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Black Lamb

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Moonbeam

Rearranging your life

May 1st, 2016

BY SUSAN BENNETT

On the internet, rivaling heart-warming pictures of puppies, kittens, and ponies, are videos of young goats leaping in the air, tumbling down hillsides, and gamboling across fields of wild flowers. These kids’s antics can bring smiles to the most cynical of Facebook trollers. However, viewers usually overlook that these enthusiastic acrobats are most likely destined for someone’s grill.

Such was the case of Moonbeam, nicknamed Beamer, who was born on a ranch in the Napa Valley that was also home to a herd of Black Angus, a few wool sheep, a handful of milk goats, several ranch horses, and an array of barn cats, chickens, and dogs. Every creature on the ranch had a purpose — and young male goats were sold as food. Rarely were baby animals named; it’s much harder to send “Buddy” to the slaughterhouse.

Moonbeam had a rough start in life, having been rejected by his mother, but that turned out to be his saving grace, literally. Coincidentally, Chris, the ranch manager, was recuperating from leg surgery. Fighting boredom and craving company, he took in the orphaned kid, named him Moonbeam, and bottle-fed him. Beamer had a straw-lined manger fashioned next to Chris’s bed, was put on a feeding and “potty” schedule, and the two were inseparable until each could walk and eat independently.

When Beamer was about two months old, I happened to be visiting relatives in Napa and arranged to spend a couple of days with Chris, whom my husband and I hadn’t seen since we had all lived in the SF Bay Area thirty years before. As he and his wife, Mary, gave me “the grand tour,” we passed by Beamer’s stall in the barn. As soon as he heard Chris’s footsteps and voice, he leapt to his feet and started baaing.

Chris introduced me to Moonbeam as he told me their story. He patted the kid on the head and said, “I feel pretty terrible. This afternoon, a buyer is coming to pick up the little guy for a barbecue. There’s no room on the ranch for a half La Mancha, half Kentucky meat goat. I usually know better than to get attached to the young livestock. But with my leg and all….”

At that point, Moonbeam turned his gaze to me. He looked like an alien! His La Mancha breeding had left him with tiny nubs instead of ears, and his amber eyes with a dark brown slit across the middle looked like a cat’s-eye marble. Large for his age, thanks to the Kentucky meat goat half, his four dainty feet with pointed hooves looked too small for his sturdy body covered with wavy golden fur. His tail flicked back and forth like a metronome. As if he knew his fate, he opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue and bleated a sound that resembled “saaaaave meeeeee!”

“Chris. I’ll take him. He can live next to my chicken coop. There’s an empty shed that I can turn into a goat house. Two conditions, though. You need to have him neutered, and then personally transport him to Humboldt County.”

Chris didn’t stop to think. “It’s done. I’ll go call the buyer and tell him the deal’s off. This gives me a good excuse to take a few days leave from the ranch, visit the redwoods, and spend time with Patrick after all these years. And you’ll be getting a lawnmower. Everybody wins.”

Somehow, I had a feeling that I had just agreed to something I might regret. I decided not to tell my husband about Moonbeam — only that Chris was coming to visit and bringing a surprise.

A month later, Chris showed up around dinnertime. Patrick and I stood on the porch to greet him. “Hi guys,” Chris called out. He opened the door of his vehicle and out popped Moonbeam. “Here we are. Eager to stretch our legs after six hours in the van. Patrick, meet Moonbeam, AKA Beamer. It’s going to be lonely driving home without him. Isn’t that right, Beamer?”
Patrick looked at Beamer, at Chris, and then at me. “This is your surprise, right? You were in cahoots this whole time, weren’t you? What is he anyway? No ears, weird eyes, and only one horn on his head. He looks like a deformed unicorn. Or an alien.”

By now, Beamer was hopping around, nibbling the roses, drinking from the dog bowls, and making himself at home. I smiled at Patrick. “He’ll be a great gardener. I never was much good with roses anyway.” Beamer was already working on his second rose bush, and had snapped the flowers off the chrysanthemums.

“Time to go into your new corral,” I told Beamer as I led him to his quarters. “And don’t listen to Patrick. I think you’re beautiful, even if you did lose one of your horns as a baby and look a little lopsided.”

I showed him around his grass-filled enclosure, put him in his house filled with fresh bedding, a pail of water, a flake of alfalfa, and closed the door so he would be safe from bears, skunks, and other wildlife. Beamer started to scream in goat language, “Let me out; let me out. I want to sleep with the rest of the family.”

“He’ll be fine,” promised Chris. “Once he gets used to things and it’s dark, he’ll settle down and stop complaining.”

Patrick wasn’t placated. “Not only does he look like an alien, he sounds like one, too,” he whispered in my ear.

Beamer could have been a YouTube star, but he was born too soon. His appearance was eye-catching, and he loved to dance. He danced all around the property; he cavorted up and down our country lane. He scaled a five-foot redwood stump and pirouetted around like a ballet dancer.

