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What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.
(Illustration: Magoz)

(Illustration: Magoz)

The moment you set eyes upon Only Imagine’s two kids, you will want to pick them up, cradle them in your arms, and sing them goat lullabies. They have black socks, pointy white ears, and white muzzles. Their legs are stumpy. Their eyes, which are button-round, have an earnest look of terror. Since they are pygmy goats, they will grow to a height of only two feet and a weight of 80 pounds, a third of the size of an ordinary goat. Their names are Imagine and Imagine That. And they are caught up in an unlikely war over breeding.

It’s farm day here at the Proverbial Pygmies ranch, a tree-shaded spread that sits on five acres half an hour east of San Diego. Several children from the local 4-H club are visiting in preparation for a show-goat competition at the San Bernardino County Fair and are trying to catch Imagine and Imagine That. The babies cram themselves into a plastic doghouse with five other goats. It’s all hoof and head and hindquarter.

A few feet away, keeping one eye on the pandemonium, is the owner of Proverbial Pygmies. She is Donna Elkins, the grand dame of the Southern California pygmy goat scene, and she has been attending to another goat with its head locked in a miniature stanchion. Its hair is being blow-dried. In lilac Crocs and blue jeans, Elkins doesn’t look like a rebel. But she is a defiant breeder of animals with controversial color combinations. She approaches Imagine That, who has a gray coat with tan highlights, and runs her fingers down a mottled pattern on his foreleg. “I think he meets the breed standard,” she says. “But they are still questioning him.”

As Rolex is to fake Rolex, so pygmy goat is to NPGA-rejected pygmy goat.

“They” refers to the National Pygmy Goat Association, a non-profit founded in 1976 that sets the standard for the breed. Every purebred pygmy goat born in America must have a pedigree that can be traced back to a specific founder population (brought over from West Africa) or to parents admitted through a stringent registration process. Today, the organization boasts about 1,000 members and, since its inception, has registered a total of 115,282 pygmy goats.

The trouble started in the 1990s, when an unfamiliar sort of pygmy goat began making the rounds: a tri-colored creature with black socks, a grey coat, and tan splotches. Elkins happened to be one of the first breeders of such a goat. Twinkle’s Star, born on March 10, 1997, was at first widely admired. She won first place in her class at the 2001 NPGA national convention, and two of her grandchildren became national champions. Imagine That is one of her great-great-great-grandchildren.

But other breeders got suspicious. Rumors spread that the father of Twinkle’s Star might not have been a pygmy goat at all, but an interloping Nigerian dwarf goat. In June 2008, says Elkins, a competition judge complained that Twinkle’s Star’s colors were “undesirable,” and another breeder launched a campaign called Just Say No to Tri-Color. On the face of it, the judgment was aesthetic. Beneath the surface, “tri-color” was code for “impure.”

All of this infuriates Elkins. “Those are serious allegations,” she says, her eyes growing watery. “It may seem like, you know, just a hobby or a fun thing, but it’s life. It is life. People’s reputations matter. Truth matters.”

Her livelihood also matters. Elkins says she sells about 20 NPGA-registered kids each year (the ones that conform to NPGA standards) for $300 to $1,000 apiece. Without NPGA registration, they would not sell for such prices. As Rolex is to fake Rolex, so pygmy goat is to NPGA-rejected pygmy goat.

In 2013, the NPGA bowed to the anti-tri-color faction. Goats could be black and white or they could be brown and white, but they could not be black and brown and white. Elkins and a small contingent of southern California breeders sued the NPGA in federal court over the new rules, charging the organization with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. The NPGA denies the accusation. The case was still pending at the time this article went to print.

The quest for purity brings out the best and worst in people. When we value the right thing and make an effort to distill and protect its best qualities, the results can be positive. When we value the wrong thing, or seek purity at all costs, the consequence can be discrimination against adorable goats based upon the color of their fur.

Not to mention that these goats probably are purely pygmy. As Philip Sponenberg of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine points out, tri-colors are quite possible to produce without crossbreeding. “Color variation bothers American breeders,” he says. “Go to the original homeland and there’s much more variation.”

While Elkins and I have been talking, the 4-H kids have donned starchy white outfits and green hats. Several visiting goat breeders are instructing the novices on how to handle the goats during the competition, and a 13-year-old boy named Andy is trying to walk Miley, a pregnant tri-color, on a leash. Miley is short but wide-bellied, as if she has swallowed a portable fridge. She is feeling uncooperative. “Miley, quit being a turd bird!” barks her owner.

Soon, the adults are playing judge, testing the children on their goat knowledge.

“What’s the term we use for the crown of the head?” asks Elkins.

“Boy goats are supposed to have how many testicles?” asks another breeder.

“What are some disqualifying features?” asks a third. Before anyone has a chance to answer, she adds, with a smirk, “We’re not going to talk about the color.”

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