Dori Lowell, business manager for the National Pygmy Goat Association based in Snohomish, Washington, says, "People who love pygmy goats come from all walks of life, but they're usually animal lovers who've had some exposure to livestock in the past. We've had people who were into horses and went into pygmies later on. The draw to the goats is that they're much friendlier and smarter than people think they are. If you like a dog, you'd probably like a pygmy goat. That sort of thing."
Lowell, who owns a herd of 60 pygmy goats, explains that it was in the early 1970s when zoos on the East and West Coasts began importing the animals from north Africa.
"The National Pygmy Goat Association was founded in 1976 and promotes pygmy goats by setting breed standards, registering the animals, maintaining a database of pedigrees, certifying judges, and sanctioning pygmy goat shows around the country. A lot of those shows are in conjunction with fairs. Washington and Oregon have a lot of pygmy-goat activity. There's a lot of activity in California, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. We've got pygmies in Alaska and in southernmost Florida. Pygmy goats are everywhere."
Thirty-eight of the National Pygmy Goat Association's 2000 members live in San Diego County. But that figure, cautions Lowell, doesn't give an accurate impression of the total number of San Diego's pygmy-goat owners.
"I'm sure there are many people in San Diego who have a couple of pygmies as pets and who don't really want or need to belong to a national organization. To get an idea of how many San Diegans actually own pygmies, you'd need to talk with someone who's really involved in the local pygmy-goat community."
On an early winter morning I drove out to Sue McCullough's Riverside home, where for the past 30 years, McCullough, using the herd name Pygmy Palace, has bred and sold pygmy goats. When I began calling around to get a feel for San Diego's pygmy-goat community, several owners said that San Diego enjoyed a national reputation for high-quality pygmy goats. When these owners suggested the SDPGA, or San Diego Pygmy Goat Association, as a good source for information, they as often suggested that I speak with a woman named Donna Elkins, who had something to do with the SDPGA. I knew so little that for a long while Donna Elkins was a mystery to me.
These same pygmy-goat owners also mentioned Sue McCullough, saying that she was one of only two or three people in Southern California licensed by the National Pygmy Goat Association to judge pygmy goats at shows and fairs. They said McCullough's many years of pygmy-goat experience, and her familiarity with pygmies in San Diego, would serve as a good introduction to the pygmy scene.
Over the phone, McCullough was passionate about pygmy goats.
"I remember the first time I saw one 30 years ago. It was only three days old, and it was the cutest thing I'd ever seen in my life. I just love 'em, and it makes me feel good when I sell a pygmy to someone who loves 'em, too.
"A few years ago I sold one to a young man in Newport Beach. At the time, he wasn't sure if the zoning in his neighborhood would allow his family to have a pygmy. But he was so enthusiastic, I sold him a pygmy anyway. Not long ago I called him up to see how things were going. He said, 'This goat has really become a member of the family. We love him. We don't care if there are any zoning problems. We'd rather move than give him up.'"He said that the pygmy was a 'chick magnet.' He loves to take the goat for walks on the beach because girls just flock to him and the goat because it's so cute."
McCullough has a youthful voice, and although I knew that her pygmy-goat experience spanned several decades, I was surprised when she told me she was a 52-year-old mother of two grown children.
"My kids grew up around pygmy goats. We always had 'em around."
McCullough's ranch-style home is shaded by an enormous chinaberry tree and sits in a semi-rural area that looks like parts of Lakeside or eastern El Cajon. Dun-colored scrub makes a life for itself on dusty, rock-covered hills. It's a place where zoning laws allow folks to surround their property with high fences and keep some livestock. In McCullough's case this has meant a couple of horses, a couple of dogs, and as many as 49 pygmy goats.
"I smell goat," I said as soon as McCullough slid open the big glass door in her living room that opens to 1.3 acres of land behind the house.
"You smell Mike and Poly Royal," McCullough said, waving to a chain-link pen a dozen yards north of her patio. "My two bucks. You don't want to pet them. Bucks pee on their beards -- it's a mating thing. And in general bucks have a strong smell. If you pet 'em, you'll have that goat smell on your hands all day.
"A castrated male is called a wether. If you castrate a male, his hair won't grow long and shaggy and he won't have a strong smell. The females, or does, and the wethers don't have a strong smell at all. They smell mostly like hay."
