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Pygmy Goats and the Conscious Mind Within the Beast

African Pygmy Goat

African Pygmy Goat

The nature of consciousness in pygmy goats deserves some discussion. We’ve explored individuated personalities, behavioral idiosyncrasies, and ratiocinative will in our four pygmy goats: Charlie, Ella, Jack, and Sally, but all of these discussions inevitably lead to the central issue of consciousness or reflexive thought.

Much of this discussion has been clouded in the past by our desire, as morally responsible homo sapiens, to only eat other species if they are unconscious. Not unconscious as in anesthetized, unconscious as in incapable of thinking about their own thoughts.

This reflexive ability to “talk” to ourselves or “see” our thoughts is viewed as one of the primary differences between persons and animals. To the extent that we are animals, we see ourselves as higher animals with the ability to both speak to each other and engage in an inner dialogue. This inner dialogue also empowers free will because we can consider, debate, and decide between several courses of action, choosing a preferred course to follow.

The entire issue of consciousness and fine table gravy should be divided into separate lines of inquiry. Animal consciousness should be analyzed on its own merits, irrespective of the outcome we may wish for to support our ethical squeamishness or gustatory imprecations. Once we’ve reached a dispassionate conclusion on the underlying facts then we can gnaw over the consequences.

The question of consciousness in the pygmies arose while observing their bedtime behavior. When the four pygmies are sent to their shed at night they each have very different reactions. Charlie, the male leader, generally craves approval and always heads home first. Charlie will do almost anything to be patted on the head and called a “good goat.”

Charlie has trained Jack and Sally to follow him, so they generally trot along a few feet behind. Occasionally Jack and Sally will stop 3 or 4 feet from the gate and exhibit some ambivalence about heading to bed. At the same time, they hate being out at night, so if we forget them and the sun starts to set, they’ll put themselves to bed, whining and complaining loudly about our deplorable lack of custodial oversight.

Ella, the lead female, is a different story. Ella is always last in line for bed and usually stops about ten feet from the gate. This creates tremendous confusion for the rest of the herd. Charlie, at this point, is already standing in the shed and wants everyone else to settle in. Jack and Sally want to follow Charlie, especially if it’s getting dark, but they love the rebellious freedom, plus a few more bites of grass, that Ella’s strategy promises.

Basically, it seems that Ella just wants her ability to choose to be acknowledged. Patting her on the shoulder and pointing toward the shed is usually enough to close out the protest and send her to bed. If she’s really being obstinate then we can threaten to pick her up and carry her in. This is too undignified for her taste and generally results in an insouciant saunter through the gate.

The question that kept haunting me was whether a purely instinctual beast would act in this manner. Ella’s pause seemed designed for dramatic effect. She’s not trying to run away, although she could easily outrun us for hours if she chose. She’s not avoiding the inevitable; she’s just pushing a little crumb of independence onto the bargaining table, and losing a little less than gracefully.

The anthropomorphic fallacy is an inappropriate criticism of this perception as the fallacy is itself a tautology. If you assume, without actually knowing, that only humans are reflexive and then criticize the ascription of human qualities to animals, all you’ve done is repeat your unfounded argument in a different disguise.

Ella is holding two different mental images simultaneously, she knows she’s going to bed and she also knows that she likes to be singled out for a little more coaxing. Although non-verbal, there is an ability to communicate effectively, through hand signals, to her “mind.” Simply pointing at the shed moves her forward.

The definitions of “instinct” seem much too limiting to adequately describe this behavior–unless all the pygmies acted in a similar fashion. We may need to apply Occam’s razor to this problem–faced with two hypotheses, the simplest solution that fits the observable facts should be preferred.

The notion of beasts as automatons, driven by a complex set of instinctual reactions, seems too convoluted and anthropocentric to be true. It seems much more likely that Ella is simply thinking, for a moment, about whether she really wants to go to bed.

This still leaves open the question of what differential treatment is due to entities with conscious mental abilities, versus the aforementioned automatons, and we still need to determine the level of sophistication of this pygmy ratiocination. We’ll continue to watch for signs of intelligent life among the pygmies and hope they go gently into that good night.

Copyright 2008, Lotus Pond Media

Steven C. Grant is the Director, Business Development for Lotus Pond Media and the co-author of two children’s books about pygmy goats: Meet the Goat Kids and The Goat Kids Explore the Woods. You can read more stories about the goat kids at enjoy family photographs, purchase goat kids memorabilia, and sign up for the Pygmy Talk forum.

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