A Goat Showed Me the True Meaning of Being Open-Hearted

Science can’t fully explain what animals do to our souls

Illustration: George Wylesol

I had promised my husband that I’d bring home some goat’s milk.

That was before the two goats arrived at the Farminary at Princeton Seminary, where I was studying theology and working as a farmhand. Maybe, I told him, we could even make cheese.

When it was my turn to milk the goats, I wrestled Daisy onto the milking stand, put a bucket under her, and reached for a teat. She responded with a sideways kick. I tried again; she tried again. Within minutes, I was sopping and sweaty. Most days, I got no more than a couple of tablespoons, which included whatever was in the bucket when Daisy inevitably kicked it over. That morning, I got enough, maybe, to fill a shot glass, and it turned out to be the high-milk mark of my time with the goats.

Daisy and her kid, August, were essentially visiting teaching assistants, borrowed for six weeks for a class on the society of ancient Israel. The idea was that the students might get a sense of life in a bygone pastoral culture by tending to them.

I wasn’t enrolled in that class, though I was at the farm almost every day doing other chores. During those weeks, August became one of my greatest teachers. She helped me heal long-standing shame about my body and then showed me, in her goatliness, exactly how to love it again.

TThe farm often reminded me of my physical shortcomings. I blacked out while weeding. I was useless at splitting wood. I struggled to close a particularly unwieldy barn door.

Every failure resurrected the hot humiliation I learned to have about my body as a kid. I hated its shortness and its weakness and its lack of coordination. I hated my slanty eyes and my coarse hair — reminders of my difference — and my tricky elbow, damaged forever by a Chinese-American childhood spent playing the violin.

Most of all, I hated the invisible scars I carried from when I was raped. I was 15 years old, but it feels like the attack has replayed interminably ever since; what happened in a matter of minutes metastasizing throughout my life, my body, my spirit, my soul.

To assault a person sexually is to take something good, a source of pleasure, and turn it to evil, a source of pain. The evangelical Christian religious tradition in which I was reared has plenty to say about God’s love and its healing power. The core claim of Christianity — that God is love and we are loved — sounds simple enough, but I’ve found that there isn’t much distance between hope and hypothesis.

Sometimes I say that God rights all wrongs because I want it to be true. Often I argue that we are given community because we can’t always endure on our own. It doesn’t mean that I always believe these things.

With each bleat and every playful kick of her hooves, August chiseled away at the hard shell I developed in moments of doubt. Underneath it — it was almost as if she knew — was a heart that longed to be understood, a spirit that wanted to be brave enough to be vulnerable.

Whereas Daisy regarded me daily with what I read as a mix of pity and contempt, August always welcomed me into their pen and always seemed delighted to have me around. Every time I squatted next to the milking stand, she tried to squeeze onto the little bit of lap that appeared. When I pushed her off, she might circle the stand, and then she’d try again, nuzzling me to reconsider.

I loved it. I loved her, I mean.

SScience, it turns out, can explain that. “We consider small, caring animals with some of the same emotions and behaviors that we might care for our children,” Alan Beck, director of the Center of Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, told me.

The pygmy goat, with its big head and wide eyes, displays physicalities we associate with cuteness called kinderschema. These traits have been reinforced by domestication. “You end up with these animals that maintain juvenile behaviors and juvenile morphology. The dog is basically a puppy wolf,” Beck says. “We enjoy the experience of nurturing. And animals respond by staying with you, by coming next to you, by wanting to be petted.” The chemical mechanism that keeps both us and them coming back for more is the same: oxytocin, the reward hormone associated with bonding.

One of our little rituals was a game of chase. I’d freeze and August would face off against me, and then I’d suddenly step toward her, and she’d take off, bounding onto the wheel well of the trailer and then around the back. Then, we’d do it all over again. Another ritual was a game of peekaboo. I’d chase her in one direction around the trailer, and then double back, and she’d either chase me around one corner or peek around another to see if I’d reappeared. When nobody else was on the farm, we could do these things over and over, until she got bored and wandered into the trailer to munch hay.

Christian Nawroth, an animal behavior researcher and goat specialist at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany, explained that she was just being a kid: “She was juvenile. So she displayed a lot of play behavior.” Three years ago, Nawroth and colleagues at Queen Mary University of London published a paper about what’s known as the looking-back paradigm, which August seemed to display when we played. Consider how you might tempt a dog with a toy. “You put it away, you’ve got this doggie gaze: Please, can I get it? You get the strong impression they want to communicate with you,” Nawroth says. The study showed goats do this, too. “Dogs have been hyped as being so special. Other domesticated animals who live close to humans, you think they act like dogs. No, they act like goats. It’s just that they do things that you know dogs do.”

I wondered if scientific explanations for these phenomena might dull the magic of my interactions with August. They didn’t. Science can’t fully explain what animals do to our spirits and souls.

TThree days before the goats went home, I went out to the farm in the late afternoon, when I knew nobody else would be there. I sat on the ground, and August jumped onto my lap, as I knew she would. She urged me to scratch her head and neck, as I knew she would. Then, I just flopped onto my back, and I let August climb onto my chest, as I knew she would.

For the two or three minutes that my back was against the ground and she was using me as a climbing platform, I felt happy. I felt joy. I felt lightness — as if August had noticed the worry, the anxiety, the troubles that regularly weigh me down and asked me if she could carry all that for me for a few minutes so that I could rest.

In my entire adulthood, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve lain in the grass and let my head touch the ground. Always, some fear had kept me from doing so. Fear of bugs. Fear of grass stains, which can be really hard to get out of a shirt. Fear of impropriety — of doing something that seemed less than adult and less than dignified. Fear of allowing my body to relax into the earth — or worse, the fear that came with realizing that I couldn’t even do that.

“There is no fear in love,” I John 4:18 says, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” The passive voice in that last bit is interesting; it isn’t the person who remakes himself as perfect who conquers fear. Love is relational. Another being must help orchestrate the process.

InIn her essential goatiness, August was that other being for me. I received, through her presence, an invitation into a wider perspective, and was in that sense, through her love, made more whole.

Hebrew tradition gave us the concept of the scapegoat. On Yom Kippur, one goat was slaughtered to feast upon as a blood sacrifice. A second goat was sent into the wilderness, never to return. That goat was burdened with carrying the sins of the people away from the community, and its banishing symbolized the departure of these acts of wrongdoing — along with all their consequences.

August was, for me, a living, breathing scapegoat. Her presence allowed me to send all my bad feelings, all my worries, all my sins into the wilderness. With her, I felt utterly unafraid, which is to say: I felt more myself than I ever had. I did not hate my body, and maybe I even loved it a little, because August loved it, too.

Reporter | Writer | Author, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America” | Storyteller | Pilgrim | Seminarian

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