For years, Jim had been bugging his wife, Amy, for goats. Not because he'd grown up on a farm or had developed a sudden craving for goat milk. It was more of a guy thing—a simpatico connection with the goats' head-butting boisterousness.
"If they see something new, they're like, 'What's that? I'm going to smash it and play with it and jump on it and stomp on it,'" says Jim, a 34-year-old firefighter. "I like the attitude."
So it was that two years ago, on his birthday, Jim and Amy found themselves at a Mount Vernon farm to pick up a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats. (Amy had planned on a single purchase, but the breeder convinced her to get two, saying the animals become morose outside the herd.) These goats had the stiff hair and horizontal pupils of normal goats, but they'd been whittled down to the size of Pomeranians. The shrunken creatures looked at Jim and Amy and said, "Maah."
After weaning, the goats moved into the backyard of the couple's Georgetown home. And though small, their appetite for destruction was everything Jim had hoped for. He watched them suck the yard into their four stomachs until there was nothing left but rockery, ground, and a carpet of turds. Sometimes the goats, known as Pixie and Trixie, joined him in the house, where they displayed for company their unique table manners.
"We'd get drunk at a party every once in a while and bring them in," says Jim (who did not want his last name used, for reasons that will presently become clear, if they aren't already). "The first thing you know, they're on the kitchen table eating the curtains."
Jim took Pixie and Trixie hiking on Mount Si and for on-leash walks around the neighborhood, where he sometimes ran up against the goat haters. "They don't harass," Jim says, but "they seem genuinely upset and bothered, like this is something amiss."
Other passers-by just gawked and paparazzied the trio with camera phones.
Similar to that guy in your neighborhood who carries a ferret, or the one who's got a python around his neck, Jim became a minor celebrity by virtue of his unusual sidekicks. People might not know his name, but they knew the names of his goats.
So it came as a surprise last month when Jim discovered that his caprine companions might not be fully kosher. At a feed store in Burien, Jim noticed a petition asking for signatures to legalize little goats, posted by the "Goat Justice League."
Intrigued, he gave the petition poster a call. The woman said she, too, had been keeping miniature goats, but recently ran afoul of the city's Department of Planning and Development, which said it considered her goats to be illegal farm animals. Worse, a child in her neighborhood had fallen seriously ill, and health inspectors were investigating the goats as a possible source of a bacterial outbreak.
These days, Jim is trying to keep his head down and avoid trouble. His goats are hanging out in a base camp he built, halfway up a tree. "I'm a little scared," he says. "Maah," say Pixie and Trixie.
As far back as 10,000 years ago, goats were giving up milk, meat, and skins to their two-legged overlords. Yet despite being perhaps the oldest domesticated animal, goats have an oddly bad rap. Male goats, or bucks, are responsible for much of the negative perception. They smell like rancid cheese and fight so furiously that their lifespan is much shorter than the does'. They also intentionally pee on their own faces, a move designed to attract the ladies, who, perhaps because they've given up on reforming bucks, have come to view it as sexy.
People typically associate goats with randiness or an inclination to chew on stupid stuff like beer cans, as if goats were the frat boys of the animal kingdom. On the occasion that goats are given the chance to prove themselves worthy of greater callings, it's often in an experimental setting. An "ark" of them was burned up by the U.S. in its Bikini Atoll atomic tests, according to PETA. The organization also charges that the military still uses goats for surgery training in "wound labs," shooting them in the legs to simulate battle injuries.
In The Men Who Stare at Goats, a 2005 account of the military's now-defunct but eternally hilarious First Earth Battalion, British journalist Jon Ronson describes one extraordinary wound lab in Fort Bragg, N.C. Inside lived 100 goats, whom, Ronson says, paranormal-obsessed Special Forces personnel attempted to kill via telepathy. (Allegedly, one thought-warrior succeeded in stopping the heart of a goat.) The soldiers also unleashed upon a goat the technique of dim mak, aka the "death touch." "Goat Lab used to be called Dog Lab, but it turned out that nobody wanted to do all that to dogs, so they switched to goats," Ronson writes. "It was apparently determined within Special Forces that it was just about impossible to form an emotional bond with a goat."
Yet there evidently is such a bond. One of the area's premier ruminant enthusiasts is Jennie Grant. In a former life, Grant was the Seattle School District's first recycling coordinator and founder of the Seattle Pug Gala (a fund-raiser for pug rescue). Now she works at her Madrona home, where she writes ad copy for a real-estate agent and manages a stamp-sized farm of chickens and two miniature La Mancha goats, Brownie and Snowflake. Grant is also the originator of the Goat Justice League, a now 100-member strong organization.
