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.