The bucks' strong smell, which isn't entirely unpleasant, comes from the same fatty acids that give goat milk and goat cheese their characteristic "goatiness." If you've ever eaten goat cheese, you've had a hint of how Mike and Poly smelled. According to The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese by Jean-Claude Le Jaouen, as goat cheese ripens, bacterial action releases capric, caprylic, and caproic acids, making the goatish flavor more pronounced. A mature goat cheese tastes more strongly of goat than does fresh goat cheese. And fresh goat milk has less goat flavor, I was told by several pygmy owners, than does goat milk that's hours or days old.
I said to McCullough that I'd read that pygmy milk was of a very high quality, that its butter fat content was greater than that of milk produced by dairy goats.
"But milking a pygmy requires a lot more patience than most people have," McCullough said. She pinched together her thumbs and index fingers and made a delicate, precise milking motion. "Their teats are very small.
"A pygmy female produces about two pints a day, which is enough if you want to feed kids, but not enough for commercial purposes."
As I walked up to their pens, Mike and Poly Royal eyed me and bleated.
"They want attention," McCullough said.
Mike and Poly had dense long hair that fell below their knees. The hair on their ankles was so long that it partially obscured their tiny cloven hooves.
("When you want to show a pygmy," McCullough later explained, "you'll often want to trim their beards and the hair around their ankles. You of course will brush them and clean them. If you're very particular, you'll use a little black shoe polish on their hooves.")
Mike was black with white frosting here and there on his coat, and Poly was, according to McCullough, a "red caramel," which to me seemed a bright coppery color. The bucks' hair reminded me of a German shepherd's coat, only coarser and with more body and curl. It looked as if it would be pleasant to touch.
But upon closer inspection, Mike's and Poly Royal's beards did appear damp, and the smell radiating from the bucks was higher than when I stood farther away. The smell wasn't sulfurous, like the smell of decaying protein, or the smell of waste from meat-eating animals, nor was it sour the way that fermenting fruit, like grapes, or fermenting milk can be. The bucks' smell was pungent in the way that fresh-ground coffee is pungent. It also had a musky, mineral-like quality that came, I guessed, from the ammonia in their urine.
"For humans, it's not a very attractive smell," said McCullough. "But the does like it."
As if to prove McCullough's point, two eight-month-old does, whom McCullough released from a nearby pen, scampered over to Mike and Poly. The effect was immediate. The bucks stuck out their dark pink tongues, lowered their heads, raked the dirt with their little front hooves, and started sneezing and sputtering. While the does capered in front of Mike's and Poly's pens, the sneezing and sputtering intensified.
"It sounds like they've got bad sinus problems," I said.
"It's called 'blubbering,' " McCullough said. "It's a mating thing."
She explained that pygmies were "precocious breeders," meaning that does, if not carefully kept apart from bucks, could get pregnant when just two months old. She said that does came into season every two months, had a five-month gestation, and gave birth to between one and four kids.
Seeing the bucks and does close together, it was easier for me to gauge their size. According to McCullough, Mike and Poly were excellent examples of the standards set by the National Pygmy Goat Association for adult pygmies.
"They cannot be over 24 inches at the shoulders. The females are a little smaller. The males tend to be a little larger, a little bulkier. I would guess that Mike and Poly each weigh about 75 pounds. Their coats give the bucks a bulkier look."
Pygmy fanciers like McCullough often describe the typical pygmy-goat body as a "barrel with legs." McCullough contrasts this body type with that of Nubian goats, which are "basically a smaller, slimmer version of a dairy breed." But to my eye, the barrel description isn't quite accurate. Pygmy bodies don't have a tubular shape: they don't look as if they've swallowed a barrel. The pygmy ribcage bows abruptly outward: it looks as though the goat has swallowed a small flying saucer or a large, round cushion.
This unusual appearance often causes confusion among laypeople.
"Ninety percent of pygmies look pregnant even when they're not," said McCullough. "Even the neutered males look pregnant. When you go to fairs, people are always asking if the neutered males are pregnant."
I asked McCullough what she, as a licensed judge of pygmy goats, looked for in the animals.
"Okay, you want nice, wide shoulders. You want a short muzzle in the face. You want their nose to be short and wide. You want a good spring of rib. When looking over the top, you want the body to be wide. You want them to be cobby."
"Short. Short in length and height. You would like ideally for the body to be, say, as if it was in a square box. You would want the body to be two-thirds of the box and the legs to be one-third. So you want the body to be deeper than the length of the legs. You watch for the width between the chest, the width between the back legs, and you want the legs to be straight."
