Caprine residents at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, England, starred in a BBC TV mini-series on farm animal behavior in December 2018. The three-part documentary, entitled Secret Life of Farm Animals, revealed the hidden talents and natural abilities of domestic animals that are largely unknown to the general public, including those of the Buttercups goats. These skills adapted their ancestors to living in the wild. Through these beautifully filmed scenes, we can wonder at how goats apply their aptitudes to living with us.
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Two episodes featured stars from Buttercups goat sanctuary. Rupert, an expert at pulling bolts and releasing latches, was caught on film opening doors with his nimble lips. Other goats from the refuge have learned from his example. Nadia, a Sable doe, frequently lets out her companions after Bob Hitch, founder of the sanctuary, has shut them in their stalls for the night.
In goats, sharp minds are accompanied by athletic bodies. The show highlighted goats’ amazing agility, using high definition slow motion photography. The film crew at BBC Wales artfully captured goats climbing, jumping, and reaching for leaves.
Buttercups Goats Are Smart and Friendly
Princess Leia is a Nubian goat doe who has learned to trust and follow staff. She and Bob demonstrated to viewers how she would look to him for help when she could not solve a food puzzle. Previously, researchers had found that dogs that could not access a treat would look to their owners for a solution, whereas wolves would continue to try and solve the issue 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 as production animals, 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 treat in a plastic box that Princess was used to receiving treats in. Then he closed the lid so she could not access it. She pawed it a few times, and then looked to Bob for assistance.
Emma Baus also took footage of the goats for her documentary Smart as a Goat for France 2. The fifty minute show explores caprine intelligence and relationships with their humans from mountain to desert to goat yoga, in France, England, Morocco, and the United States. Featuring Buttercups goats and their involvement in cognition research, the broadcast will be released early this year.
Buttercups Goats’ Behavior is Studied Scientifically
Buttercups is home for about 140 goats. This large herd of all shapes and sizes has attracted behavior researchers from Australia, Brazil, and all over Europe. Here a wide variety of goats from different backgrounds enjoy free-ranging in a naturalistic setting. The goats are healthy, tame, and well-cared-for. A large sample of different kinds of goats can be studied, displaying a wide range of personalities and learning abilities. As well as answering questions, such as are goats smart?, researchers are interested in different types of goat intelligence, personality differences, how goats learn and interact with people, and how goats think and feel. They set up trials designed to stimulate goat behavior and record the reactions of willing caprine participants.
Apart from these fun goat games much enjoyed by participating goats, more serious issues are experienced by the sanctuary’s residents. For some of them, the psychological effect of previous experiences is still apparent. One group of Saanen goats was admitted after being subjected to much more unpleasant scientific trials: modeling the effects of decompression on the mammalian body for a government organization. Even in their new home, where no treatment worse than gentle husbandry is forthcoming, the fear that they will be subjected to painful trails persists. They are immediately fearful as soon as they see collar and leash.
Why Buttercups Goats Need Shelter
Goats are brought here for many reasons: their owners may no longer be able to look after them due to difficulties such as health or financial issues; others are unprepared for the time and labor commitment involved in keeping goats; some goats are found stray or abandoned; and some arrive from projects that were closed down. Those that have been kept in solitary conditions arrive with the most psychological damage.
Pippa had never met a goat before and had only had contact with those who raised her. She was initially frightened to the point of displaying aggression to both people and other goats. Goats that have experienced distressing past lives can take a couple of years to recover and interact socially. Tests have shown that even goats with traumatic pasts assume an optimistic outlook on life after two years of loving care at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats.
The love works both ways: the residents themselves play the role of therapy goats for their carers. Volunteers experience living the goat life to their delight, while the goats enjoy interaction with people wearing smiling, happy faces.
In the May/June 2019 issue of Goat Journal, I go behind the scenes, meet the Buttercups goats and talk to staff at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats about the documentaries and life at the refuge. The following clips are trailers of the British show.