat is relatively short, as they are usually sent to slaughter before they reach one year of age.

Goats who live on factory farm are prevented from engaging in their natural behavior. They aren’t given proper diets or sufficient space to roam around, and they are deprived of opportunities to play with their conspecifics. Essentially, they lack the type of physical, emotional, and mental stimulation needed to have a good quality of life.

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