Sunday, June 26, 2016

Letting Go of Fear

Tallulah and Plucky Baby Goats
After our adventures in the Galapagos Islands, I’ve been mulling over the concept of evolution. Seeing first-hand how animals adapt to their environment over centuries got me thinking. At home, humans intervene in the developmental process of species to create animals (and plants) that suit some human need or whim.

We do it everyday on The Goat Farm. Katherine breeds for specific traits in her animals: length of body, ease of kidding, thickness of bone … and TEMPERAMENT.

I won’t bore you with an essay about those first three traits. It’s temperament, and specifically the “friendly” gene that I want to discuss. 

First of all, I acknowledge that “friendly” might not be the correct term. It’s an entirely human sentiment, not animals. All of us “friendly” people know what the word means, but for those of you who are un-friendly (and you know who you are), here are some synonyms: kind, pleasant, affable, amiable, genial, congenial, cordial, warm, affectionate, demonstrative, convivial, companionable, sociable, gregarious, outgoing, comradely, neighborly, hospitable, approachable, easy to get on with, accessible, communicative, open, unreserved, easygoing, good-natured, kindly, benign, amenable, agreeable, obliging, sympathetic, well-disposed, benevolent. Phew. A few of those terms could apply to goats.
Even the chickens aren't afraid
How about “fearless” instead? Bold, brave, courageous, intrepid, valiant, valorous, gallant, plucky, lionhearted, heroic, daring, audacious, indomitable. Closer.

On our trip, I learned the phrase “ecologically naive,” which sums up our ideal pygmy goat temperament: 
loss of defensive behaviors and adaptations needed to deal with predators 

(Personally, though, I prefer to think we breed for “plucky” or “neighborly” goats, but anyway…)

Really, Katherine just wants goats that will make nice pets. Goats that interact with ANYONE. Goats that express an interest in humans. Goats that won’t run away in fear. It’s her specialty, her niche, in this cutthroat goat business. Other people may have more “correct” show specimens, but you can actually snuggle with goats from our herd.

Fear is, of course, necessary for survival in the wilderness. Take this little mouse, for instance. Katherine found it in the barn. Terrified. Which makes it run away and hide – and have a better chance for survival (and, ultimately reproduction and continuation of its genes down the line).

But fear is not necessary for our pampered pygmy goats. Well, fear of humans, that is. Hell, at our house they shouldn’t fear the dogs either. They definitely should fear the mountain lions, but that’s a different blog post.
Katherine, "Kisses" and Rojito
Not so long ago, when Bubba was in charge of the herd, the goats were flat out blind with fear of people. Catching them was like trying to trap a feral cat. And forget about PETTING them. Precisely 2 of the 50 were approachable – not “pettable.” Now, 2 years later, the ratio has flipped: 2 (or 3) of the 50 are still afraid of people. But the rest of them range from approachable to attention-seeking. 

So, how did we get here? How did we go from feral to fearless? The same way that people bred pugs from wolves. 

Wolves to PugsAlice Bouchardon
Mu and Toga (from "Toga the Goat")
By some stroke of luck, we had a friendly buck (“Mr. Mugatu,” or “Mu” for short) who came out of one of the only 2 friendly goats in Bubba’s herd. Katherine, who spends hours of time sitting in the goat pen observing her kingdom, noticed that Mu’s babies were (usually) friendly, too. Even if the Moms were somewhat spooky, the babies had the potential to be congenial – IF, and here’s the key component of this project – IF we socialized and played with the babies from their very first day.

We are up to second and third generations of goats and the friendly goats—ones that were predisposed to being friendly and who were also socialized from day 1—are now having their own friendly babies.
Shazam. Genetics (combined with nurture) are breeding out the “fear” gene. Our goats are becoming “ecologically naïve.”

Does the same concept apply to people? Are we hard-wired to be frightened? Can we overcome a predisposition to be afraid and anxious with proper nurturing and socializing?


I have spent most of my life paralyzed by fear and anxiety. In my case, the source of my anxiety is both nature and nurture. I blame my Mom, just as my children will surely blame me some day.

My mother and I would go on amusement park rides, like a Ferris wheel, and she would literally throw herself across my frail 4-year-old body to keep me from falling out. Um, isn’t that what the safety bar is for? And, a Ferris wheel, really?

Once we went to a park with huge, white geese and my mother spent the whole time standing between me and the demonic beasts to keep them from killing me. (OK, geese are big and they are scary, but they aren’t carnivores.) She was like a mother tiger – save the young at all costs.  The genetic material must survive! 

Swim Test
Anyway, I grew up afraid of amusement parks, zoos, public transportation, the ocean, telephones, etc. I was painfully shy, petrified of talking to strangers (DANGER DANGER DANGER), or even making a phone call. 

Then, 6 years ago, I realized that this debilitating anxiety is not entirely genetic. I consciously decided one day to let it go. It was the day that Bubba said, “Let's go on a cruise to Mexico.” Gulp, “OK!” I said with as much false bravado as I could muster. 

Me snorkeling with Bobby (age 8)
Since then, I have learned to tolerate long lines and crowds at Disneyland, ride the “Tower of Terror,” speak in front of crowds (without notes), travel internationally, and snorkel. 

I admit that the first time I took 8-year-old Bobby snorkeling in the ocean I panicked just like my mom did: I was terrified that he would sink, get eaten by a shark, wander off, or all of the above. 

But, you know what? He was just fine. He loved snorkeling so much that he’s been nagging me to get certified for Scuba for the last two years (maybe…). 

My children don’t share my fear of the outside world. Maybe they didn’t inherit the fear gene? Maybe I didn’t instill it in them with my own freaky behavior? Maybe they feel safe enough to take risks? 

"Look Ma, no stirrups!"
Bella (my 18-year-old daughter), for example, is the bravest person I know. In her equestrian days, no jump was too big. No cross-country course too daunting.

In this photo, she was navigating a tricky line of 3 consecutive jumps (gigantic in my opinion). She lost her stirrups somewhere in the turn to the line. But that didn’t stop her. Even a split second of hesitation would’ve unnerved her and thrown her off her game – literally. 

I asked Bella afterwards if she was afraid. She emphatically replied, “YES. But I decided to keep going anyway.”

Out of the mouths of babes. Sometimes we need to just suck it up and keep on going anyway.

Fly, Baby, FlyErin Hanson

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