Think before you drag them to a slaughterhouse, research says goats communicate with humans as dogs do

  • Research has proved that goats try to communicate with people in the same way that dogs and horses do

  • Breeders say that goats are calm and observant

  • Researchers have found that when goats encountered a difficult problem they would 'stare' at humans for help

Someone rescued a goat from a slaughterhouse and handed it over to the Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre in New Delhi. We allowed it to run free and soon the goat became 'leader' of a pack of dogs which followed it everywhere at a respectful distance. While resting, the goat often sat on a large window ledge and the dogs below it. When people visiting the OPD talked among themselves, while they waited for their pets to get checked, the goat would often go near them. Once, I made the mistake of touching it on the head as it stood near a group of people. The goat turned around, its deep-yellow eyes glaring at me, and playfully headbutted me. The staff at the centre said that it was looking for "murgas" like me who would mistake it for a dog and pet it.

 Think before you drag them to a slaughterhouse, research says goats communicate with humans as dogs do

A boy with two goats meant for sacrifice at Rumi Darwaza near Lucknow. Image Courtesy: Mirah Zamin

Are goats as smart as dogs? Until recently, scientists thought that only animals that had been bred as companions or pets – such as dogs, cats, and horses – were intelligent or able to form bonds with humans. It gave us sanction to eat all other animals or simply kill them for sport. Mutton is a common item on the Indian menu.

But now, research has proved that goats try to communicate with people in the same way that dogs and horses do.

In a series of experiments published in Biology Letters, researchers have found that when goats encountered a problem they cannot solve by themselves they would 'stare' at humans for help. Also, goats act in accordance with a human being's behaviour.

Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London wrote, "From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests, but these results also show how they can communicate and interact with their human handlers even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals."

To test their communication skills, researchers trained a few goats to remove a lid from a box and gave a 'reward' in return for the act. The reward was later made difficult for the goats to achieve by making the lid removal harder. The reactions of goats toward the experimenters — who were either facing the animals or had their backs to them — were recorded. The goats would stare at those facing them in a similar way as dogs do when asking for a treat. They would also look at humans facing them for a longer period of time than those who had their backs to the animals. This suggests that goats are aware in which direction human beings look. In some instances, the goats would also approach those facing them before returning to the box.

"Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses."

Researchers on goat intelligence – or the lack of it –conclude that goats are among the brightest ungulates on earth. Scientists at the Institute of Agricultural Science in Switzerland have long suspected that goats might be more intelligent than they seem to be. For example, goats live in complex social groups, they are experts in fetching hard-to-reach foods (goats in Morocco, for example, climb 30-feet-tall Argan trees in search of tasty sprigs), they remember people, things, and skills, and they are picky eaters who can eat leaves off thorn bushes, or seek just the right sprig of grass.

In another experiment to gauge intelligence in goats, researchers gave the animals an “artificial fruit challenge”— a cognitive game originally developed for apes. Fruits were kept inside a box that could only be opened by solving a puzzle. The goats had to use their teeth to pull a rope in order to activate a lever and then lift the latter up with their muzzles. Most of the goats could complete the task in four trials. The ones that failed did so because they tried to take a short-cut and used their horns to pry open the box. They were disqualified.

The winning goats were given the same food box puzzle challenge after 10 hours to see how long it took them to solve. All of them remembered how to solve the problem and were able to access the fruit in less than a minute – showing an excellent long-term memory.

Breeders say that goats are calm and observant, and can do the following: Differentiate between individuals even when they have changed clothes, remember at what time of day they are fed and complain if humans are late, remember where the tastiest plants are even if they have not been in that pasture for nearly three months, find treats hidden in grass by following an eye or a finger pointed at it, learn simple tricks (stand on top of its stump, balancing on its hind legs) indicated by hand gestures, respond individually to their names, remember which plant had made them sick earlier, plan routes to a desired destination (for example, if there is a stream blocking their way to food, goats will go up and downstream looking for a way to navigate the water), bend a loose piece of wire outward from a fence until it is at the right height for them to itch between horns, open a clip hook or turn a doorknob.

Goats are fascinated by mirrors. Like dogs and horses, goats are comfortable living outside of a flock. They can learn unusual tasks, even choosing abstract symbols to request for water. When goats learn that a longer route will help them get a treat they restrain their natural urge to go through an obviously shorter route to get it.

The London researchers also found that goats recognised voices of their 'close friends' and looked at their mates when they heard them bleating. If goats hear an unfamiliar cry, they would turn towards the new member - which showed they could infer it was the new goat that had made the call.

They are also sensitive to facial expressions of other members in a herd. French goats paid more attention when they saw the photographed face of a familiar goat in an unpleasant situation than when they saw one of a relaxed, contented companion.

Goats are naturally curious and independent, often getting up to mischief and always looking for ways to escape. On YouTube, one can see the oddest places that goats have been found. In March 2016, a goat in Greece was found dangling 20-feet in the air from a power line by its horns, with no jumping-off points in sight. Local officials are still unsure of how it had landed in the power line — and had to use a long ladder and rope to rescue it. After being rescued, it had run off happily.

Security cameras in Colorado once showed a goat vandalising glass panes of a door. The footage shows a goat walking up to a glass door, butting its head against the pane and then running away after the glass shatters. It returns after some time and does the same to the next glass door. Just having fun. The Kinder Goat Breeders Association said goats are as good a companion as dogs.

“They are intelligent and affectionate and are easy to train, whether it’s for milking or something like cart-pulling. They love to be with their owners so they make great companions for walking, hiking or even camping. They are natural comics and are great entertainment.”

Some pet goats are used as therapy animals too. These goats accompany their humans to schools, assisted-living facilities and community centres. The Delta Society, an organisation that tests and registers pets for therapy work, includes goats in their list of animals eligible for registration. To become a pet therapist, a goat must pass a test that shows it to be controllable, reliable and predictable. The goat must have good manners in public places and have the social skills to behave appropriately with strangers.

We pick on the Nagas because they eat dogs. I find people who eat goats equally bizarre.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 15:20:40 IST