If you ask anyone to name a farmed animal, they probably would say a pig, a cow, or a chicken. They will hardly ever say a goat — unless they are in the business of farming them themselves. And they would forget goats even though these are number-one in terms of how long a non-human vertebrate animal has been farmed. They are, sadly, the first vertebrate victims of animal agriculture that began millennia ago, and they are still farmed today in greater numbers than ever, even though many other animals have replaced them as the main source of flesh, milk, or fibre. No other vertebrate animal has been farmed for that long, for more than 10,000 years — and this is not a good record to break.
Indeed, goats have been suffering from humanity’s supremacist oppression for longer than any other vertebrate farmed animal, but they are often forgotten even by animal protectionists — when was the last time you saw an exposé on a goat farm? We know, though, that all animals matter, and whether they may be farmed in industrialised factory farms, led to graze by small traditional farmers, or sacrificed for religious reasons, all animals suffer the consequences of animal exploitation. It’s worth dedicating a blog to the unfair lives of domestic goats.
The Original Wild Goats
Goats belong to the mammal family Bovidae, which includes other ruminants such as cows, sheeps, and antelopes. The closest wild relatives of domestic goats are the bezoar ibexes (Capra aegagrus), which live in the mountainous regions of Western Asia and Eastern Europe (in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey). They have long and curved horns that can reach up to 1.4 meters in length. Their coat colour varies from dark brown to reddish-gold, depending on the season, and they have a black stripe along their spine, shoulders, limbs, and neck that becomes darker during the mating season. They are herbivorous animals who feed on grasses, herbs, leaves, fruits, and nuts.
Bezoar ibexes (sometimes just called Wild Goats), which are classed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, are very well adapted to living in rocky and steep habitats, where they can climb and jump; and where they live in groups of 5 to 20 individuals, usually consisting of females and their young. The males can be solitary or form small bachelor groups, except during the mating season (which takes place from November to January), when they can be seen fighting each other for their reproductive rights. The gestation period lasts for about 170 days, after which females give birth to one or two kids in May or June, nursing them for about six months.
Wild goats are very intelligent because they need to be, living in mountainous areas where food is sparse (so, they need to find it and obtain it) and predators such as wolves, leopards, lynxes, bears, and eagles are a constant threat (so, they need to evade them in difficult terrain). Living in social groups (so, they need to recognise everyone and establish positive relationships) also leads to human-like intelligence.
Furthermore, wild goats are very brave. They are remarkable climbers who do not seem to fear heights — they are very sure-footed and can jump from rock to rock with great accuracy. They have specially adapted hard hooves with soft inner pads to be able to provide excellent traction on rocky terrain. Their hooves are also flexible and can spread apart to provide a better grip on narrow ledges, allowing them to bravely climb steep cliffs and rocky outcrops with ease. We can still see this affinity to climb in domestic goats, who often seek protection by climbing on something.
The Domestication of Goats
According to DNA studies, all domestic goats (Capra hircus) are descended from a single population of bezoar ibexes that was domesticated about 10,000 years ago, making them the first vertebrate domesticated by humans to be farmed, and one of the first domesticated animals overall (after dogs, who may have already been domesticated as long as 34,000 years ago, and bees). Today, over 300 breeds of goats exist on Earth, living on every continent except Antarctica. They reached Europe 7,000 years ago, Africa, 6,000 years ago, East Asia, 5,000 years ago, and America, in 1493 (Columbus brought some in his voyages).
The earliest archaeological evidence of goat domestication comes from sites in Western Asia, suggesting there were two distinct places of domestication, the Euphrates River valley at Nevali Çori in Turkey (11,000 BP), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10,000 BP). Particularly important archaeological sites regarding goat early domestication can be found at Jericho in Israel (9,450 years ago), Ain Ghazal in Jordan (9,550 to 9,450 BP), Choga Mami in Iraq (8,000 BP), Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria (9,950 to 9,350 BP), Djeitun in Turkmenistan, (9,200 BP), and Çayönü in Turkey (10,450 to 9,950 BP). These sites show signs of selective killing of male goats, that indicates that humans were already controlling their reproduction and keeping them captive in pens.