I asked McCullough about pygmy tails. Did they count for much? The tails of McCullough's goats stood upright, with the hair splayed outward in a fanlike fashion.
"The tail doesn't really matter that much. I mean, you don't want a broken tail, of course. But what you want is the slope to the rump, and if it's too steep of a slope they're not gonna win. You want just a medium slope to the rump.
"In half of pygmy goats, the tails don't fan out. But when we show them, we foo-foo them up. I've even curled their tails with curling irons, you know."
While McCullough busied herself, releasing a half-dozen or so eight-month-old does from their pen ("Come on out, girls! Run around! Have some fun!"), I sat on a stanchion, a platform used for grooming the goats and trimming their hooves. Several of the does started racing around, pumping their short legs as they ran, leaving cartoonish puffs of dust where their hooves dug into the soil. All of a sudden two does leapt into the air and came down fast, their heads lowered, as if they were going to butt each other. But at the very last second, they slightly altered their angle of attack so that their foreheads didn't quite meet. It was mock-butting. They were playing.
While the others raced, several came over to inspect me and nibble on my fingers and on the sleeves of my jacket. Unlike dogs, these pygmies didn't mind meeting a human's gaze. They looked into my eyes and cocked their heads to one side, as if expecting the answer to a mildly interesting question. One of the does started to rub her forehead against my knee. One of them, pure black, jumped into my lap and rubbed her soft, fuzzy muzzle against my face. My reflex was to embrace the goat and make cooing noises. The goat's reflex was to cuddle more closely against me. This was the famous pygmy-goat affection I'd heard about. It's not only that pygmies don't mind being approached and touched by humans, it's that they seek out and seem to enjoy human contact and attention in a doglike way.
When I spoke about this endearing behavior with Niki Boyd, animal care supervisor of the Children's Zoo at the San Diego Zoo, she explained that "domestication of animals takes thousands of years and a genetic change. People have been breeding goats for thousands of years. And goats are a herd animal, so they're naturally social. Humans have bred goats for many purposes, for meat and for milk, and it makes sense that if you're going to have an animal around, you'd prefer that it be sociable rather than aggressive."
The little black pygmy rubbing its muzzle against my face, and my reaction to this contact, was the product of a relationship that went far back in time. But, said Boyd, there was more to it than that.
"It's also a matter of human contact when the animal is young. It takes a lot of time and dedication to gain an animal's trust. Not all domesticated animals are tame. Not all domesticated animals seek out human contact."
What Boyd said explained why McCullough's pygmies were so cuddly. McCullough told me that when her pygmies were babies, she tried to bottle-feed as many as possible, and throughout their lives, she tried to spend as much time with them as she could.
McCullough, standing in the barn she used for her pygmies, pointed out the stereo system she'd installed to play soothing music for does in labor, and the closed-circuit cameras she'd installed to keep an eye on them, too.
"You should see a kid when it's three days old. That's the cutest time. They suddenly discover that they've got feet, but they're not quite sure how they work. They try to jump on things. They stumble. They're trying to learn."
While McCullough and I walked around her property, she pointed out the new chain-link pens she'd had constructed for her pygmies. She told me that she hadn't grown up with livestock -- "We had a dog every now and then" -- but had always loved animals.
"I've always had a love for horses. About the age of 18 I got my first job. And when I earned my first $100, I went out and bought a horse. It was a really mean animal. You buy a horse for $100, what do you expect to get? But I just petted him and said, 'Oh, it's got pretty eyes,' and I bought him. I've had animals ever since."
As we walked around the brand-new pens, McCullough grew reflective. "After I found out I was sick, I thought, 'Why not? Why not just go ahead and enjoy life?' And so I had the new pens put in. I only hope that I'm around for a long time to enjoy my goats."
I asked McCullough what was the matter. She told me that some months earlier she'd been diagnosed with a serious illness. She'd already had surgery, she said. She pulled up the left sleeve of her blouse to show me a shunt, wrapped in surgical gauze, implanted in the flesh above her elbow.
"That's where they inject my medicine. I told my doctor that I wanted the shunt up here on my arm, out of the way, because a couple of friends of mine have pygmies that are about to have kids and I wanted to be able to help midwife them. I really enjoy that. And I didn't want the shunt lower on my arm, where it might get in the way or get contaminated."
When we went back inside McCullough's home, she went to the kitchen and scrubbed her hands and forearms with bactericidal soap. "I have to be careful about germs now. But, you know, I love to pet my goats."
