7-13 October 2016 #829

Ode to goat

The goat looked me straight in the eye with a kind of intensity and intelligence I had never seen before
Ketan Dulal

Kunda Dixit

As a boy, I remember one Dasain when my father brought a goat from the village for the festival. It was kept in the house for a few days before it was to be sacrificed on the day of Maha Ashtami.

It was a rainy Dasain that year and I was given the responsibility to take the goat outside to graze. What I still remember clearly is the goat’s gaze -- it looked me straight in the eye with a kind of intensity and intelligence I had never seen. This animal was too cute to be eaten, and I sheltered it from the rain with my umbrella.

The next day, the goat was ritually killed and my family feasted on it with great relish. Ever since, I have always had conflicting emotions about eating mutton. Today, as a student of animal behaviour and welfare I have learnt how scientists are finding out about several interesting abilities of goats; that the animals have long-term memory and are able to solve problems relying on their cognitive abilities.

Researchers have now found that the gaze with which that goat communicated with me as a boy was actually an indication that they interact with humans at a visual level, making eye contact and even looking at humans for help if they cannot solve a certain problem – traits similar to those shown by dogs and horses.

Dasain is upon us, and hundreds of thousands of goats and other ungulates will be slaughtered all over the country in this annual festival. In fact, Dasain is synonymous with goat curry and I am sure very few Nepalis will be relating to goats as emotional and intelligent beings. 

But the evidence shows otherwise. Wild goats are social beings, and feral goats have been found to return to a complex and dynamic social structure. Hierarchies are formed and there is reconciliation after a fight

Bikram Rai

In one experiment, a subordinate and dominant goat were shown food both could see, and only the subordinate goat could see the hidden food also. The subordinate, if it had been the victim of aggression by the dominant goat, opted for the hidden food thus displaying a cognitive mechanism similar to primates

One experiment proved that goats have long-term memory. Goats were coached how to get food by pressing a lever. They were tested a month, and again ten months after the experiment, and showed that they could remember what they had learnt.

The different ways that humans communicate with animals are vital in deciding whether we should use animals as food or as companions.

Horses and dogs were probably used as companion animals mainly because they follow our lead.

The argument can be made that an animal that can follow the gaze of humans by taking into account their presence and attentional stance can be used as a companion animal. Recent studies have shown that goats are like dogs in that they make eye contact with a human facing them, and look in the direction of the gaze of a human or other goats.   

In one trial, researchers stayed near the subject as another stood at a distance, near a box of food with a lid. One of them looked at the goat (forward facing) while in another trial group the same person looked away (backward facing). In a control experiment, a researcher some distance away always looked at the goat itself.

The goats looked at the person who was near them when he was ‘forward facing’ more often than when he was ‘backward facing’. When the person was ‘backward facing’, the goat’s gaze was directed towards the person who was at a distance from the animal. Studies like this prove that goats are animals with complex emotional and cognitive needs.   

We need to rethink our relationship with goats, and how we raise these animals. Goats are sentient beings with surprising intelligence, and our relationships with them can be special. Goats are not there just to be eaten. Our responsibility as a moral beings, is to give the best life possible to livestock like goats which have complex emotional needs.

Ketan Dulal is a PhD candidate at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Read also:

The goat rush, Shreejana Shrestha

Scapegoats, Thirtha B Shrestha

Getting to the meat of it, Tulasi Gautam