"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.