McCullough told me that she bought her first two pygmies for about $200 but that now, in the big world of "show pygmies," an animal with an award-winning pedigree could fetch as much as $1300. She said the highest price that she'd ever gotten for one of her own was $800.
"I do very well at the Del Mar fair. This past year  I went with 16 pygmies and came home with 3. I made $2200 in the first four days I was there."
Aside from the business angle, I wondered what McCullough's involvement with pygmy goats had offered her.
"To me, it's the kids," she said, referring to her own two children. "It's the best thing, raising kids around animals. Keeps them off the streets, away from drugs. They're busy with their animals, they do the fairs, the FFA -- the Future Farmers of America -- which is in high school. When they're younger, they can do the 4-H. And it's really good. They spend a lot of time grooming their animals, getting them ready for fairs. They make money that they can put aside for college."
But what had she personally gotten from her pygmies?
"It's the affection. The enjoyment."
Until I started learning about pygmy goats, I never thought about the bond people might form with animals other than the usual house pets. But McCullough's devotion reminded me of Phyllis McQien, an 81-year-old Ramona resident who's a kind of legend among San Diego's pygmy-goat owners. McQien doesn't belong to the National Pygmy Goat Association or to the San Diego Pygmy Goat Association. She was never much interested in showing her pygmies or winning awards.
"At one time I had as many as 15 pygmies as 'house goats,' " McQien told me on the afternoon I called her. "One morning I woke up with a pygmy standing on my bed, staring at me and nuzzling my face. After that, I started keeping them penned in the kitchen.
"I of course had them trained to pee in a Kitty Litter box. They're very smart, and they're easy to train that way. I once had a four-day-old kid who learned to use the litter box by watching the cat. The kid was so tiny that he could barely get his legs over the side of the box, but he just climbed right in and used it."
McQien declined to meet me in person because her health, she said, wasn't what it used to be. Some days, she said, she has a difficult time getting around. Although she didn't feel well, she didn't mind talking about pygmy goats.
"I just fell in love with them the first time I saw them. I think it was at an animal auction in Escondido. I'd moved up to Ramona from El Cajon. After my son died in an automobile accident, I wanted to get away from El Cajon. It was already starting to get industrialized at the time I left. Down there along Pioneer Way. In fact, I named Pioneer Way. When we first got there, we didn't have running water. Just wells. We were like pioneers. So, after my son was killed, I just wanted to get out of El Cajon and have some land where I could have my animals.
"I was born in Washington, D.C., and lived there until I was eight years old, when we came out to San Diego. When I was a little girl in D.C., I was always the kind of child who'd befriend the neighborhood dog, no matter how ugly, who had a thorn stuck in his paw. I'd pull it out and make him feel better. And I had an aunt who had a farm outside the city, and she had a horse. I remember going there to visit, and she let me ride. I always loved animals.
"Out here in Ramona I've had as many as 27 pygmy kids at one time. I'd go sit out in the yard, and they'd get up in my lap. I'd clap my hands and they'd come. I'd put two in my lap and bottle-feed 'em at the same time. It was just such a great pleasure."
McQien said that over the 30 years she raised pygmy goats, she gave away at least 100 to individuals and families who showed a sincere interest in the animals.
"I had rules. I never gave a pygmy to anyone who wanted the animal for meat. I didn't want people to eat them. Because they're small animals, a lot of Asians like them for barbecue. Once I started raising them, Asians would come around. They'd rub their bellies and look at one of my goats and say, 'I've got a good home for you!' And I'd say, 'Oh, no you don't!' And I had another stipulation. Whenever I gave a pygmy away, I always told the people, 'If for any reason you can't feed or take good care of this animal, please bring it back to me.' In all the years I raised pygmy goats, I had no more than a half-dozen returned to me.
"I was very serious about their care. I kept a few dairy goats for milk so that the people could bottle-feed their pygmies. I'd milk the dairy goats and put the milk in a refrigerator I kept outside. It was the honor system. People could come by and take what they needed and leave a donation, a dollar for a gallon, whatever they could afford. To me, it's important that you bottle-feed 'em, because when you bottle-feed 'em, you're their mama.
"They're really not much trouble to look after. I learned to do it all by myself. My pygmies were always pretty healthy. I learned to burn off their horns, which you do when they're one week old. I'd give 'em a tetanus shot. I guess their care just came as second nature to me. And it's easy to learn to do something when you love it.
