For July, 2012

Follow Your Bleahs: Life According to Squeak the Goat

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Revised: 20120726

I am sure I’ll be tweaking this tale for years to come, but the basic elements are simple and fairly profound. Philosophically, the story has the merit of making its point entirely without invoking the tiresome debate of behaviorism versus consciousness. Theory of mind is conspicuously irrelevant to the lessons here, which more suggest Aesop updated.

We had a large male Nubian goat, Austin, with his sidekick Swiss Mountain mini, Squeak, in symbiotic relationship with two Australian Shepherds; though Jasper the older male dog naturally assumed the role of enforcer over Rockett the younger female. It was all great fun: you learn that Shepherds do their job entirely without biting—breeding having removed that trait which would have damaged the stock. The goats often roamed freely on an acre of mixed but rather level terrain. To teach the round-up I only needed to show Jasper once that he could not enter the goat pen. Rockett innately followed Jasper’s lead. As well, it seemed that—cognizant of the rules—when the goats got bored they might tease the dogs into chasing them into safe home base.

Perhaps a year after we were given him, Squeak took ill, increasingly and seriously: we had to give daily shots. The trend continued inexplicably downwards. The vet was mystified, but gave him about two weeks.

I was sitting on a box in the pen pondering the literally groundless situation when Squeak playfully butted me in the leg.

Eureka. Bingo. DUH! Swiss Mountain goat! As in, jump up and down the hills all of your life! I spent the rest of the day nailing up pallets and scrap wood into four landings of increasing distance and height, with some side ramps. No competition for Anaheim’s Matterhorn, but no lines either.

Yes. Squeak took to the contraption rather naturally, played up and down; no doubt fell a few times, surveyed things from elevated privilege, and made it to the top in a few days. After two weeks he effectively recovered, and flourished thereafter.

It seems that as a matter of life or death Squeak just needed to ‘be himself’, that is to say, actually and only what evolution and breeding had made him. His ‘disease’ resulted from combined placement in a critically deficient environment, while lacking the human’s dubious skill at so subverting and denying this vital, and more individualized, need for—what Maslow famously encapsulated as—self-actualization.

Asked to bring the point further home, Squeak had an extraordinary vulnerability that was not his creation nor apparent responsibility. Though I claim no specialty in goat psychology it seems his adaptability may have been stunted, but accommodation is certainly limited wherever breeding dominates. It is a fair and fascinating question how his numerous siblings might have reacted.

Regardless, as accidents result from tolerance buildups, it is important to see that Squeak’s acute reaction resulted within a situation that to all surface appearance seemed entirely benign and beneficial (food, space, partner, care …). Yet, within the seeming ‘perfection’ to most, accidentally lay a lethal combination of incommunicable torture for at least one.

Adults have responsibility for actively ensuring that their and all children get an appropriate Matterhorn; one that truly relates and endures under their seasonal grazing trends. And when we fail to do that, or later on, society fails to open the promised and marketed ramps and landings of upward mobility, we should not at all be surprised that a small percentage of the herd will be slowly driven insane or to suicide—which under the circumstances we are entitled to say Squeak was doing ‘unconsciously.’ If Squeak had been armed and exposed to enough TV to be versed in current human escape ritual, he would have shot me, the dogs, Austin, then himself.

Instead, I got butted in the leg. It rarely happens that way. No, you have to look for as many other hints as you can; for, the members of our herd have already been well-conditioned to not make their real needs obviously known by head-butting—as efficient and refreshing for humans as such a direct method of communication might nevertheless be.

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