Column: Are billy goats gruff or just kids at heart?

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Roger VanHaren

A while ago, I saw a video about “fainting goats” on my computer. These strange little animals are bred to have a genetic disorder, called myotonia congenita, that affects their skeletal muscles. Their legs become paralyzed for a few seconds if they’re startled.

According to Wikipedia, the breed dates back to the 1880s, when a farmer named John Tinsley brought four goats suffering from myotonia to Dr. H.H. Mayberry, in Tennessee, who began breeding them and called them “Tennessee fainting goats.” However, the name “fainting goat” is a misnomer since the goats don’t lose consciousness when they “faint.” But they are funny to watch!

Watching those goats playing reminded me of a little black-and-white goat we had for a while when I was kid on the farm. I don’t know where Dad got him – or why. But one day, Dad came home with him, and he became part of our menagerie.

Maybe it was because we had a lot of weeds and thistles in the pig pen. Perhaps you know that a goat is an effective, all-natural solution for a weed problem. Goats have a well-earned reputation for being willing to eat almost anything, and because they’re more interested in eating weeds than grass, you don’t have to do much more than turn them loose where you want them to devour weeds. I’ve read that they’re so effective that they’re often used to control noxious weeds that are otherwise hard to get rid of, such as kudzu in the South and leafy spurge in the West. You can even rent goats to eat poison ivy.

Our new little goat was a male, so we naturally called him “Billy.” Creative? You bet. And we had heard the stories about the billy goats gruff. Seemed like a logical choice. (You know, I couldn’t find an answer to why male goats are called billys! )

When we first got him, Billy was still a “kid,” and he was cute and cuddly, with great big beautiful eyes and a shiny coat. When he outgrew his kidhood, he wasn’t so cute and not so much fun to play with, because he was pretty rambunctious – and he definitely was not tame.

Our Billy lived in the pen with the pigs, but he didn’t like them much. He also wasn’t very smart. He’d often back up and take a running start, head lowered, to ram into the pigs. They outweighed him by a couple of hundred pounds, and they were solid as brick walls. When he collided with them, they hardly quivered, but he’d be loopy for 15 minutes.

He never seemed to learn from these negative experiences; he’d do it every day. And it was fun to watch. Sort of like an animal kingdom Three Stooges slapstick comedy act. He could jump from the pig trough to the roof of the pigs’ shelter, and he’d walk along the ridge roll and pretend to be king of the hill. He was a clown.

I don’t actually remember what ever happened to Billy. I don’t know if Dad sold him or gave him away …

There, I’ve carried the notes about my “goat trigger” experience for several months, and now I’m finally rid of it!

A little trivia for you: If cows are bovine, sheep are ovine, wolves are lupine, horses are equine and bears are ursine, what are goats? Caprine!


Contact Roger VanHaren at