Goats on TV

Goat Rescue Stars in Farm Life Shows

Goats on TV

Caprine residents at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, England, starred in two European television documentaries: a BBC mini-series on farm animal behavior in December 2018; and a France Télévisions documentary on goat intelligence in 2019.

The three-part British documentary, entitled Secret Life of Farm Animals, revealed the hidden talents and natural abilities of domestic animals that are largely unknown to the general public, including those of the Buttercups goats. These skills adapted their ancestors to living in the wild. Through these beautifully filmed scenes, we can wonder at how goats apply their aptitudes to living with us.

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Two episodes featured stars from Buttercups goat sanctuary. Rupert, an expert at pulling bolts and releasing latches, was caught on film opening doors with his nimble lips (view clip). Other goats at the refuge have learned from his example. Natalie, a Sable doe, frequently lets out her companions after Bob Hitch, founder of the sanctuary, has shut them in their stalls for the night.

In goats, sharp minds are accompanied by athletic bodies. The show highlighted goats’ amazing agility, using high definition slow motion photography. The film crew at BBC Wales artfully captured goats climbing, jumping, and reaching for leaves.

Buttercups goats Marmite and Princess Leia interact with staff member Matt Huggins. Photo by Fiona Costello.

Buttercups Goats Are Smart and Friendly

Princess Leia is a Nubian goat doe who has learned to trust and follow staff. She and Bob demonstrated to viewers how she would look to him for help when she could not solve a food puzzle. Previously, researchers had found that dogs who could not access a treat would look to their owners for a solution, whereas wolves would continue to try and solve the issue by themselves. Through domestication, dogs have come to collaborate with humans, as they have been bred as working animals. Goats, on the other hand, have been bred as production animals, with little need to team up with people. Therefore, it was a surprise when researchers put goats through the unsolvable problem test and found that they too looked to humans for help. Bob replicated the test by placing a tidbit in a plastic box that Princess already associated with treats. Then he closed the lid so that she could not access it. She pawed at it a few times, and then looked to Bob for assistance.

The goats’ performance in cognition tests drew the attention of filmmaker Emma Baus. She took footage of the Buttercups goats for her documentary Smart as a Goat for France 2. The fifty-minute show explores goats’ intelligence and their ability to form bonds with humans. She travels from the French Alps, via Buttercups in the UK, meeting tree-climbing goats in the Moroccan desert, and on to agility training and goat yoga in the United States.

Buttercups goats of all shapes and sizes. Photo by Fiona Costello.

Buttercups Goats’ Behavior is Studied Scientifically

Buttercups is home for about 140 goats. This large herd of all shapes and sizes has attracted behavioral researchers from Australia, Brazil, and all over Europe. Here a wide variety of goats from diverse backgrounds enjoy free-ranging in a naturalistic setting. The goats are healthy, tame, and well-cared-for. A large sample of different kinds of goats can be studied, displaying a wide range of personalities and learning abilities. As well as answering questions, such as are goats smart?, researchers are interested in the nature of goat intelligence, personality differences, how goats learn and interact with people, and how goats think and feel. They set up trials designed to stimulate natural goat behavior and record the reactions of caprine participants. Their aim is to understand goats thoroughly, so that we can optimize their care.

Matt and Buttercups goat Princess Leia. Photo by Di Denman.

Goats only take part in such goat games if they are willing. Some are still bearing psychological scars from their pre-sanctuary days and need time to recover. One group of Saanen goats was admitted after being subjected to much more unpleasant scientific trials: modeling the effects of decompression on the mammalian body for a government organization. The bends are a painful condition affecting divers who surface from the sea too quickly. The goats remember the pain and, even after years of gentle treatment at the sanctuary, fear that humans will lead them to more trials. For the experiments, they were required to be fit and healthy. Consequently, they have learned to feign a limp if they see a human approach with collar and leash, remembering that they would not be selected for experimentation when sick.