Grant dived into animal husbandry last October after reading about the dire state of industrial food production in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. She originally bought her animals, from a Lynnwood farm, for their milk. Grant says she hoped to whip up a soufflé from home-produced ingredients. (Flour production is proving to be a roadblock.)
But Brownie and Snowflake came to mean much more to her than smoothies, chevre, and pancake batter. They wowed the neighbors by eating up briar patches, and earlier this year, Snowflake taught Grant's 7-year-old son about sex. Mom escorted the lad to a nearby farm, where she paid a breeder $50 to have her doe mate with a stud buck named Jumping Jack Flash. (In general, does only produce milk once they've been knocked up.)
Trouble reared its head in May, however, when a girl who lived a few blocks away began showing symptoms consistent with Q fever, a serious, sometimes fatal disease that's transmitted through livestock. "In doing our disease investigation and trying to go through all the things that it could be, we determined there was a goat in the community," says James Apa, spokesperson for Public Health–Seattle & King County. The fever-causing bacteria could have drifted in the air from Grant's goat pen to the girl's house, says Apa. But when the goats and the girl were tested, the results came back negative.
By then, however, Grant's goats had been outed and, in the case of a couple of neighbors, vilified. Seattleites are allowed to harbor farm animals only on property that's more than 20,000 square feet (a little bigger than an official hockey rink). Grant's plot is less than a quarter that size. City officials told her to lose the goats. Grant counterattacked with a letter to the inspector on her case, stating that not all goats can be judged with the same broad brush. "[M]y mini-manchas are not farm animals," she said, "but rather, small animals."
She protested to the city that the lineage of her pets lifted them out of the barnyard crowd of bulls, sheep, and horses—which the law prohibits on properties her size—and into the legally protected camp of "small animals," such as cats, dogs, and potbellied pigs. Like many goat owners, she likens her little friends to "pets with benefits," a category widely accepted in less industrialized countries.
"Things have evolved to the point where we have pets who we treat as kings and who serve no purpose, and we have farm animals who for the most part are bred under inhumane circumstances for a single purpose, to provide cost-effective food. We have become extreme in our view of animals," Grant wrote in a letter to the city. "Why can't an animal that serves some purpose, such as a small dairy goat, be permitted?...This is the way things are in other cultures and it is the way things were in the James Herriot stories."
In rejecting Grant's plea for tolerance, William Mills, a senior land-use planner in the city's Department of Planning and Development, relied on a different literary inspiration: the dictionary. His Aug. 3 letter observed that while Seattle law doesn't specifically define "farm animal," the law does list as examples of such "cows, horses, sheep and other similar animals" (emphasis Mr. Mills'). He added: "Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines a 'goat' in part as a 'horned ruminant mammal related to the sheep'" (emphasis ours).
But Grant got a rather more sympathetic response when she e-mailed the office of City Council member Richard Conlin. Her missive was evidently intercepted by the biggest animal softie working in local government, because a "legislative aide called right back and said, 'We're so sorry you had to deal with this,'" Grant says. Staffers in Conlin's office quickly drafted an ordinance that could allow regular homeowners the opportunity to board up to three "Pygmy, Dwarf and Miniature Goats," as long as they're dehorned, neutered, and licensed.
Conlin's legislation, which receives a public hearing Sept. 18, will one day enter the National Agricultural Hall of Fame as the sweetest love letter ever penned by bureaucrat to goat. The ordinance asserts that "more people worldwide drink goat milk than any other animal's," lauds little goats' "good-natured personalities, friendliness, faithfulness, and hardy constitution," and goes for the gold by citing the "numerous benefits for urban sustainability that goats provide, including that their manure is an excellent source of garden compost, their hair is a renewable source of fiber, and goats can provide an alternative to lawn mowers." (In fact, goats do not like to eat grass, though they will devour vines and brush. The UW recently used some to clear out an overgrown area near Husky Stadium.)
Conlin estimates the revised law will bring "possibly hundreds" of little-goat owners out of the shadows. "People are keeping them undercover because they're not legal at this point," he says in an interview.
Ingela Wanerstrand, a 42-year-old volunteer at Sustainable Ballard and a friend of Grant's, says she would love to have a goat on hand, since she's allergic to cow milk. "I don't know if you know what it's like not to have a glass of milk for years, then to have a cold glass of milk," she says. Wanerstrand doesn't care for store-bought goat milk because it can taste like licking the animal itself. "The stuff I tried at Jennie's was really good. It didn't taste the least bit goaty."
