DOWN on the farm

Published Sept. 8, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

The stranger arrived in Caney Spring, Tenn., in the early months of 1880, and gave his name as John Tinsley. His accent marked him as foreign; from Nova Scotia, some said. Hard to say. He seems not to have been a very outgoing man. He didn't stay long and he might, after a time, have faded from the local lore.

Except he brought four goats with him, three does and a buck that would have grabbed the attention of anybody who saw them. A local doctor wrote in the early 1930s: "On being suddenly startled in any manner they fall to the ground with their entire bodies becoming perfectly rigid and stiff, giving the appearance of an epileptic fit this condition lasts for about 10 or 15 seconds after which the animal arises and walks off."

This characteristic earned them the name "fainting goats," somewhat inaccurately, since the goats don't actually lose consciousness when they stiffen up. The International Fainting Goat Association, an Iowa group that uses a picture of an upside-down, splayed-out goat on its logo, has set two categories of the breed: "Premium," those that faint readily, and "Regular," those that go stiff but don't topple over.

Docile and good breeders, they spread across the Southeast and Texas in the first half of the 20th century. Their numbers swelled, dipped in the 1970s _ sheep ranchers having discovered their effectiveness as decoys _ and grew again in the early 1990s, when the market for exotic livestock like emus and miniature donkeys exploded.

They now number in the thousands, with 15 herds in Florida, according to the goat association. Except for their prominent eyes and obvious talent, you might take them for your run-of-the mill goat: They come in all colors and patterns, short- or long-haired, most weighing about 50 pounds. Most herds are in the northern portion of the state, up by Gainesville and Ocala and out in the Panhandle, rural stretches with more cattle than cars and ample pasture.

Ruth Conklin keeps nine fainting goats at her 13-acre farm in Weirsdale, 20 miles south of Ocala. "I'd raised goats before, mostly pygmies, but they were giving me such trouble, butting around and always getting their heads caught in the fence," she said, leading the way out to her pasture. "I haven't had that trouble with the fainters. They're rather shy creatures."

Her lot were bearded, glossy-haired does with slightly bulging blue eyes and wet noses, and they didn't seem particularly shy when they trotted up to nuzzle visitors.

"Back when I had a buck he'd play with our bull, running up against him and butting heads," she said. "Then he'd roll over all of a sudden, four feet up in the air, and the bull would just walk off like he didn't know what to do."

Conklin's 11-year-old-son, Shane, home from school with what he described as "bad headaches," was called upon by a pair of skeptical journalists to startle the goats. "Hah!" he shouted, and the goats fled. A couple got stiff-legged but none froze up. Shane shouted again, waving his arms and jumping from the top of the shed, which caused mild annoyance but no fainting.

By the time Conklin joined in with some half-hearted waving, the goats weren't even stiffening up. They ate their corn feed and brushed up against her legs. Shane changed tactics, running inside for an umbrella. When he came back he walked slowly, hiding it behind his back. He homed in on Ms. Blackie, a pretty brown doe, and snapped the umbrella open. Ms. Blackie went stock-still and toppled over. She stayed there for 10 seconds, got up and seemed none the worse for wear.

"I don't know exactly why they do it," Conklin said. "They say it's something with the brain."

That's not quite right, according to Carol Beck, a researcher in molecular pharmacology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The goats faint because of a genetic mutation in their muscle fibers, she explained to the Miami Herald. Normally, the electrical signal that causes a muscle to contract also works to make it release. But in myotonia, the muscle membrane becomes "hyperexcitable."

The muscle "fires repeatedly from a single stimulus," Beck said, causing muscle cramping so severe the goat is unable to move.

The condition turns up in other mammals: mice, dogs and even, rarely, in humans. "You'll find everything from difficulty shaking hands to really debilitating contractions where the patient is wheelchair-ridden," said Louis Elsas, a geneticist at the University of Miami.

After Shane's umbrella attack, the goats at the Conklin farm seemed disinclined to perform further and huddled in a corner of the pasture.

It was on to Donna Hatcher's farm, a 45-minute drive south past floodedfields to Center Hill. Hatcher keeps 50 goats on 15 acres of pasture. Conklin bought her goats _ which can cost $75 to $600 at open auction _ from Hatcher four years ago.

The day was hot and her goats grazed under the shade of moss-draped laurel oaks, bleating with disconcertingly human voices when Hatcher brought out the feed.

"I don't think it's a dysfunction with them," she said. "If it was so stressful, would they survive? I think of it almost like the twitching of our skin. And all the tensing makes them strong."

Her does collapsed readily when she banged the feed cans together but wised up almost immediately. The bucks _ shaggy and yakkish, bearing a strong but not unappealing goatlike scent _ barely noticed. The umbrella trick did nothing, and when a neighbor brought out his .45 they looked up briefly before going back to grazing.

All the tensing makes the fainting goats good meat animals, Myron Johnson, a goat farmer from Gainesville, said by phone. They're long-lived, resistant to parasites, friendly enough to make good pets.

"The little kids get kind of freaked out when they're young," Johnson said. "They don't understand _ they're running and playing and all of a sudden they can't move. You can see it in their face. But they grow into it. It doesn't cause them any discomfort when they get older."

A goat well cared for, faints and all, may live 15 years.

But not everybody's a fan. "It's a genetic abnormality that seems inappropriate to perpetuate," said Michael Appleby, vice president for farm animals and sustainable agriculture with the Humane Society in New York. "Clearly the main attraction for people is the novelty of it; and it's a stress reaction. They do this when they're scared or startled."