This Iranian jar is almost 6,000 years old. It depicts the Persian, or Bezoar, Ibex – the ancestor of our domesticated goat. While our modern goats have horns, the bezoar ibex has the largest horns, considered in proportion to body weight, of any animal in the world. The enormous horns, and the characteristic beard (from which we get the word "goatee"), are beautifully represented. The ibex's distinctive form and trophy-worthy horns have made it the object of hunters for millennia. Today, the bezoar ibex has been hunted to extinction and near extinction in most of its range.
Its domesticated descendants have done considerably better. Humans have been keeping, breeding, and using goats for almost 10,000 years – a relationship that was already four thousand years old when an unknown Iranian potter painted that elegant ibex on an unfired storage jar. Goats are probably the most widely distributed agricultural animals in the world. They produce more meat for human consumption than any other animal, and they also produce milk, cheese, hide, and wool. If you own an angora or a cashmere sweater, thank a goat.
Goats have affected our culture, our religions, and our language. We've already talked about "goatee," but the most obvious goat-related word in English is "kids". We all use it constantly, and it never gets old. The adorable cuteness and playfulness of baby goats transfers seamlessly to our own children – or at least, we wish it would. Then there's "scapegoat," a relic of ancient sacrificial practice where one animal is sacrificed to expiate the sins of the people, and another is invested with whatever sin is left over and set free. The meaning has changed now to mean "someone who gets the blame" (and often a prison term), but in the older sense, the scapegoat was the one who got away (or escaped). I'm sure you can think of more – goat puns are rife at Reeves-Reed Arboretum when our goats visit.
And that brings us to goats at the Arboretum. Every fall for the past four years, our friends at Green Goats in Rhinebeck, New York have trucked down a small herd of goats to spend a week or two on the lush Arboretum grounds. Goats are known for their liveliness, their independence, and their voracious and indiscriminate appetite. Why on earth would we want these uber-vegetarians loose on our well-tended gardens and grounds?
First of all, they aren't loose – they're carefully confined with an electric fence. Second, we want them to eat vegetation, as long as it's in our Daffodil Bowl. Their job is to clear away the luxuriant plant growth in the Bowl – some of it over ten feet tall – to make way for the daffodils' return in the spring. It's the latest development in human-goat relations, as parks, municipalities, and public gardens have begun using goats to clear unwanted brush, reduce weed populations, and control poison ivy. (Goats really like poison ivy.) Our goats are gone now, but they'll be back. In fact, with any luck, goats will be around for another 10,000 years, and perhaps we'll find even more ways to work together.