These early domesticated goats were used for meat and milk, as well as for their dung (fertiliser, fuel, or building material), skin (clothes), bone (tools), and sinew (to make cordage, bowstrings, fishing lines, sewing threads, glue, and even musical instrument strings). They were also used in religious ceremonies as sacrificial victims — as they are still used today, sadly.
The Domestic Goat Industry
Today, the domestic goat industry exploits goats to produce meat, milk, cheese, yoghurt, leather, fibre, and manure. The global goat population has been rising dramatically since the 1960s, due to changing incomes and food preferences in human populations, and climate change limiting areas for raising cows. Goat numbers in the world during the period from 2000 to 2013 increased by 33.8%. During that same period, the sheep population only rose 10%, and the global cow and bull population has remained relatively constant at about one billion animals.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there were about 1.1 billion goats in the world in 2019, with Asia accounting for 62% of the total population, followed by Africa, Europe, America, and Oceania. More than 90% are located in Asia and Africa, and only 1.8% in Europe, which may explain why we do not see many more exposés of this industry in the West.
Because some people are moving away from consuming cows and bulls without becoming vegans or even vegetarians, unfortunately, the production of meat from other sources is increasing now. This is happening with broiler chickens, but also with goats. Additionally, as it is believed that the carbon footprint of goat farming is lower than cow or pig farming, some environmentalist reducetarians also may have boosted the goat meat market, in places in the West where it is rising (such as the United States and New Zealand).
The Environmental Impact of the Domestic Goat Industry
Despite the reputation of goat farming having low greenhouse gas emissions, there is no doubt that they are way higher than plant-based agriculture, because of the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) that the animals (and their manure) produce. There is even data that contradicts this reputation, though. A 2021 study calculated goats’ per-kilogram methane emissions at 3.8–5.5 kg of CH4, an output that’s on par with sheeps’, and even higher than cows’ 3.5–4.2 kg CH4 per kg of meat (but as there are more cows than goats, the cow industry produces more emissions). Methane, a gas with a global warming potency of more than 20 times that of a similar amount of CO2, represents the majority of greenhouse gases emitted by goat farms, which are produced by enteric fermentation and manure management.
Even the most grazing and free-ranged goat farms damage the environment. A 2019 study showed that extensive goat farms cause higher emissions/kg of milk produced (4.08 kg CO2-eq) compared to semi-intensive and intensive farms (2.04 kg and 1.82 kg of CO2-equivalents, respectively).
The industry also wastes a lot of water. Producing one kilogram of goat meat uses 4,000 litres of water, which is more than chicken (3,900 litres of water/kg) but less than pigs (4,500 litres/kg), sheeps (6,000 litres/kg), and especially cows (14,800 litres/kg).
Another negative impact of the industry is land degradation. The grazing of goats can cause soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity by overgrazing and trampling vegetation. Because of the lower economic value of goats compared with cows, they are not a major driver of forest clearing, but the goats’ grazing diminishes the potential for forest re-growth. A goat may exert as much downward pressure on the soil as a tractor, depending on the animal’s distribution of weight, and compacted and disrupted soils increase runoff and erosion. Among ruminants, the land degradation caused by goats overgrazing is most severe because of the goats’ ability to graze on residual vegetation and plant species that are left as vegetative cover by other animals.
The Suffering of Domestic Goats
Goats are intelligent, curious, and social animals who form strong bonds with their herd members. They have distinct personalities and communicate with each other using different vocalizations and body language. Goats can learn complex tasks, remember them for a long time, recognise human expressions, and communicate with humans.
They also have a remarkable ability to adapt to different environments and climates and can survive on a variety of plants and grasses. However, these traits also make them vulnerable to exploitation by the animal agriculture industry. As goats can thrive in harsh and marginal conditions where other farmed animals cannot, they are still widely farmed.
The first negative effect of domesticating any animal is to keep them in captivity, which due to the reduction of space to move, stimuli to perceive, and choices to make, over time causes physical, physiological, and psychological stress to the animals who may lead to serious health problems.
