Waffle slipped through the side gate first, and Yuki was quick to follow. They headed straight for the van in the driveway, poked around, heads bobbing in excitement, rumps shimmying in anticipation of a car ride — the best thing ever. Their tongues lolled to the side, as they reared up on hind legs and almost danced in circles.
Nancy Harrison, amused but exasperated, tried to corral these rascals, these escape artists. She keeps their leashes attached to the gate for just this eventuality. She called their names; she clicked her tongue; she patted her side. Still, Waffle and Yuki would not return to the backyard, their expansive domain.
“I know what to do,” Harrison said, tramping through the snow to a nearby shed, where she hoisted a bag of feed. “Watch this: All I’ve got to do is rattle the bag, and they’ll come running.”
Sure enough, the two came thundering through the gate with Pavlovian swiftness, their stomachs overriding any urge to explore. Waffle nudged Yuki, his sister, out of the way and buried his head in the bag, while Harrison scooped a handful of dry feed for Yuki.
“You guys are such pigs,” Harrison said, laughing.
Actually, no, they are not of the porcine species. Nor are they dogs, though they certainly exhibit a distinctly canine sense of mischief and playfulness.
Rather, Waffle and Yuki are goats — Nigerian Dwarf goats, to be precise.
They also are Harrison’s pets, sharing the family’s nearly one-acre backyard backing up into the Coconino National Forest along with the two enormous Great Pyrenees dogs, making up a mini-menagerie that brings Nancy, her husband Dennis, and twin daughters Quinn and Mackenzie great joy and companionship.
But because the Harrisons reside within the Flagstaff city limits, they recently had to do battle with the city council to retain the right, under city code, to keep her goats, which, at 30 pounds each, are dwarfed by the two 130-pound dogs, whose continued presence at the residence was not in dispute.
Last month, after vigorous debate spawned from complaints of some community members, the council debated whether to reverse its code allowing residents to raise livestock — goats, chickens, rabbits and the like. In the end, the council voted 4-3 to implement a free permitting system for people wanting to keep livestock, rather than considering a ban.
For people such as Harrison, who spoke before the council, it was a hard-fought victory. She’s had her two Nigerian Dwarf goats, brown-haired male (fixed) Waffle, and nearly all-white female Yuki for almost a year — since they were kids, if you will.
Though some might think it unusual to keep goats — even the smaller variety — as pets, all it takes is a morning spent with Waffle and Yuki for the experience to get normalized.
They romp around in the snow of Harrison’s expansive backyard, sometimes moving sideways going while downhill, munch on leaves and bark and other sparse edibles available now with the onset of winter. They pretty much give a wide latitude to the two dogs, Koda and Oso, whose breed specializes in herding and take the goats’ presence in stride. This is a model of cross-species cooperation.
And, yes, occasionally, Waffle and Yuki will bleat, a piercing sound of alarm, but at least during a two-hour visit one recent morning, they made nary a peep while the two dogs occasionally barked deep and loud at hikers walking dogs on the trails just outside their property.
Keeping goats is unconventional, certainly. It takes some work and education. But Harrison, who first encountered goats while volunteering for local animal welfare organizations, has been won over by the sweetness, loyalty and affection of Waffle and Yuki.
Just as a dog owner would, she sometimes segues into baby-talk when addressing the two. And, just like a dog, the goats will nuzzle and snuggle with her, using their noses to prod Harrison’s hand to continue petting them behind the ear or along their heavy, yet soft and not at all coarse, winter coats.
While some might consider it nigh impossible to train a goat — you know the expression, “stubborn as a …” — Harrison says they actually are quite agreeable and dutiful, except maybe when the gate’s left open and they anticipate a car ride.
“Sometimes, no matter how much training and responsible pet ownership you do, the dogs don’t listen and can take off,” she said. “But these guys (the goats) listen. When I take them to to vet, they’ll sit in my lap, very happy. People will look at me.
“But, really, who gets to define what is weird? I mean, we live in a community (Flagstaff) where people enjoy and embrace individuality. That’s why they choose to live here. We should accept different lifestyles. It’s a gift.”
