Understanding Gleeful Goats

Farmers raise millions of goats, but little has been known about whether their ruminants are happy. Now we know better. Kerstin Joensson/AP

Farmers raise millions of goats, but little has been known about whether their ruminants are happy. Now we know better. Kerstin Joensson/AP

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story on their blog with a funny name, which covers a subject much on our mind as our farm-to-table program at Kayal Villa prepares to supply 51 with dairy from our happy herd:

Goats are having a moment, and we’re not just saying that because our blog is called Goats and Soda.

There are nearly 900 million goats in the world today, up from 600 million in 1990. The reason for this goat spurt is the growing popularity of goat cheese, goat milk and goat meat.

For goat farmers to do a good job, they need to understand their goats. And that’s where Alan McElligott comes in. He’s a senior lecturer in animal behavior at the Queen Mary University of London. And he says that goats are “underrepresented” in animal welfare studies.

That’s bad for goat farmers. They need to know whether their herd is in a “positive” or “negative” frame of mind, he says: “If animals have chronic stress, they’re far more likely to get ill. That costs money in terms of medicine and vet bills.”

And it’s not enough to know when your goat’s mad. “Keeping animals is not just preventing them from being in negative states,” McElligott explains. “You would want to have animals in positive states. But it is more difficult to identify those positive states.”

So McElligott and several colleagues ran a study to see if they could find helpful clues for farmers. The research was conducted over summer months because “goats hate cold weather and particularly hate rain,” so they’re more cooperative subjects in warm weather.

We were definitely curious: What does a happy goat look like? We spoke to McElligott to find out.

Can you describe the experiments?

The key aspect is putting goats into what we consider mildly positive or negative situations.

To create a positive state, we use what we call food anticipation. We shake some food in a bucket a few seconds before we walk toward the goat and feed it. The animal feels a bit like how you feel when somebody is bringing you your dinner. You sort of perk up, creating a mildly positive state.

For the negative states, the experiments are really short. In one of the negative conditions, we put two goats in adjacent pens. Then we bring food to one of them, but not the other. The goat next door just watches the other goat eating for five minutes. During these experiments, we filmed the goats to see what their behavior was and had a microphone record them.

What are the signs of a gleeful goat?

A key parameter was the way the goats point their ears…

Read the whole story here.

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