"People would ask me, 'How do you do it? How do you manage all those goats?' And I'd say it was easy because the goats are so intelligent and so kind. They'd be out in the field, and in the early evening I'd go out and clap my hands and they'd come running to the gate. I never had to go chasing after them. They're such affectionate little animals. They don't hold a grudge. You can get kind of aggravated at 'em and holler at 'em, but they won't hold a grudge. They're much better than people in that respect. And I think they're better than a dog because of the affection. Unlike a dog, they want to be around you all the time."
McQien told me that now she had only five pygmy goats. Her inability to tend to more was a greater source of disappointment to her, it seemed, than her health.
"But I make do with my five. When I can, I like to go out and sit by my back door and call to them. They'll come running over, and I get to pet 'em and talk to 'em and enjoy their company. They're a great source of joy to me. People say that pygmies live only 12 years. I know I've had some pygmies for 15 years. People say that they don't live that long, but I know that they do."
Joy and affection are only two of the benefits that accrue to pygmy ownership. As Sue McCullough said, learning to care for animals, to take responsibility for their welfare, can play a significant role in a child's maturation. To learn more about this, I visited Sycuan Casino to speak with 22-year-old Nicole Fletcher, who, I'd been told, started raising pygmies when she was a little girl.
Fletcher works in the casino's human resources department. Winsome, blonde, she shook my hand with self-assured firmness. Although she was born and raised in Jamul, only 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, Fletcher has what I think of as a country girl's gutsiness. She told me, for example, that of pygmy bucks, wethers, and does, the bucks were her favorite.
"They smell really bad and their hair grows long and needs a lot of maintenance and they spit when there's a doe in heat but, I don't know, I just really like them. Does are really friendly and wethers, well, wethers want to be everybody's friend. But bucks are a little standoffish."
Fletcher said that she got her first pygmies as Christmas presents when she was five years old.
"My dad had visited a farm back east that his grandparents had owned, and he said that we'd never own a farm animal. I started with guinea pigs. When I was five I had some friends in school that were in the 4-H program in Jamul. My one friend had a pygmy that followed him around and knew where the cereal cabinet was. This pygmy knew how to let himself into the house. I ended up with one just like that. For Christmas I got a doe named Sunflower. We got her from a breeder in Lakeside. My parents paid $250 for her, and she came with a friend that was a wether that cost $50, and his name was Butterscotch. Actually, his name was Huey, but I didn't like the name Huey. Pygmies go better in pairs. They're social animals, herd animals, and they do better if they've got another pygmy to bond with."
Fletcher said that as soon as she got Sunflower and Butterscotch, her parents made sure that she took care of them. I wondered how much these lessons in responsibility cost.
"Pygmy goats are expensive because they don't produce anything. It's not like a dairy goat, which you can milk and sell the milk, or you can raise them for meat and then sell the meat at auction at 4-H. So, hay is $12.50 a bale, then the grains are $10 for a 50-pound bag. And then you had the vet bills. For the care and feeding of my pygmies, I'd estimate that my parents were spending about $450 per month."
Fletcher's pygmy-care schedule started, she said, every morning, seven days a week, at 5:00 a.m.
"My parents always said, 'They don't have hands. They can't feed or look after themselves. You've got to do it.' So my days started at 5:00 a.m., and we had to be at school by 8:30 a.m. School was just down the road, a 20-minute walk. I took care of my pygmies until I had to leave for school, and a couple of times I cut it really close. There were the daily things you had to do, like feed and water them, and there were monthly things you had to do, like deworm them and trim their hooves. In the afternoons I spent about twice as much time with them as I did in the morning, which included running around and playing with them. On weekends sometimes I'd spend all day with them."
So much quality time with the pygmies paid surprising dividends. Fletcher's goats learned to do tricks.
"My goats could walk on their back legs. They could open gates. They could open sliding glass doors and screen doors. They knew where the cereal cabinet was. I had one who could pick oranges off the tree. Oh, yeah, he loved oranges. The acidity was really bad for him, but we couldn't keep him away from the oranges. And I had one pygmy that even learned to roll over."
Fletcher said that at the height of her involvement, she had 15 pygmies.
"And there were chickens -- we didn't really keep track of those. I had ducks, guinea pigs, rabbits. I had about 30 rabbits at one time. I had rats. I had turtles. I had a horse, but it didn't last very long. And, for other 4-H projects, over the years I had a pig and I also raised seven cows for market."
