Monday, February 25, 2013

Companion Animals

My farm, Equutopia, is a little less than 70 acres, about half of it wooded. I’ve had horses on the farm since the day I moved in, and, being a true animal lover, have also experimented with a number of different companion animals. Some of these have been strays that just moved in without invitation and some have been deliberate acquisitions. The goats were in the latter category, a well-intentioned mistake.

As you can see, the cats aren't terribly useful, either.

Some time ago, I owned and operated a lawn care and landscaping business, and I was all too familiar with the laborious task of eradicating unwanted vines and undergrowth. Thus the seemingly brilliant idea evolved that I should acquire a few goats – they are famous for eating vines and brush and I felt that they would surely take over that aspect of my grounds-keeping duties. Besides, it seemed like a great way to further the bombproofing education of my horses.

Nor are some of the dogs.

I found an ad for some “pygmy” goats and arranged to go pick them up. Not having a trailer at the time, I borrowed a friend’s chicken tractor and strapped it to the bed of my pickup in the fashion of a makeshift cap. For those not familiar with this particular farm implement, it’s basically a 4 x 8 contraption with a wood frame and wire mesh covering the sides and top. The idea is to put your chickens in the “tractor” and move it around your garden, allowing them to perform their natural tilling duties as they scratch and peck the ground. I thought the chicken tractor was a fitting accessory to my pickup at the time – a brown 1979 Ford F150 with a 4” lift kit and big tires.

It's a girl, my lord, in a redneck Ford!
The goats turned out to be half wild and not as “pygmy” as I had expected. After much ado and several helping hands, I was able to get the goats loaded and drove home to some unusual glances from fellow drivers. The goats settled in to their new surroundings nicely and proceeded, in short order, to eat almost everything but the vines and brush for which they were enlisted. First, my strawberry patch was targeted and decimated. Then they attacked my roses and ornamental shrubs. Afraid of the horses at first, they soon realized that there was grain to be had around them at feeding time and quickly overcame their trepidation. The horses were likewise initially wary of the goats, but soon realized the goats would run away from them. They quickly overcame their fear and accepted the goats as companions.

Pandora, one of the female goats.

I put up with the goats’ destructive tendencies for several years. Penning them up to save my preferred plants didn’t work; these goats were little houdinis and climbed, jumped or butted their way out of every pen in which I tried to contain them. The last straw was when I caught them actually butting the horses’ heads out of the way to steal their grain. It was time to admit my experiment was a failure and find them a new home.

Grimm, one of the boys.
The next companion animal to come inhabit Equutopia was Petunia, the pot-bellied pig. I knew she wouldn’t serve much of a useful purpose other than, again, I thought it might be handy to acclimate my horses to a variety of unusual animals they might encounter in our trips off the farm. Also, I’d had a pig in the past, Tonka, who was a wonderful pet.Tonka delighted in riding around in my truck, taking walks around the block with the dogs at night (I lived in Alexandria at the time – this was in the pre-farm era), playing in her kiddie pool and cuddling up in my lap. Besides, the friend who told me about Petunia knew my soft spot for pigs and emphasized that she really needed a new home. Something was wrong with my truck on the day I was to pick her up, so I put down the seats and spread a quilt in the back of my Saturn to transport her back to the farm.

Upon arrival, I quickly learned two things: one, Petunia was a very large “miniature” pig and two, pigs cannot easily be forced into a car or, indeed, anywhere they’re not inclined to go on their own accord. I’d been lucky with Tonka. She was small enough to pick up and carry around and liked being handled. Luckily, Petunia (whose name was actually Penelope at the time, but I have a cousin of the same name whom I feared would not be flattered at sharing her name with a pig, thus the pig’s name was changed to preserve harmony in my family) displayed a weakness for chips and junk food. I ended up laying a trail of snacks to my car and up into the back seat, and she self-loaded with a supplemental little boost. Petunia spent the ride home with her head wedged between the front seats, attracting even more attention from passing cars than the goats had garnered.

Petunia lived a long and happy life at Equutopia. She and the horses quickly became accustomed to each other and, in fact, we would often find Petunia snoozing in a corner of one of the horses’ stalls. They evicted her at feeding time but were content to share their space otherwise. Petunia ended up being more useful than expected, cleaning up dropped grain in the stalls, and befriended my students, submitting to their tummy rubs and grooming. She died in her sleep, and is buried next to my rose garden, which survived despite the unsolicited goat pruning.

Primrose, the current pig.
Companion animals seem to help desensitize the horses to strange sights and sounds and are sometimes even useful. Always introduce new animals slowly and carefully over a fence and be sure to supervise them carefully to avoid possible injuries. I teach all of my horses to lead from both sides for safety reasons. When leading horses past the new animals, I always walk between the horse and the new animal in case the horse decides to spook. Research the animals you’re considering before you commit. If I’d done some research before bringing home my goats, I would have learned that there are certain goat breeds that are easier to contain in a pen and not inclined to jumping heights grand prix horses would envy.

Make sure you handle your new pets regularly so you can trim their feet and administer medications and vaccinations. Both the goats and Petunia were unaccustomed to handling upon arrival at the farm, thus routine care was always dramatic. I had to wait until evening, when Petunia was asleep, to slip down to the barn and trim her hooves while she was unconscious. Occasionally she’d stir, and I’d have to rub her tummy until she dozed off again, allowing me to resume the trim.

Another photo of my beautiful Primrose.

Be aware of the needs of your new animal, including veterinary care and feeding requirements. Certain feeds can be hazardous to animal species other than those for which they were formulated. For example, horse feed generally contains copper, which can be toxic to goats and sheep. If companion animals are taken on with eyes wide open and cared for responsibly, they can be wonderful additions to any farm.

The emus were another failed experiment, but they will have their own story...


  1. Funny stuff, particularly the goat story!! I assume you never tried to milk them?!

    Looking forward to emu tales...

  2. Petunia was cute! Cant wait to hear about the emus!!

  3. No, Ms. CrankyPants, I certainly did not! Petunia was cute and very sweet. I miss her!