Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

Owners fall for fainting goats

July 5, 2007

Wayne and Kathy Gillett have to be careful around their kids -- they never know when one might faint.

The month-old "fainting goats" the McLouth couple keep on part of their 20 acres are especially prone to the muscle seizures this rare breed is known for.

The least likely of triggers -- such as an opening umbrella or the sound of footsteps from behind -- could startle Blake, Andy and Anabella. And then there are the obvious stimulants, like when Wayne, a retired plumber, drives his tractor near their fence.

In a matter of seconds, it's as if a drunken stupor sets in. First, the goats flee. Then one will stumble and drop onto its side, with legs and head erect, fully conscious. Another will freeze midsprint when its hind and front legs have met under her stomach and be stuck in this position for 10 to 15 seconds.

The origin of the fainting goats is unknown, and there is speculation they might carry a recessive gene that causes myotonia congenita, a condition that causes muscle stiffness.

Despite the mystery, it seems to be the novelty of the trait itself that has kept this breed popular worldwide in recent decades, reversing the threat of its extinction in the early 1900s. In the United States, thousands of fainting goats are kept as pets, to breed or for meat.

Popular pets

The Gilletts adopted their first nanny named Annie about three years ago via a breeder in Valley Falls after a Lawrence man was told he couldn't have her within city limits. Kathy, who grooms dogs at Shampooch in Kansas City, Kan., didn't realize then how endearing Annie and her offspring would become.

"You become their herd. They graze nearby like a dog," she said. "I can't believe how in love with them I can be.

"People get them because of their temperament," she said. "Not a lot of insects bother them, they are healthy animals and they are easy to keep, especially in a small area."

Five years ago, Darell Clumpke, vice president of the International Fainting Goat Association, bought two goats at an exotic animal sale in Mecca, Mo., for $35 each. He bred them and currently has 30 registered goats on his 10 acres in Emporia. He said he sells them across the Midwest for about $250.

"When you sell them when they're registered, they're worth more," Clumpke said. "I make enough to pay the feed bills over time, but I don't make money. It's more a hobby than anything else. It's a lot of fun."

He even has people drive by his farm and ask just to see the goats, he said.

History of 'sacrificial goats'

Stephanie Dicke, of Columbus, Neb., is secretary of the fainting goat association. She said the goats' history is undocumented, but it is believed that in the early 1800s, a migrant farm worker from Nova Scotia, Canada, appeared in Marshall County, Tenn., with four fainting goats. She said the man worked for a doctor, and when he left the state, he left the goats. The doctor tried to perpetuate the breed, she said.

His efforts were a success at the time, namely for ranchers who begin using the breed as "sacrificial goats."

Ruth Prentice, the goat association's treasurer, said the fainters risked extinction because they were the first to go when a predator lurked on the ranchers' property to attack unsuspecting valuable cattle.

"A predator is not going to chase something when one has dropped at its feet," she said.

To preserve these four-stiff-legged creatures, the International Fainting Goat Association formed in 1989. A few hundred members are scattered across the country. The registrar is in Marshall County, Tenn., where the goats were originally bred.

The association branched off from the Tennessee Association, which died out in the early 1990s. About 9,000 goats are registered with the International Fainting Goat Association, "a mere drop in the bucket," Prentice said.


Not everyone subscribes to the idea that the goats carry a recessive gene causing them to "faint."

The association's Webmas-ter, Andrea Minicozzi, of Hedgesville, W. Va., has studied this muscle condition for the past three years. She's convinced there isn't a recessive gene, and she's suspicious, she said, as to its parallel to the human condition caused by myotonia congenita called Thomsen's disease.

"I am currently talking with some folks who may be able to DNA test for the specific (gene) mutation," she said.

The science behind the novel trait doesn't seem to matter to breeders, especially Eddie Taylor, 51. His grandfather raised fainters in the 1920s, and he has followed suit on his 120 acres in Louisburg.

"I hear people talk about studies done on them," Taylor said. "I don't know why they are the way they are; God made them way they are."

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