Why Buttercups Goats Need Shelter

Goats are brought here for many reasons: their owners may no longer be able to look after them due to difficulties such as health or financial issues; others are unprepared for the time and labor commitment involved in keeping goats; some goats are found stray or abandoned; and some arrive from projects that were closed down. Sadly, goats’ recent Internet popularity tempts people to keep pet goats without understanding how to meet their needs. Media coverage of cognition research has reinforced the view that goats are the new pet dogs. This misunderstanding results in improper care or the need to rehome. Goats that have been kept in solitary conditions arrive with considerable psychological damage.

Solitary Buttercups goat Pippa has taken several years to learn to socialize with goats and people. Photo by Matt Huggins.

Pippa was raised by humans from the age of six months. She was well-cared-for, but lived without the company of other goats until she arrived at the sanctuary at two years old. As staff member Matt Huggins explains, “there was one crucial issue, and that was the fact that she had grown up with no other goats around her. This meant that Pippa had not had the opportunity to develop the necessary social skills required to successfully and comfortably live alongside the other goats of the herd.” Suddenly faced with a large herd of strange goats and many new humans, Pippa was initially frightened to the point of aggression toward both people and other goats. She threw butts at anyone who approached, posing a danger to both humans and herd members.

Pippa is now calmer with people and accepts gentle handling. Photo by Fiona Costello.

First staff had to gain her trust, before she could be left alone with the herd and visitors. While the other goats were off grazing, staff would let her out of her stable to wander the yard. She slowly befriended them, following them around, and even lying down beside them during breaks. Matt found that “she would become a totally different goat during those few hours of peace and quiet.” This prompted staff to build her a separate pen alongside the herd’s grazing. “By interacting with the rest of the herd through the fence, she began to understand the very basics of the skills she had been lacking.” Over the years she has gradually learned to tolerate other goats and respond to familiar carers. She now runs with the herd, only using the pen during busy periods, which she still finds overwhelming. She has even made caprine friends. Matt stresses the value of knowing each individual’s needs and observes that “one of the most overlooked aspects of goat welfare is their need for social interaction and stimulation.”

Buttercups goats join staff and volunteers for a tea break. Photo by Fiona Costello.

Pippa’s story demonstrates how goats who have experienced inappropriate husbandry can take a few years to recover. Research on site confirmed that even goats with traumatic pasts assume an optimistic outlook on life after several years of loving care. Indeed, the sanctuary runs a “Guardian Angel” scheme where a supporter chooses an individual to befriend. Guardians visit their assigned goat regularly to get to know each other and help the goat settle in.

Princess Leia was nervous of all new people and goats when she arrived in a family group of Nubian goats. Matt Huggins became her guardian and worked at gaining her confidence with treats, grooming, and training. He started by rewarding her for coming to her name. Now she responds with a bleat when he calls. These days it is she who calls him, and he finds himself walking in her direction without even thinking. She has him well-trained! In this video, Princess learns with Matt to solve the food puzzle designed for the research trials.

The love works both ways: volunteers enjoy the therapeutic effect of caring for goats. They get to experience living the goat life to their delight, while the goats enjoy interaction with people wearing smiling, happy faces. Three caprine residents, Bill, Davy, and Mary, played the role of therapy goats during their placement at the Kenward Trust, where recovering alcoholics took responsibility for their care.

Frequently described as “goat heaven”, Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats provides a safe place where goats have their health and comfort needs met for the rest of their lives. It is a center of learning and research, where people can learn the basics of caring for goats while experiencing the health benefits of spending time with them. It also makes a fun day out, adding tourism to the many services that goat-kind can provide.

Buttercups supporter, Malcolm Head, enjoys a peaceful moment with a Buttercups goat. Photo by Fiona Costello.


Briefer, E. F. and McElligott, A. G. 2013. Rescued goats at a sanctuary display positive mood after former neglect. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 146(1-4), 45-55.

Briefer, E. F., Haque, S., Baciadonna, L. and McElligott, A. G. 2014. Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task. Frontiers in Zoology, 11(1), 20.

Nawroth, C., Brett, J. M. and McElligott, A. G. 2016. Goats display audience-dependent human-directed gazing behavior in a problem-solving task. Biology Letters, 12(7), 20160283.

Originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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