Sunflower and Butterscotch launched Fletcher into a full-blown lifestyle, much of which centered around 4-H meetings and activities. I asked Fletcher to describe 4-H in a way that most people could understand.
"4-H stands for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. It's for helping the community, reaching out to others. It's an after-school activity, and it does not just include animals, although that's how it started out. Now there are a lot of 4-H groups in cities that do the arts and crafts part of it. It teaches you what school doesn't teach you. With the animals, you know, there are life lessons to learn through the showing of the animals, the politics of it, and through the care for an animal.
"FFA, or Future Farmers of America, is more of a high school thing. FFA and 4-H sometimes will show their animals together. However, now El Capitan and Escondido are the only high schools that have FFA. La Jolla used to have it, but they don't anymore."
I told Fletcher that I had no choice but to ask her about the politics of pygmy-goat showing in San Diego. She laughed and rolled her eyes.
"It's like anything else. Often the judges are breeders as well. If they recognize their animal, or they recognize another judge's animal, or one of their friends is showing an animal, for some reason, no matter what my goat might be like, the animal the judge knows ends up at the top of the line, and it ends up with the grand prize. So you learn to go along. And it's just play. You learn, for example, to palm your animal off on the right person, if that's what you're trying to go for. If winning is what's important to you.
"They'll often have shows just so that 4-H kids are able to show only against other 4-H kids. However, the judges do still manage to find someone that they've run into at previous shows and bonded with. And their animals seem to end up at the top of the line. So, you learn to make friends."
I asked if Fletcher had noticed any trends in pygmy-goat breeding.
"Yeah, there were times, you know, when I first started, and you'd sit there at a show and all you would see was caramels. You'd have a whole class of caramel, and you'd have only one agouti. An agouti is salt and pepper, gray and white, speckled. And the agouti would be at the back of the line.
"And for a long time they were breeding for pygmy goats that weren't technically in the best of health because they deviated so far from the breed standard. They were a lot shorter and a lot heavier than what they should have been, and they looked like they were all pregnant all the time. They had short necks, short noses, and very short legs, and they didn't carry it very well. But that's what people bred for. This was around 1995 through 1997. These goats were probably very cute, but they weren't, technically, pygmy goats.
"A lot of these animals had been bred back east, and people were buying and bringing them in. Some of us realized that the way these goats had been bred wasn't quite healthy enough for them. They had problems kidding and you'd lose the mom. So, around 1998, the judges started liking East County animals. Animals that had been bred around here. They just had more pygmy characteristics, more than the ones from back east. The local pygmies had longer legs, a straighter top line, and more dish to the face. And by dish to the face I mean that they have a little indentation right in their forehead area, right between their eyes. A lot of the goats from back east didn't have that. Their faces were flat, and their bodies were bulky, like a dairy goat's."
Fletcher's knowledge of pygmy-show politics and trends in pygmy breeding came from a childhood and adolescence that were, by any measure, very full. In addition to her daily chores and going to school, Fletcher attended, on average, ten 4-H meetings per month and "at least" 16 pygmy-goat shows per year. Since she left home, Fletcher said, her involvement with pygmies has decreased. She now has only four pygmies, two at her parents' home and two that stay at a girlfriend's house. She still teaches 4-H kids about pygmy care, but these days her main interest is breeding miniature dachshunds.
"I just like to stay busy and, you know, right now all I'm doing is work, and I'm doing dog shows and I'm kinda lost. I'm used to having my life planned six months in advance."
I asked Fletcher what she imagined her life might have been like if she'd never gotten Sunflower and Butterscotch as Christmas presents.
"I'd probably have a kid by now. A real kid. I mean, a child," she said. She took a moment to think. "A lot of the people I grew up with have children now. Being involved with pygmies and 4-H kept me from getting involved in a lot of things that teenagers now get into, taking drugs, having children. I was always so busy. And my parents were always after me to take care of the animals, even when I was little. And when I was little, I was so afraid of the dark. I hated going out in the dark to take care of the animals. But, you know, even though I was afraid of the dark, I learned to say, 'Okay, I'll do it.' "
During my conversation with Fletcher, she said that one of her 4-H pygmy-goat mentors had been Donna Elkins, a name I often heard mentioned when I called around San Diego's pygmy-goat community. Elkins was, like Sue McCullough, a National Pygmy Goat Association-licensed judge. Elkins was also the driving force behind the founding in 1991 of the San Diego Pygmy Goat Association. Elkins was, I was told, part of the reason why San Diego enjoyed a national reputation for the quality of its pygmies.
