Like most pygmy goat owners (or so I imagine, I hope I’m not the only person who does what I’m about to describe) I spend a few hours every week relaxing outside with our four pygmy goats (Charlie, Ella, Jack and Sally), scratching their backs when they’re too lazy to bite at the irritant themselves, and quietly observing their bucolic existence.
I wonder what their pygmy brains are thinking as they wander around the pasture and walk along the pond. They seem quite intelligent, but so economical in their emotional expression that it’s hard to draw clear conclusions.
I’ve paid some attention to four areas of pygmy behavior: language, battling, affection, and differentiation. These are not scientific analyses by any means, they are simply observations. Eventually, if generalized theories of pygmy behavior can be developed, it might be worthwhile to gather more concrete data in addition to the current set of notes. Nonetheless, as a casual prolegomena to a more rigorous codification of pygmy behaviors this may serve as a useful starting point for additional observation.
Their role in life as prey rather than predators seems to inform much of their behavior. As more than one veterinarian has told me, “A pygmy goat that acts sick is on death’s door because they naturally hide any weakness.” The weakest pygmies are always the one’s that the predators attack first. Or, as Billy Crystal put it, “It’s better to look good than to feel good.”
So far I’ve found at least five distinct sounds. In general pygmy goats are pretty quiet, they make a little more noise than a cat and a lot less noise than a dog.
First, there is a separation call that they use whenever one goat wanders away from the herd. If two wander away then everyone wanders after and the herd coalesces before a warning call is needed.
Second, there is a recognition call generally associated with positive expectations. If I walk out of the house with a plastic bucket in my hand they know this usually means food and start calling out as they run to their shed. They’ll also make this call if we’re going for a walk, as they love to wander around the property.
Third, is a disapproving, somewhat insistent, call most often heard when their food is a little late. They know I don’t get up on time every morning so it’s muted at breakfast. But if their dinner isn’t on the floor by 6 pm, they start lining up outside the sliding glass doors on the porch and interrupt the evening news with their complaining.
Fourth, there is a little “meep, meep, meep” call they make deep in their throats when they’re readying themselves for battle. Supposedly, to a pygmy, this is deeply threatening and signals the incipient launch of a serious clobbering, but to everyone else it sounds ridiculous.
Fifth, and saddest, there is a very loud, higher pitched, continuous call which either means “I am hurt” or “I think I am hurt.” Mostly we observe the “I think I am hurt” variant at toenail clipping time. Sally, in particular, kicks her legs in all directions and screams like a little baby as soon as the orange clipper is unsheathed. I’m the only one that has ever been hurt by this ritual as she once kicked just as I was turning the clipper, jamming the two razor tips into the palm of my hand. Sally was then able to observe my high pitched, continuous, cursing behavior.
Battling: Dominance Ritual or Good Clean Fun
Pygmy behaviorists associate battling with maintenance of the herd order. I’m sure there is an element of this, but they seem to really enjoy smashing foreheads. There is no obvious competition between Sally and Ella, but they’ll stand on the porch, rear up on their back legs and just bash each other for 10 or 15 minutes; tails wagging the whole time. Their fur stands straight up on their backs, a traditional sign of anger, while they are battling, but it seems to be puffery more than enmity. The battle halts every 30 seconds or so if someone needs to bite an itchy foot or grab a slurp of water.
Social Affection and Herd Bonding
The pygmy’s generous use of social affection to support bonding within the herd is one of the most endearing aspects of their behavior. As many people have noted, you can tell if a pygmy goat really likes you because they will stand on your foot when you approach them–or perhaps the grass is wet–they hate wet grass. They regularly engage in this behavior with each other. They chew on each other’s ears, horns and collars, lay on each other when sunning, and rest their legs on each other’s backs when they’re gnawing at some spot on their paw. There is a lot of touching going on in pygmy land, but asexual in the case of our herd. The boys are all weathered so none of this is prelude to a dream.
We only have four pygmy goats, so this is clearly anecdotal not dispositive, but I believe we can ignore any fear of specious anthropomorphism and conclude that these pygmies have personalities that are wildly differentiated and wildly entertaining.
Clearly Ella dominates the herd as the explorer, new things are her thing. Charlie dominates the herd with size and muscle. He eats first, eats the most, wakes the other’s up when they’re napping and generally acts like an ornery big brother. Given this, he still lets Ella lead when something new is afoot. Jack supports the herd by demurring to the others and just being a sweetheart. Jack is stalwart and undemanding, taking what life brings him. Sally is very independent, wanders off from the herd regularly, picks and chooses when to interact with the humans and exhibits a feisty streak that belies her small size.
One could go on, but clearly there is not one genetic mold stamping out identical neural pathways. These four, at least, exhibit a clear differentiation of personality that argues for a deeper understanding of the notion of will in non-human species.
Additional work remains to be done in several areas, but time is money and pygmies are a parsimonious lot who pay little for unscientific monographs. Perhaps if the research dug a little deeper they would reach into their pockets farther.
Their intelligence relative to other pets would be a particularly fruitful area for more analysis. I remain baffled by their unwillingness to respond consistently to simple commands. Like cats, even though they seem to understand certain commands, they seem entirely disinclined to sit, shake or rollover. These commands seem to profoundly bore them; they’re inherently good-natured about it and remain bemused, but resolutely aloof.
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