Grant's argument rests on the many flavors of goat that are out there. Decades of bloodline tinkering have produced more than 80 varieties worldwide. In the U.S., there are Angoras, with long, luxurious hair; buttermilk-rich Nubians; and genetically altered beasts in whose milk floats spider-silk protein—which, according to a recent BBC report, may someday be harvested for military uses, such as tougher bulletproof vests. There's also the famous Tennessee fainting goat, which falls over in a fit of bleats at the slightest sensory shock, such as a bird whistling overhead. Americans tend to eat fainting, Nubian, Boer (originally bred by Dutch farmers in South Africa), and American Kiko goats, the latter being descendants of a Kiwi goat breed developed by the ominous-sounding Goatex Group.
The blood of dwarves and La Manchas, a breed noted for its tameness, runs through the veins of Grant's goats.
Kaly, a West Seattle retiree who didn't want her last name printed, is perhaps the longest-established modern goat-keeper in Seattle. She has kept some sort of ruminant on her huge, Asian-style jungle compound—which is large enough to legally support them—since the early '80s.
"They're just characters," says Kaly, 67. The ur-goat was Gordon, a full-size goat who apparently staggered into Kaly's life after a lifetime of debauchery in the Drones Club. Gordon made a habit of escaping and getting collared by the local constabulary, who'd haul him home and tie him up again. When a blurry-eyed Kaly stumbled downstairs to find out who was ringing her doorbell at 5 a.m. one Sunday morning, she discovered Gordon using the bell as a step to reach and devour her hanging geraniums.
She eventually unloaded him on somebody else, substituting a series of smaller goats in his place. From Harbor Avenue, passers-by can watch the two current boarders go through an unusual feasting ritual. First, neighbor and self-appointed goat manager John Hendrickson rings an oversized triangle that signals grub time. The goats then feast on alfalfa from the backside of what looks like a covered carriage. "This is like the back of a chuck wagon in the cowboy days," says Hendrickson, a Safeway seafood manager who built the Old West replica himself.
In the Central District yard of Joe McDonnal and Virginia Wyman—owners of Queen Anne dinner club the Ruins—a full-size Nubian named Compañero spends his days standing atop a compost pile, eating his way down. In downtime, he hangs with a miniature horse.
Goats are supposed to exert a calming influence over nervous horses, and for that reason are sometimes inserted into stables. (The expression "to get one's goat" derives from an old practice, real or imagined, of stealing a racing horse's goat friend so it will perform poorly on the track.) But Wyman and McDonnal's goat is backwardly dependent. "He freaks out" whenever the horse goes on a walk, and bleats nonstop, says Wyman. "Where's the horse? What's the horse doing? What's happening with the horse?"
Breeders recently have been thinking small. Nigerian dwarf goats, which were imported into the States in the 1980s, have achieved much popularity for their diminutive, but dairy-heavy, frames. Dwarves were tapped for the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, suggesting that some day space travelers will be fighting over who has to get out of bed to milk the goat. The pocket-sized African pygmy first entered the spotlight in the 1950s with its comical, keglike frame, and it's now a big player on the local show circuit.
Although Seattleites might have had a blind spot in past decades to goats you could hoist with one hand, outlying areas are dotted with clubs devoted to little-goat competitions. The quality of pygmies, in particular, is said to be very high in the Northwest: They're smaller and more balanced than East Coast pygmies. So it's no surprise that the National Pygmy Goat Association is based in Snohomish.
Karen Crawford, a 44-year-old breeder in Graham, south of Tacoma, manages about two dozen pygmies, and each year she competes in as many as 14 pygmy-goat shows. A little room off to the side of her backyard stable is wallpapered with what must be hundreds of prize ribbons dating as far back as the mid-'90s. The stable echoes with the hair-raising cries of young pygmies: It's something between a parrot's attempt to say hello and the "Aaaagh!" of an elderly woman who just fell down the stairs.
The preparation for these shows is nothing fancy. First, there's a decade or two of crossbreeding to get just the right rump slope or elongated body style that suggests good kidding ability; then a quick trim of the tail and hooves before the animals are stuffed into carrying boxes in predawn hours. "They travel fine," says Crawford. "They go into this daze where you could be on the road for nine hours, and they just stand." Her and every other breeder's goal is to "perm out" the animals, or win the three or four grand-championship titles necessary for the creatures to retire in the sweet hay of goat Valhalla.
Ever since gentrifiers drove cows away in the early 20th century, Seattle has been racing to invite animals back into the city. The result is that we now live in one of the most diverse petting zoos on the West Coast.
