Tamsin Cooper goes behind the scenes at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats

Wandering among the goats, you can feel an aura of harmony: a yard of goats of all shapes and sizes peacefully munching hay side by side. Goats approach one by one to gaze up at you and sniff your hands. They spread out and graze over ancient parkland, shaded by magnificent trees. A deep sense of tranquillity releases the tensions of everyday life in the busy South East. The goats too have found their haven here at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, near Maidstone, in Kent.

Not always is this is a place of such quiet. Every morning and evening staff and volunteers busy themselves caring for over 140 resident goats, some of whom appear to enjoy frustrating humans’ sense of order and control. Indeed, such caprine antics have attracted both researchers and film crews to investigate the clever minds of these curious and fast-learning ruminants.


Goats on film

Last December, BBC Four featured Buttercups’ goats in their documentary series entitled Secret Life of Farm Animals. In two episodes, goats demonstrated the agility of their bodies and minds. Rupert, an expert at pulling bolts and releasing latches, was filmed opening doors with his nimble lips. Other goats at the refuge have learned from his example. Natalie frequently lets out her companions after Bob Hitch, founder of the sanctuary, has shut them in their stalls for the night.

As well as featuring goats’ skills at mental and physical feats, the show took an interest in cognition studies that have been conducted at the sanctuary. Researchers are drawn to this varied herd of free-ranging goats for studying goat behaviour in a naturalistic setting. They aim to understand the goat mind, so that goat keepers everywhere can be equipped to provide the best care and welfare. Studies of willing participants using non-invasive methods have investigated how goats learn, show emotion, recognise one another and interact with humans.

The documentary re-enacted one of the experiments with Princess Leia, an Anglo-Nubian resident. She and Bob demonstrate to viewers how she would look to him for help when she could not solve a food puzzle. Previously, researchers had found that dogs who could not access a treat would look to their owners for a solution, whereas wolves would continue to try to solve the problem by themselves. Through domestication, dogs have come to collaborate with humans, as they have been bred as working animals. Goats, on the other hand, have been bred for production, with little need to team up with people. Therefore, it was a surprise when researchers put goats through the unsolvable problem test and found that they too looked to humans for help. Bob replicated the test by placing a titbit in a plastic box that Princess already associated with treats. Then he closed the lid so that she could not access it. She pawed at it a few times, and then looked to Bob for assistance.

This was the kind of research that brought French filmmaker Emma Baus to Buttercups to film for her documentary Smart as a Goat, to be shown on French television this year. She was interested in the degrees of intelligence and communication with humans revealed by the cognition tests.


A need for proper care

However, there is an unintended downside to such media interest in goats’ ability to bond with people. The recent trend in goats as pets has resulted in some animals living in inappropriate environments where their needs are not met. These pets are often not wilfully neglected, but rather new owners are keen to embrace these cute animals without having the knowledge or facilities to care for them. This is one of the many circumstances that lead to goats ending up in a refuge.

The animals arrive at Buttercups for many reasons. Their previous owners may have had financial or health problems. Others may have been unprepared for the commitment of keeping goats. Some goats are even found abandoned. Goats are sometimes neglected or malnourished through lack of owner knowledge. Some are psychologically traumatised, especially those that have been kept without herd-mates. As Matt Huggins, staff member at Buttercups, explains, ‘one of the most overlooked aspects of goat welfare is their need for social interaction and stimulation’.

Pippa is an example of the damage that social isolation can do. She was rescued from a goat farm at six months old by a doting family that cared for her well, except that she only had humans as company. ‘This meant that Pippa had not had the opportunity to develop the necessary social skills required to successfully and comfortably live alongside the other goats of the herd’, explained Matt. She came to the sanctuary at two years old. Suddenly faced with a large herd of strange goats and many new humans, Pippa was initially frightened to the point of aggression towards both people and the other goats.

Providing a safe haven 

Staff first had to gain her trust before she could be left alone with the herd and visitors. While the other goats were off grazing, staff would let her out of her stable to wander the yard. She slowly befriended them, following them around, and even lying down beside them during breaks. Matt found that ‘she would become a totally different goat during those few hours of peace and quiet’. This prompted staff to build her a separate pen alongside the herd’s grazing. ‘By interacting with the rest of the herd through the fence, she began to understand the very basics of the skills she has been lacking.”

Over the years she has gradually learned to tolerate other goats and respond to familiar carers. She now runs with the herd, only using the pen during busy periods, which she still finds overwhelming. She has even made caprine friends. Matt stresses the value of knowing each individual’s needs as well as those of the species.

Buttercups provides sanctuary to goats from many backgrounds, with varying past experiences, some of which were very traumatic. With time and knowledgeable care, these animals are able to recover physically and psychologically. They are monitored daily by staff and volunteers, and have prompt access to expert healthcare. By day they freely roam around the stable, yard and fields. They have access to shelter, company, activities and appropriate feed, as befits their needs. By night they are stabled in bonded pairs or groups in dry, comfortable pens. One study found that even goats with distressing pasts gained an optimistic attitude after several years of good care at Buttercups.

Supporters can help the goats in many ways financially or practically, and the sanctuary is open to visitors, voted third best day trip from London for animal lovers by TimeOut magazine.

See buttercups.org.uk for more details.

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