Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
If I were a doe, I’d be a great milker. Not because of any physiological similarities, though I did nurse my own kids pretty successfully, but because of my personality. Your ideal doe, who’ll get right up onto the milking stand, hold still the entire time, and dance a little jig of happiness if she gets a treat afterwards – that’s me. Docile, sweet, and compliant. Now that Bonnie’s arrived, though, I’m starting to wonder if that shouldn’t change.
Bonnie is a beautiful, chamoisee Nigerian Dwarf. When we picked her up from the breeder, she was still in milk, having kidded for the first time a couple of months before. I was ecstatic – even though she wasn’t tame by any stretch, and I had never milked a goat before, I was certain that we would be great friends. I envisioned Bonnie standing next to me in an idyllic, flower-speckled meadow, nuzzling me affectionately while I knelt beside her, my expert hands effortlessly coaxing gallons of milk from her udder.
Reality was slightly different. The first time I tried milking her, I couldn’t get a single drop of milk. I panicked – had she dried up on the drive home? Am I hurting her? Is she sick? Was I not destined to be the goat-whisperer after all? I decided to try again the next morning before officially having a break-down.
The next day, full of apprehension, I headed outside again. This time, Bonnie seemed happy to oblige. I could feel my heart swelling with love and pride as she stood perfectly still and let me milk her out. We hadn’t built a milking stand yet, so she stood on an upside-down plastic bin while I sat on a folding chair next to her. Although I only got about two cups of milk out of her, I was enthused. She was the goat of my dreams, after all! I skipped off to email all my friends about my good fortune.
That evening, I returned to Bonnie’s pen, confident now in my superior goat-handling abilities. I helped her up onto the bin, gave her some grain, sat myself down – and was promptly snubbed. Bonnie hopped right off the bin and wandered away. Determining that stronger measures were called for, I put her brand new, pink rhinestone dog collar, which I had been saving for just such an occasion, around her neck, attached a leash, and tied that to a post. Thus confined, Bonnie stood still – for about five seconds. Then she threw a fit. Struggling to wriggle her neck free, stomping and kicking, she absolutely refused to stand still, much less let me near her udder.
My husband suggested holding one back leg up, so that she would have to stand still to keep her balance. Well, let me tell you, this goat could win the Olympic balance beam competition hands down, because she was remarkably agile without that leg! Her aim was impeccable, as well – every chance she got, she stomped her free hoof right into the bucket. With one hand on her leg and the other desperately trying to milk her, there wasn’t much I could do to defend the bucket, and so I moved on to my next tactic: snuggling.
My husband wasn’t convinced that this one would work, but I knew, deep in my heart, that Bonnie just needed to understand how much I already loved her, and then she would happily provide our family with gallons. So I untied her, sat down beside her, and hugged her. I talked to her softly, sang and cooed while I scratched her head, and petted her. I fed her a few leaves, and then, ever so gently, reached for her udder. She just looked at me and ambled away.
Sensing that I was going to have to do something drastic, and unwilling to duct tape her to the fence, as my son so helpfully suggested, I decided I would hold her still myself. I stepped over her neck, creating a head gate with my legs, bent over, reached under, and began to milk her. She struggled a bit at first, but my legs’ gentle but firm resistance convinced her to stop. I finished milking her and went inside, marveling at the animal communication technique I had just mastered – she understood that I loved her, but that I was the boss, and would now willingly give up her milk.
Next morning, I once again placed Bonnie’s neck between my calves, and began to milk her. She struggled a bit, then stopped. I gloried in the moment, imagining myself a true goat-friend. But then, Bonnie decided to show off her ever-expanding repertoire of gymnastics moves. Demonstrating amazing flexibility, she executed a handstand on her front legs, all the while kicking her back legs upwards, directly into my lowered face. Luckily, she only actually managed to reach my hair, as I deftly avoided her blows. I tried to calm her by laying my cheek on her warm back as I continued to hold and milk her, but she would have none of it. A stern hoof-stomp on my foot startled me off. I continued to milk.
As we wrestled, I began to reflect. What if I were a goat, and some strange woman took me away from my kids and herd, and held me still to milk me twice a day? How would I react? I’m a people-pleaser – I spend time worrying about what other people think, whether they like me. My horoscope says I hate conflict. I deduced that I would probably be a sweet and friendly doe, going out of my goatly way to make sure that my owner got the best-tasting milk possible, and loved me better than any of her other goats. But would I still have any self-respect, allowing myself to be so completely tamed? Maybe it would be better to stand up for myself, to refuse to be milked without a fight! Bonnie’s stubbornness suddenly seemed a virtue to me. She was teaching me what it meant to be strong, willing to fight, if necessary, to preserve her wild dignity, whether that meant steadily pushing or pulling her way forward, or lashing out with her hooves. Did I have the strength and courage to do so in my own life?
Bonnie’s struggles brought me back to the task at hand. She strained so hard against my legs that I gave way, and allowed her to wander off. I had gotten enough milk for the morning. There was always tonight to try and convince her to share her bounty with us.
I know it’s silly to anthropomorphize animals - that it’s not very farmer-like - but I’m just beginning my journey with dairy goats. Obviously, livestock don’t have the same feelings or thoughts as we do, and their good-natured compliance with the needs of mankind is vital. But I’ve found that by getting to know Bonnie, who has a personality as unique and complex as any human’s, I might just come to a deeper understanding of myself. And if that isn’t worth a little wrestling, then I don’t know what is.