So, how smart are goats?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Someone rescued a goat from the slaughterhouse and gave him to the Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre. We allowed him to run free and soon he was the leader of a pack of dogs who followed him everywhere. When people gathered round to talk, while they were waiting for their animals outside the OPD, he would often join them. Once I made the mistake of rubbing him on his head as he stood there. He turned, glared at me, and then butted my hip. The staff told me he went looking for “murgas” like me to mistake him for a dog so that he could butt them.

Are goats as smart as dogs? Until recently, scientists thought that only animals that had been bred as companions or pets – such as dogs, cats, and horses – were intelligent, or able to form bonds with humans. This allows us to eat all the other animals, or kill them for sport. Mutton, goat meat, is a common item on the Indian menu.

Now research proves that goats try to communicate with people in the same way that dogs and horses do.

In a series of experiments published in Biology Letters, researchers found that when goats had a problem that they couldn’t solve alone, they would gaze at a person for help. Also goats changed their actions in accordance with a person’s behaviour.

To test goat communication skills, the researchers trained the animals to remove a lid from a box to receive a reward. The reward was then made inaccessible by making the lid removal harder. The reactions of the goats toward the experimenters — who were either facing the goats, or had their backs turned away — were recorded. The goats would gaze toward the forward-facing person more often in a similar way to dogs asking for a treat, and for longer periods, than they would with the people who had turned away, suggesting that they were aware of where the human was looking. In some instances, the goats would also approach the forward-facing person before returning to the box.

“Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses,” they said.

Researchers on goat intelligence – or the lack of it –conclude that goats are amongst the brightest ungulates on Earth. Scientists at the Institute of Agricultural Science in Switzerland, long suspected that goats might be more intelligent than they seem. For example, goats live in complex social groups; they are experts in getting at hard-to-reach foods (goats in Morocco, for example, climb the 30 foot Argan trees in search of tasty sprigs); they remember people, things, and skills, and they are picky eaters who can adeptly pick leaves off thorn bushes, or seek out just the right sprig of grass.

In another experiment to judge their intelligence they gave goats the ‘artificial fruit challenge’—a cognitive game originally developed for apes. Fruit was placed in a box which could only be reached by solving a puzzle. Most of the goats could complete the task in four tries. The ones that failed did so because they tried to take a short cut and used their horns to pry open the box and they were disqualified.

The winning goats were given the same food box puzzle challenge after 10 hours. All of them remembered how to solve the problem, and were able to access the fruit in less than a minute – showing an excellent long term memory.

Goat breeders say that goats have a calm and observational manner and can do the following:

 Tell individual humans apart, even when they have changed clothes.

 Remember at what time they are fed and complain if you’re late.

 Remember where the tastiest plants are, even if they have not been in that pasture for three months.

 Follow an eye, or pointed finger, to a treat hidden in long grass.

 Learn simple tricks indicated by hand gestures.

 Respond individually to their names.

 Remember which plant made them sick before, and avoid it.

 Plan routes to a desired destination. For example, if there is a stream between the goats and tasty food, they will go up and downstream looking for a way around the stream.

 Bend a loose piece of wire outward from the fence until it is at the correct height to itch between the horns.

 Open a clip hook.

 Turn a doorknob with the mouth.

Like dogs and horses, goats are comfortable living outside of a flock. They can also learn unusual tasks, even choosing abstract symbols to request for water. When they learn that a longer route will get them the treat, they restrain their natural urge to go through an obviously shorter route.

London researchers found that goats recognised the voices of their close friends. If there is a less familiar goat present, when they heard an unknown bleat, they looked at the lesser-known individual, showing that they inferred this goat made the call. They are sensitive to herd-mates’ facial expressions, too. French goats paid more attention when they saw the photographed face of a familiar goat in an unpleasant situation than when they saw that of a relaxed, contented companion.

Goats are naturally curious and independent, often getting upto mischief. On YouTube you can see the oddest unexplainable places that goats have been found. In March 2016, a goat in Greece was found dangling 20 feet in the air from a power line by its horns, with seemingly no jumping-off points in sight. Local officials are still unsure of how it landed in the power line. After being rescued, the goat ran off happily.

Security cameras in Colorado, caught goats vandalising windows. The footage shows a goat walking up to a glass door, butting its head against the pane, and then running away after the glass shatters. It returns and does it to the next glass door. Just having fun.

The Kinder Goat Breeders Association says that the goat is as good a companion as a dog. “They are intelligent and affectionate and are easy to train, whether it’s for milking or something like cart-pulling. They love to be with their owners, so they make great companions for walking, hiking or even camping. They are natural comics and are great entertainment.”

Some pet goats are used as therapy goats. These goats accompany their humans to schools, assisted-living facilities and community centres. The Delta Society, an organisation that tests and registers pets for therapy work, includes goats in their list of animals eligible for registration.

Categories: Panorama
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