Life Lessons from a Goat
Along my journey to veganism, I have been moved by number of animal teachers.
One of the dearest of these friends was a goat named Mariolana. She was part of a group of about 16 goats that, through a work exchange program, I found myself herding in the Italian countryside.
It was fall and the forest was rich with chestnuts. One of the jobs I was given was to watch over the goats as they ate wild chestnuts in the countryside … unless, of course, they got away from me and then they feasted on the neighbor’s cabbage patch, as well.
I learned many important things about goats during this time, such as:
- How horrible male goats smell (unless they’re neutered)
- How much goats enjoy climbing on things (including trees)
- How fast, clever and cheeky as all hell, goats can be.
I enjoyed them all (except maybe the males… phew, quite the smell) but I developed a special relationship with Mariolana. She taught me less about what it meant to be a goat and more about what it meant to be an individual. She had a brown and black coat, with two slit ears from pulling her ear tags out. I would often find her rectangular pupils scanning the forest floor and then me…
“What did you have to offer?” she seemed to be asking.
When I told my Italian host that Mariolana was my favorite, she warned me that the coming fall would probably be Mariolana’s last. It was true that she was getting up in years, but her end would come by knifepoint, not by nature. I was told she had struggled with her last pregnancy and had eventually lost her kid. My host said she did not want her to “suffer” through another winter so she was planning to have her butchered before she died on her own. A natural death would cause the blood to pool in her tissue, making it “unpalatable.” My host had made it clear even before my arrival that some animals would die or be sold so she could afford to keep the rest … but I didn’t understand that reality until I was part of it.
Each dairy goat and cow, each hen and rooster, had unwittingly been bred as part of a business deal. They were “paying their way” in life with children, milk and eggs … but when their bodies or souls ran dry, they were made to pay with their own lives.
I hated the idea of Mariolana’s death at any time, but the thought of her meeting the butcher clawed at me. I decided I would do the best I knew how to (then), to keep her alive.
Every time we went out into the forest I searched out particularly plump chestnuts and stuck them in my pocket and then when Mariolana got close to me I fed them to her. Her rectangle eyes would bulge with anticipation as I dug into my pockets and picked out chestnuts the size of my palm. She chomped eagerly on them, quickly learning that my friendship tasted good.
Because she was older and independent, sometimes when the rest of the herd charged ahead of us up the hill, she and I would end up alone together; Mariolana diligently seeking out chestnuts on her own and I plying her with more as we climbed the hill.
Then breeding season came upon us. There were two males in the herd, but only the largest male got the ladies. The only thing the younger male seemed to get was his head stuck in the fence. The rest of the herd were females, every mother among them still being milked from her last pregnancy. All of the goats who were old enough were expected to bear kids for the first time or again that season. Most of their progeny would be sold, although a few would be kept to “replace” the older members of the herd.
Mariolana made it through this time. But sadly the herd did shrink by one. Melissa, a young female, hung herself. At night when we had left the barn, her collar caught on the milking rack and in her struggle to free herself she suffocated. The morning they found her I was, thankfully, sick in bed. Our host buried the majority of her body with a backhoe, but not before cutting off Melissa’s legs to give them to her dogs. The next day on my trek to the cow shed one of the farm dogs ran by with a small hoof hanging from his mouth.
As the mating season continued, my hosts asked me to keep an eye out for which goats were ovulating and if they had mated that day. I did this and one day Mariolana swished her tail in the characteristic way of an ovulating goat. Although it was unclear whether her body could bear it, getting pregnant was her only stay of execution; it was her only hope to unknowingly “pay” for another six months of life. When I told my host that I was pretty sure Mariolana became pregnant the day I saw her tail swish, she told me it was unlikely … but we would see.
Next: How the story ends…
Sure enough though, after mating season was over, the vet came and confirmed that, against all odds, Mariolana had conceived what would most likely be her last child. Because she had struggled so much with her pregnancy the year before, it was unclear what this would mean for her, but both Mariolana and I knew she was still full of life. If only her child birthing years were over and she could simply be …
Eventually the goats got into the neighbor’s cabbage patch one too many times and my host thought it was a good time for me to move on. Little did I know then that my time herding goats had launched me on a path to veganism and creating a world in which I would not be warned against caring for my fellow animals, but encouraged to do so.
I’m sad to say I do not know if Mariolana made it through that winter, as I could not bear to write and ask. Whether she died on her own or was killed, I wonder how many years were taken from her through the continued weight of birth, milking and loss that she bore throughout her life.
When I get the chance to visit with a goat now and again, I often see Mariolana reflected in their eyes. I remember feeding her chestnuts and praying that somehow my love and the extra chestnuts would save her. But in the end it couldn’t … Only helping my Italian host to see Mariolana as a sentient, unique being whose body was her own, would have.
I now live my life as a vegan educator for her and for the billions of animals who are being used and discarded, who pay the price for our lust for milk, eggs, and flesh with their children, with the wear on their bodies and finally, with their lives.