The second negative effect is that the artificial selection used by humans to domesticate animals inevitably changes aspects of their physique and behaviour that may not be good for the animals — despite that may be good for the humans who breed them. In the case of goats, domestication produced the following changes: larger body size and udder size, reduced horn size or absence of horns, different coat colours and patterns, different ear shapes and sizes, and different vocalizations and social behaviours. The first change is often a source of suffering, as it made them produce unnaturally high amounts of milk (or flesh), which puts a strain on their bodies.
The third negative effect of domesticating goats is suffering from more diseases and parasites than wild goats. The most common diseases of farmed goats are coccidiosis, helminthiasis, tapeworms, and lungworms. Other diseases domestic goats suffer from are anthrax, brucellosis, enterotoxaemia, foot rot, mastitis, pneumonia, tetanus, and urinary calculi. Many goats die prematurely from neglect, starvation, dehydration, or injury when bred under the care of humans more interested in exploiting them than in their well-being — sometimes because they take them to environments that cannot sustain goat populations.
When keeping and breeding goats became gradually more sophisticated, new forms of suffering appeared, caused by overcrowded confinement, mutilation, overproduction, transportation, and, of course, slaughter. In modern times, goats are also raised in intensive farming systems that confine them to overcrowded and filthy spaces, deprive them of natural behaviours and social interactions, and subject them to painful procedures such as dehorning, castration, tail docking, and ear tagging without anaesthesia or pain relief.
In some of these commercial goat farms, especially those for milk production, goats are kept indoors for the whole of their lives, only leaving the shed to go into the milking parlour and then it’s back again. In them, “disbudding”, the painful procedure of using a hot iron to burn the horns off a kid within her first few days of life, is common. The reasons farmers are doing this are to facilitate the fitting into milking machinery and to prevent the goats from damaging one another in the stressful intensive conditions they are kept.
As in the farming of dairy cows, goats in the milk industry must be constantly impregnated in order to produce milk, their babies are removed after births to prevent “wasting any milk”, and most males are killed at birth, as they cannot produce milk. The same devastating scenes of mothers desperately calling for their babies after the farmers abduct them can be seen in either dairy cow farms or dairy goat farms.
Sooner or later, all domestic goats on any farm (for milk or flesh) are going to be killed against their will. More often than not, they will be slaughtered for their flesh and skin at a young age — in abattoirs or by the farmers/shepherds — usually between 3 months and 2 years of age. But they are also the victims of religious sacrifices in several parts of the world, as is the case with some Jewish communities in Israel during Passover, and Muslims who are engaged in the Hajj during the celebration of the Eid al-Adha. In the Bible, in the Book of Leviticus, the concept of scapegoat first appears, meaning one of a pair of kid goats who is released into the wilderness, taking with him all sins and impurities, while the other is sacrificed.
Even some goats who are reared by children as if they were “pets” end up killed at an early age, as was the case with Cedar, a baby goat who, before being sent to slaughter in California in 2023, a mother had given to her 9-year-old daughter to play with for three months. As the daughter did not want Cedar to be killed, the mother took Cedar back, but the authorities recovered the goat, and she ended up being killed at the slaughterhouse as originally planned.
Some goats have been luckier, as is the case with Virgilio, a male kid from the goat dairy industry destined to be killed within a day (as is normal for males) but he was rescued, and ended up in Pear Tree Farm Animal Sanctuary in Somerset, UK. Also, the case with Gelato and her dear friend Eno, who were rescued from a dairy farm in North Carolina before were going to be sent to slaughter for being deemed too old to produce enough milk. Also, the case with Ted, who was rescued after being found left to die in a stall with his dead brother, and now lives at Glo Farm Sanctuary. Sadly, these rescues are barely noticeable in an ocean of suffering. For any goat rescued, millions are left to spend their lives in the misery of goat farms and end up killed.
Unfortunately, the first victims of animal agriculture continue to be their victims today, in greater numbers than ever.
Only when the vegan world becomes a reality, this injustice will be corrected.