"I think we had only about eight or so families involved back when we started the association," Elkins said when I got her on the phone for a few minutes. "I saw people selling animals that were kind of inferior. The idea is to breed a healthy, productive animal that's going to lead a long, healthy, happy life. We started the San Diego Pygmy Goat Association to improve the line. To give the community some animals that were competitive. It's not that winning is everything. But losing all the time is kind of disheartening."
I didn't have an easy time connecting with Elkins. For five weeks we exchanged voice-mail messages and had brief conversations. Gradually, I learned that Elkins had three grown daughters. One of her daughters was getting married. There were all the difficulties and complications of planning for a daughter's wedding. And then there was the wedding. And in the wedding's aftermath, Elkins came down with pneumonia.
What I didn't know about Elkins during the five weeks I kept calling and leaving messages to pester her to talk about pygmy goats and the San Diego Pygmy Goat Association was that Elkins was married to a San Diego Police Department detective. I also didn't know that Elkins and her detective husband, after raising three daughters of their own, had decided to become foster parents to two young children whom Donna had met while teaching Sunday school at her local church.
Donna Elkins had a few things on her mind other than suspicious phone calls from a jumpy writer who for some reason had taken an interest in pygmy goats and the San Diego Pygmy Goat Association. I now suspect that when Elkins, the wife of a detective, had a free minute or two, she consulted the pygmy-goat-community phone tree and made a few calls of her own to find out just what it was that I was up to.
I suspect that Elkins put a few feelers out because when I finally visited Elkins and her two pygmies in their pen beside Elkins' three-bedroom home in a valley outside Jamul, she had a definite question in mind.
Elkins is a dead ringer for the young Doris Day. Even at 6:30 a.m. on a chilly December morning, Elkins's blue eyes were bright and clear. Her face wasn't puffy or creased by a night of deep sleep. She seemed cheerful, if a little cautious. I wondered if she was the sort of person who never slept or if her eerie pre-dawn alertness was common among wives of detectives.
I was wearing three layers of clothes and my teeth were chattering. Elkins, trim, athletic-looking, wore jeans and a pink sweatshirt that zipped up the front. With a green garden hose, she casually filled the watering trough used by her two pygmy does, seven-year-old Mystique and five-year-old Buttons. Elkins chatted with me about her two llamas, Lucy and Socks, and about Cassie, her corgi, and Domino, her border collie, and about the crabby, ungrateful Cochin rooster Elkins had adopted that liked to attack her ankles. She was offhand-seeming until she asked, "So what sort of article are you planning to write about pygmies?"
The day before Elkins asked that question, we'd talked for a while over the phone. She told me that she was a "Chula Vista beach girl, and believe me, it was to everyone's astonishment, including that of my friends and family and even my own, that I became a pygmy-goat person. At my 20-year high school reunion, I won the award for the strangest job: pygmy-goat judge.
"I mean, who knew that I'd also become a pygmy-goat midwife and be pretty good at it? Who knew that I had a talent for it? Is it because I've got small hands and thin arms? I don't know. It's a valuable skill. Most people have hands that are too big. They'd cause trauma if they tried to help a doe in labor. Thirty to forty percent of pygmy births result in complications that require some sort of intervention. But I certainly didn't know I'd become so involved with pygmies when I first started out. Even my husband, who grew up in Fallbrook and was involved in Future Farmers of America, doesn't quite understand it.
"What happened, as far as I can remember, is that we bought a dairy goat. We thought it would be good for our girls, who were little at the time, to be around animals. We're out here in a pretty rural community. Growing up in a rural community isn't like it was before. You can't just send your kids down the road to play. What you need now are more organized activities, like 4-H. So, someone said, 'You should really get a pygmy goat for your dairy goat, so they can keep each other company.' And that's how it started. I got involved with dairy goats and pygmy goats for 4-H because, at the time, nobody else out here was really doing it. And because nobody else out here was doing it, I didn't think my ignorance would hurt anyone. I just started educating myself, reading a lot of books. My attitude has always been, if I'm gonna do something, I'm gonna do it right.
"What I realized was that I really liked pygmy goats. They're quieter than dairy goats, and they've got their own independent, stubborn streak, which is what I liked about them. They're affectionate, but they're not real demanding. They're pretty self-sufficient in a lot of ways. It's more an air of independence. They like to have fun. They're pretty playful and intelligent, but they're not needy. They're more doglike in their intelligence level, but they don't suffer emotionally if I'm not out there spending five hours a day with them. Another thing I liked was that, among pygmy-goat owners, there's a very friendly atmosphere. It's not cutthroat the way it can be among people who breed and show other kinds of animals, like dogs and horses.
