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What Does It Mean When A Goat Gazes Into Your Eyes?

Researcher Christian Nawroth with Vern, who lives at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England. He thinks Vern was looking to be scratched.
Courtesy of Christian Nawroth
Researcher Christian Nawroth with Vern, who lives at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England. He thinks Vern was looking to be scratched.

When a goat gazes into your eyes, it may be issuing a silent plea for help.

That's the suggestion from a new study of goats co-authored by Christian Nawroth, who researches animal cognition at Queen Mary University of London, published in Biology Letters.

Last summer at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, 34 goats watched as a researcher put a piece of uncooked penne pasta on the lid of a Tupperware container and then placed the container itself atop the lid without locking it shut. And goats love pasta. Says Nawroth: "They go crazy for it. Some goats like apples, some don't. I haven't found any goat that does not like pasta."

A goat in the barn at the Minnesota State Fair.
/ Layne Kennedy/Getty Images
Layne Kennedy/Getty Images
A goat in the barn at the Minnesota State Fair.

In a series of three trials, the goats managed to dislodge the box by nudging it off the lid, thus gaining access to the delicious piece of penne.

Then the researchers pulled a fast one. They snapped the box onto the lid so it couldn't be dislodged easily (in fact, even the researchers had trouble opening it). And what did the goats do? Thirty-two of them looked at the box, then at the human conducting the test. Then at the box again. Then at the human again.

In an interview with Goats and Soda, Nawroth explained what the study teaches us about goats — and why the media coverage, which suggests that a take-home lesson from this study is that goats make good pets, is a bit fuzzy.

First of all, in that picture of you with the goat, that goat is right up against your face. Why would a goat do that?

Some goats do it because they see humans as kind of a mobile scratch post. Some [body] parts they cannot reach by themselves [to scratch]. This goat, Vern, wanted to scratch his eyes on a soft surface, not on concrete or grass, so he approached and started rubbing himself.

Lots of goats seem to have a really strong bonding with humans. I'm not sure if it's just because they expect food or some interactions like getting scratched or brushed.

Why did you decide to study goats?

Dog research is exploding. There's quite a lot of research on horses. But research on livestock species, their cognitive abilities, their interactions with humans, are way harder to find.

What's the value of researching livestock?

When you handle these animals, in industrial husbandry conditions or as pets, you need to know what their needs are, what are the requirements to make them happy, what kind of information they can extract from the environment.

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One thing the study suggests is that goats turn to humans in their environment for help.

They not only gazed at the human [when they could not obtain the pasta from the box] but approached, stood for a brief period in front of the human, then turned back to the box. Speaking with a little bit of anthropomorphism, I'd say it looks like they try to get you to the box, to point out they had a problem with this and they need help.

Do other animals do this?

The same behavior has been found for dogs and in a recent study on horses. But we were interested to see if livestock that's not been domesticated to interact with humans would show similar human-directed behavior if they encounter a task they cannot solve themselves.

Some media outlets, in reporting on your study, concluded that this kind of human interaction means goats would make good pets, just as dogs do.

Dogs are more attached to humans. Goats are social animals that need to be around other goats. If you think a pet goat is a good idea you should make sure you meet their needs: a huge backyard and more than one goat.

Our blog covers the developing world. Is there anything from your study that would be useful in parts of the world where goats are often kept in villages and sometimes roam in city streets?

When the goat is staring at you and not moving, you might falsely observe there's not a lot going on in the goat's head. But this [staring] seems to be very typical alert behavior.

So that goat could be deciding whether to butt you?

Yes. Or whether to beg for pasta or a scratch.

Families in low-income countries often keep goats as a source of milk and meat. Are there any other benefits to hanging out with goats?

If the goats are quite attached to humans, just spending time with them is really relaxing [for humans]. Spending time at the Buttercups sanctuary where we conducted the study is really relaxing. If you're surrounded by goats who are kind of enjoying themselves, it might affect humans in a positive, stress-relieving way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.