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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 [2005] 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.

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