“They’re a rare breed” is more than just an expression at a south-central Kansas zoo. Officials say the Arapawa “Island” Goat, also known as the New Zealand Arapawa goat, is one of the rarest in the world.
Before Arapawa goats veer off the path to become obsolete, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas are actively immersed in preserving and strengthening the breed of these unique goats.
“We have about 40 of these rare Arapawa goats here at the zoo, counting this year’s kids who are all in different stages of life,” said Callene Rapp, who’s been the Senior Zookeeper: Children’s Farms at the Sedgwick County Zoo for 22 years. Rapp explained that the first one of these Arapawa goats came to the Sedgwick County Zoo in 1997. “Then, by the late 1990s, the zoo began rebreeding them. Here at the zoo, I work in the Children’s Farm, and we have a large collection of heritage breeds of livestock, with many on the conservation priority list. Our whole staff and I are all very invested in this particular type of breed of goats.”
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A handful of breeders of these rare goats are located on the East Coast and in the Midwest, particularly in Iowa and Missouri.
Rapp estimated, “There may be about 10 other breeders with a total of 120 Arapawa goats including the 40 here at the zoo. All the other private breeders, who have small herds, work as part of the same mission.” That mission focuses on the Livestock Conservancy’s work with rare livestock breeds that don’t necessarily fit the basic model. The Arapawa is on their conservation priority list.
The Arapawa goats are known to be on the small side and range in a variety of colors. They risked extinction in the 1970s when they were thought to be damaging New Zealand’s native forests. The New Zealand Rare Breeds website credits Arapawa Island resident Betty Rowe with rescuing them. Some of her family and friends joined in her passionate work and goals to help save the goats.
A New Zealand breeder relayed that the size and mass of the Arapawas make them ideal for small farms, contributing milk and meat without a great deal of feed, noting that they already knew how to forage and survive in a hostile environment.
Rapp explained that the Arapawa goats are named after a small island off the coast of New Zealand. “During the exploration of Captain Cook,” she said, “they brought the goats with them and turned them loose on the island to serve as a source of meat. So, the breed was basically isolated for several hundred years, and that’s how they retained their specific isolated breed for an extended period of time. There were no other goats there and that’s how they got along. Part of having been isolated from human contact for so long, is that the goats were never selected for production traits.”
This rare breed is typically more of a milk goat, with the appearance of a dairy goat breed more than a meat variety. Arapawa goats are believed to be last descendants of the old English Milch goat (Milch is the old spelling of milk), which is a farmstead animal.
“They’ve done DNA testing, and discovered the Arapawa are genetically different from other goats. There’s also a legend that goes with this,” Rapp noted with a frolicsome chuckle, adding that the legend is strongly linked to this genetic discovery. “It’s been found to be true!”
The Sedgwick County Zoo plans to work more intensively to analyze dairy potential of Arapawa goats. “It is one of our goals to do more with the dairy part. There are so few goats at this point that the focus is on increasing numbers. Then we can do harder culling and more selection for certain traits.”
Specifically, zoo officials plan to milk the Arapawa goats again in spring 2018, and they’ll focus on obtaining necessary criteria to determine exact production. “We’ll need to get some concrete data to see how they compare. There may be a few other breeders who milk them, but it’s not likely they do any hardcore dairy work with them,” observed Rapp. “Although hopefully, that will come in the future.” Rapp says the zoo is looking forward to digging in with great energy to make substantial progress with the Arapawas and then share their work with the public. “We’re hoping to be able to show people how it’s done.”
We asked Rapp when the zoo realized it was necessary to start rebreeding the Arapawa goats.
“It’s probably always been known that they are rare. They were actually on Arapawa Island for about 300 years before anybody began paying attention to them. Then, in the late 1980s, John Truelson at Plimoth Plantation was exhibiting life in colonial Plymouth, Massachusetts in the 1620s. The Arapawa goats fit the work that they were trying to do with them, so he brought over six goats from New Zealand. He had a stable-enough herd, and so he established other herds, which he also provided. Because of our history with rare breed conservation, Truelson figured we were a good fit, or…crazy enough to participate.”
As far as caring for goats, Arapawas don’t require anything special. They are hardy and very smart. In fact, Rapp shared with great fascination that a couple of their goats are artists. “We have two goats who will take a paintbrush in their mouths and paint. You need to keep that activity engaged, or they’ll find something else to do.”
The zoo has several bucks, which they keep separate from the females when it’s not breeding season, but then they make decisions regarding how to breed goats and which ones to breed.
Sedgwick County Zoo has been recognized with national and international awards for its support of field conservation programs and the successful breeding of rare and endangered species. It is home to more than 2,500 animals of nearly 500 different species and a member of the American Zoo Association. With more than 200 accredited members, the American Zoo Association (AZA) is regarded as a leader in global wildlife conservation and offers an opportunity for the public to help animals in their native habitats. The Sedgwick County Zoo is also a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“With all these heritage breeds, there’s something that hooks you. When the first Arapawas arrived in 1991, I fell in love with their disposition. One was such as sweetheart, basically almost a gentleman,” said Rapp, who’s been involved with Livestock Conservancy and working with Heritage breeds for over two decades. “Pippin, however, succumbed to old age a couple of years ago, but we still have a couple of his descendants at the zoo. When he passed away, it was sad.”
As far as other sights to see at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Rapp notes that they recently opened a new elephant exhibit. “That exhibit is really cool. Our Tropics Building is always fascinating, as well.”
The zoo is open year-round, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The goats are on exhibit in the Children’s Farms, which is the first area to your right after the entrance,” said Rapp. “Look for the big covered bridge!”
Rapp says, “I can’t say I’m a goat lover; the goats are smarter than me, but I love the Arapawa. And anything that can help people become aware of these goats and how close they came to being lost is important, as we want to get the word out. To help them grow in the herd, we need more people interested in them.”
For more information, visit the Sedgewick County Zoo website.
Learn about Arapawa goats at http://www.arapawagoat.org/
Amy is a twice-Emmy-award-winning meteorologist, storm chaser, and writer. She and her husband own a diversified farm in Kansas, where Amy especially enjoys taking care of their commercial cattle herd.
Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.