"So, I definitely bought the goats for my girls, and they enjoyed them and had fun with them. But I ended up liking pygmies more than my daughters did. I'm sure that if you asked my daughters now if they were interested in raising and showing pygmy goats, you'd get a resounding, 'No!' "
Elkins told me that she eventually started breeding and raising her goats under the herd name Proverbial Pygmies and that she served on the board of directors for the National Pygmy Goat Association for six years. She said that 30 pygmies was the most she tended at any one time. She now has 12, including Mystique and Buttons. The others stay at a girlfriend's ranch not far from Elkins's home. The San Diego Pygmy Goat Association now has 20 active members.
"And if the National Pygmy Goat Association has almost 40 members in San Diego, I'd probably estimate that there are almost 200 people in the county who own pygmies. Of course, most of those people have only a couple of goats."
About her career as a pygmy-goat judge, Elkins said it gave her an opportunity to travel.
"I've judged shows in New England and in Alaska. I judge between 10 to 20 shows a year. They pay for your travel, and they pay you a judging fee and they pay for your hotel. Judging fees range from $150 to $400, depending on the show you're doing. Some are shows for 4-H kids, some are fairs. And I've done some shows for no fee."
Because Elkins has a national perspective on pygmy goats, I asked her how San Diego ranked.
"We're definitely in the top ten percent of pygmies in the nation. I don't think I've been to a show where a San Diego pygmy didn't end up in the championship.
"Now, of course, Ohio and North Carolina have a high percentage of strong animals. Out here in California, Linda Henwood's pygmies up at Whirlwind Farms near Sacramento are considered to be some of the very best. But our pygmies here in San Diego can go up against Henwood's pygmies anytime."
Toward the end of our talk, I asked Elkins what seemed to her the most rewarding aspect of her work with pygmies.
"My experience with 4-H has been that you get to see a lot of young teens and young kids who were responsible in a lot of ways. It gave them a lot of positive things to work toward. It wasn't just winning. It was the whole ethical part of it -- being kind to the animals, taking care of them, making a commitment, and sticking to it. My involvement with pygmies has given me an opportunity to have a positive impact on the kids I've worked with. Even within our national organization, there's a lot of youth. It was fun to be able to share with them, encourage them, and help them. Especially the kids who were a little shy or reserved. Or the ones who'd get really disappointed when things don't go their way. Working with the goats made a difference in their attitudes and expectations."
Elkins also said, "There's not much better in life than when I get up early in the morning and it's quiet and I go down and take care of my pygmies. It's so peaceful. You really ought to try it."
I asked Elkins if I could visit her the following morning.
"Take Highway 94 and stay on 94 out through Spring Valley," her instructions began. "Keep going on Lawson Valley Road until you come to a part of San Diego that I hope will never become urbanized."
The sun was just starting to rise when I turned onto Elkins's driveway. A dozen baby jackrabbits raced around before my headlights. A lone crow, stark against the purple sky, circled overhead. Elkins was already in the pygmy pen, raking up goat pellets and soiled hay.
Lucy and Socks, standing nearby, stared at us blankly. Elkins was sort of miffed at them. She worried that they weren't doing their job. Llamas, she said, are supposed to be territorial enough to scare off coyotes. And since the Proctor Valley fire, Elkins and her neighbors have had a problem with coyotes.
"In the past year I've lost two Shih Tzus to coyotes."
Elkins scattered fresh hay for Buttons and Mystique, who stood in a corner of their pen, nuzzling each other and cuddling against each other like newlyweds on their honeymoon. Elkins's Cochin rooster, squat and hostile, trotted toward her ankles. She grabbed the rake and waved it at him. "Don't you dare, pal."
Elkins's home faces southwest, and as the sun rose, the horizon became a vertical spectrum that ascended from dark blue hills to pale golden sky. Everything was quiet.
"My husband asks me, 'What is it with you and those goats?' " Elkins said. "I tell him that some people like to surf, some people like to run, some people like to go to the gym. I like to get out here and rake up my goat pen early in the morning. It's peaceful. You start your day stress-free. Some people go to Family Fitness Center. I go out and shovel goat poo. They're happy and I'm happy."