On the weekends, we would walk to the schoolyard near my house, where he leaped, twisted, and pranced around. He generated “ooohs” and “ahhhs” with his antics, especially when children got close enough to see he was a goat. He jumped on the picnic tables playing king-of-the-hill and greeted the children with a gentle nudge to receive pats and scratches.

Beamer followed me everywhere, like Mary’s little lamb. We would go on hikes in the woods. While my dogs were sniffing the ground, Beamer was sampling tender shoots spouting up along the trail. Sometimes we would come upon other hikers, who did a double take when they saw one of our pack was not a canine. “What kind of goat is that?” they always asked. “He’s huge, and his ears look like tiny, round antennas. And those amber, marble-like eyes — he looks like an alien.”

Beamer attracted stares when he would ride in the back of my station wagon. Other drivers at first thought he was a big dog. They would laugh and wave. Beamer was responsible for a number of near misses on the freeway.

Not only was Beamer athletic, but he was also an accomplished escape artist. He scaled the fence of our original enclosure like a mountain climber and ascended the next fence by placing his feet in the spaces, like climbing a ladder. We couldn’t figure out how he was escaping the livestock panels we next installed. They were too high to jump, too slippery to climb, and he was too hefty to crawl between the two bottom rungs.

We spied on him from the house and were amazed by his problem-solving abilities. He had figured out that the gaps between the horizontal poles got wider as the fence got taller, and he experimented until he could leap sideways through the space large enough to accommodate his girth. Eventually, we contained him thanks to Patrick’s fence-building ingenuity, but not until after the doggie-door incident.

One day I got home from work, opened the door, and was greeted by Beamer in the front hall! The place looked like a 7.1 earthquake had hit. Every houseplant was dumped over and eaten to the roots. The dining room table was swept clean of its cloth and candles. Beamer had gone from room to room, bounced on every bed, and left goat droppings on the chairs and sofa. Puddles of goat pee were everywhere. The dogs were cowering in the laundry room looking guilty even though they had not, as far as I could tell, willingly participated in the havoc.

Beamer didn’t look guilty at all. In fact, he appeared quite proud of himself. He stood especially tall and his posture conveyed the message: “How many goats do you know clever enough to escape their pens, follow the dogs through an opening covered by a flap, into the garage, and then through the next flap into the house? And thanks for the snacks, climbing structures, and trampolines. This place is a virtual gymnasium with a snack bar!”

That evening, as I was giving the house a thorough overhaul, Patrick was taking Beamer’s challenge; it was man against goat, and Patrick marshalled all of his construction knowledge, carpentry skills, and tools to finally build an escape-proof pen. But for months afterward, upon returning home, I opened the front door with trepidation.

By September, Beamer had become a guest in several elementary schools. He began as part of a petting zoo at the school near our house during their back-to-school festival. From there, he was invited to classrooms having lessons on domestic animals; in spite of living in a rural area, many children in town had never seen a farm animal close up, let alone petted one.

We would meet the class on the playground, and Beamer would go from child to child gently tickling their small fingers with his lips and tongue as he munched on goat chow I had provided. He was a special hit when he lifted his tail and deposited little black pellets.

Our most memorable visit was to Ms. Stillman’s second grade class who were reading folktales, among them Three Billy Goats Gruff. Ms. Stillman wanted her students to see a real goat so that they could better relate to the story. She also wanted them to see that goats were not creatures to inhabit their nightmares.

We arrived to find each student wearing a name tag and waiting impatiently for Beamer to leap from the back of my station wagon. They had their handfuls of goat chow ready to feed him and had been instructed by their teacher to stroke him gently with the other hand.

“Look!” called Jake as Beamer trotted over to the eager students. “He has a beard just like the goats in our book!”

“And he has little pointed feet,” observed Hannah.

“But where are his ears?” asked Timothy. “He looks like an alien!”

“I think he is beautiful,” remarked Emily. “His eyes look like my mother’s beaded necklace, and his fur sparkles like Rapunzel’s hair.”

Later that month, the postman delivered a “thank you” present from the second graders: twenty-four interpretations of a scene from Three Billy Goats Gruff, each with a caption and signature. One picture depicted “a princess named Susan leading her goat across the bridge,” signed Emily.

By the time Beamer reached full size, he retired as a travelling goat ambassador. He weighed more than two hundred pounds; the veterinarian said he was the biggest goat she had ever had as a patient. He was well over five feet tall when he stood on his hind legs, and he scared the children at the playground. If I tried to walk him on a leash, he would pull me over.

So Beamer happily accepted his second career as a gardener. I rehomed my roses to a neighbor, and made certain the doggie doors were fastened closed when Beamer had the run of the backyard. But throughout Beamer’s long life, I never had to mow the lawn or trim the bushes.

Nonetheless, my advice to those who say they want a goat for a pet is to stick to irresistible YouTube videos of “young kids leaping in the air, tumbling down hillsides, and gamboling across fields of wild flowers.” As I learned from Beamer, the “alien” in your yard might be more clever than you. And though it is untrue that goats eat cans, they love to rearrange gardens — and your house — if you have a large enough doggy door. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Animal Issue, Bennett | Link to this Entry

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