The banning of cattle was understandable. They knocked over fences, left droppings in the street, and fell through wooden sidewalks. "As a modern view of the city took hold, the absence of cows raised property values, in part through the cultural association of cows and backwardness," according to Fred Brown, a historian who wrote an academic paper on the subject last year as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. Owners of roaming cows were hit with rocks and threatened with pistols. The cows were sent packing in 1907, writes Brown, around the same time many neighborhoods kicked out blacks and Asians.
Today's land-use code still has historical strictures against livestock and other farm animals. But it is generous toward rabbits and bees. A code revision in 1982 allowed people in all residential zones to keep up to three "domestic fowl"—defined as chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, quail, pheasants, and squab, but apparently not emus or ostriches. The birds could be tapped for eggs or slaughtered for roasting, at home if desired.
"We were one of the first to allow chickens into the backyards," says Angelina Shell, who tracks about 500 urban chickens for Seattle Tilth. Following Seattle's lead were Portland, Ore., and Madison, Wis. "We did something before Portland—it's amazing!" gloats Shell.
The loosening of the law on poultry came at a time when many residents were latching onto the sustainability movement. A 1984 review by the city concluded that "a growing number of households in the City are keeping rabbits or domestic fowl...[as] people wish greater self-sufficiency, and as they become more interested in urban agriculture, additive-free food, and composting." Sustainability doesn't explain, however, Seattle's next disastrous move in animal liberation.
Sus scrofa bittatus, the potbellied pig, was the last critter to be legalized by the city. That was in 1993. The headaches continue today, a reminder of the peril that can lurk when politicians put unfamiliar animals into the hands of the masses.
The pig push followed the same script as today's little-goat campaign. It began when pig owners sought protection from meddling zoning inspectors by appealing to then–council member Sue Donaldson. Swine populists sent letters lauding their chosen pet's merits: small, has a "little, pink corkscrew tail." An especially handsome pig was selected to serve as representative for the species. In this case, it was a Ballard porker with the smooth moniker of Willie G. "Willie brings pleasure to everyone, young and old, in our neighborhood," gushed one of G's fans. (Descended from wild pigs in the jungles of Asia, most potbellies tend to be about a tenth the weight of a 1,000-pound farm pig.)
But problems began surfacing a year after the pigs made it onto the city's "good" list. People thought they were buying Babe. Often, it turned out they'd purchased Hogzilla. The law said they had to stay under 150 pounds, but either because of overfeeding or the unscrupulous vending of regular-sized pigs, some swine ballooned to 300 pounds. Pigs grew so fat that rolls of flesh blinded their eyes, says Judy Woods, who runs a home for cast-off swine in Stanwood. The owners couldn't give them away for adoption because Seattle Animal Control considered these massive pigs to be livestock. Woods recalls visiting a house in which an overweight pig had lived for nine years in a bed of feces; its leg was rotted to the bone.
The pigs also had instinctual complexities that the average owner didn't comprehend. Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, wild pigs go through a sort of teenage-rebellion stage, in which they aggressively test the boundaries of their peers to establish a pecking order. With no pigs to spar with—the law specified one pig per household—the oinkers had to make do with the next best thing: their owners.
"You've been taking care of this animal since it was a baby, and all of a sudden it charges at you and you back up. If you back up, you've immediately given that pig domination over you, and you don't even know you did it," says Woods. "I've had pigs brought to the sanctuary who had cornered professional basketball players on the couch—wouldn't let them off."
Woods says she's taken in hundreds of unwanted or abused pigs from Seattle. And as the trend's half-life has continued to expire—George Clooney's 18-year-old Max gave up the ghost just last year—Woods still receives calls from the city every week. For that reason, she's opposed to the current goat ordinance.
"It'd be like me taking you and plomping you on Mars with somebody; you don't speak their language, and they're going to make you eat this food you don't want to eat," says Woods, who owned goats for 12 years before she tired of their indiscriminate pooping. "It doesn't do right by the animal itself."
Still, the little goats have passed a state environmental-impact analysis and received the go-ahead from Seattle's public-health vet, provided owners confine them on the property and pasteurize their milk. Don Jordan, director of the Seattle Animal Shelter, says he doesn't anticipate the kind of problems that doomed the pig fad. "It's our opinion that folks who are going to own these kind of animals are likely well-educated on the nature of the species," he says.
And he shrugs off suggestions that Seattle's newest mascot could factor in "a luau backyard barbecue of piglets and goats," as Woods describes it. (She swears she's received frantic calls about these species being butchered and eaten in White Center.) "We've got no evidence that folks would be doing anything other than possibly milking these guys," Jordan says.
Needless to say, breeders couldn't be more excited about a possible change in Seattle law. "It's more potential customers," says Karen Crawford. She's already received a call from one Seattleite, who wanted to keep a goat on the balcony of a 13-floor apartment. She declined to sell.