If Harrison comes off as a little defensive, it’s only because some have complained to the city about residents who keep goats and chickens as either pets or livestock. The city keeps no records of how many citizens keep goats, but Harrison was joined by two other families in the city who have miniature goats. The advocacy group Livestock Conservancy reports that Nigerian Dwarf goats have become popular in recent years, with nearly 6,000 purebreds registered as of 2011.
For her part, Harrison said she never expected to own companion goats. Yes, growing up in Illinois, she lived a block away from a farm and often wandered over to hang out with cows, horses and goats. And yes, she is a self-described animal lover who has volunteered much of her time after a long career in television journalism to rescuing abused horses.
But, really, goats?
That’s what her husband asked when Nancy first floated the idea. Eventually, he was won over and even took it upon himself to find a breeder in the Chino Valley.
What Harrison — and animal experts — stress is that, while Nigerian Dwarf goats are docile and trainable, owners must educate themselves about care and feeding, become well versed in animal husbandry. Harrison did all that, but still found there are things you can learn about goat-keeping only from experience.
One example: Goat bloat.
Don’t laugh; it’s a thing.
In the winter pen that Harrison has built for Waffle and Yuki under her insulated redwood deck — replete with two heat lamps, a warmed trough of water, a daily-replenished feeding bin of orchard grass — there is a container filled with white powder attached to one wall.
It is baking soda, a digestive aid meant to settle a goat’s stomach when it gets gassy and, well, bloated — a serious condition.
“I know it sounds strange, but it’s what they need, like Tums for us,” she said. “They can die from bloat. Now, you don’t want them to eat too much (baking soda) but they seem to instinctively know when to take some. I mix in a little molasses for taste. That gets their attention.”
Spend any time at all with Harrison and her goats, and you quickly come to the realization that she absolutely dotes on them — and she readily cops to spoiling the two.
Take her elaborate “winter pen.” She built it herself, taking leftover redwood from the deck she and Dennis built and made an enclosure insulated and tricked out enough to satisfy even the most skittish of goats.
She has installed two heat lamps to keep Waffle and Yuki toasty on single-digit nights (even though goat experts told her that goats can withstand the cold). She ringed the pen with Christmas lights because “goats don’t like being in the dark.” She is vigilant about changing the goats’ bedding (hay and shaved wood chips) at least every other day because “I don’t like when it starts to smell.” Until her back acted up, she hoisted 80-pound bales of orchard grass from her car to the pen; now, she rolls it down the hill.
In spring and summer, Waffle and Yuki get the run of the backyard during the day, though she erected a large outdoor pen with a canopy to keep the rain off of them at night.
“I guess you can see they are spoiled,” Harrison said, sheepishly.
But she adds that the goats contribute to the household good, as well. She uses their droppings (pellets with little odor) as fertilizer for her garden. She doesn't milk Yuki for goat cheese because Yuki has yet to breed. But Harrison is keeping that option open. Waffle and Yuki, too, serve as lawn mowers and weed pullers to eliminate the natural grasses that run wild on their property.
“It’s funny, in the summer, it looks like a jungle all around us, weeds and grass a foot tall, but our yard was mowed down. I’ve said to people, ‘Hey, if you’d like to borrow my goats to trim your yard, let me know.’”
The goats, Harrison said, aren’t any more expensive to keep than the dogs — especially since one of her allergy-prone dogs has a special diet. They are relatively low-maintenance, eating orchard grass supplemented with a mineral-rich “goat feed.”
Whatever expense she incurs is worth it, Harrison said.
“Since I’ve got these guys, I’ve learned how much I value loyalty,” she said, petting Yuki along the scruff of the goat’s neck. “These guys follow me everywhere to the point that, in the summer, it’s almost embarrassing. I’ll take them on leashes along with the dogs, and they go along fine, sometimes rubbing against Oso (the dog).”
As Harrison squatted in the snow petting Yuki, Waffle loped in, lowering his head (he has only one horn; long, grisly story best left alone) and trying to push his sibling away.
“Oh, Waffle,” Harrison said, in baby talk, “don’t be a butthead. And I mean that literally.”
On her haunches, she gave in and snuggled with both goats. Her dogs? Well, they just looked on, impassively, accustomed to the sight.
Sam McManis can be reached at email@example.com or (928) 556-2248.
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