Goats at Sanctuary Reveal Smart Secrets on TV

Documentaries Unveil the Depth of Goat Intelligence From Research at Goat Sanctuary

Goats at Sanctuary Reveal Smart Secrets on TV

Caprine residents of a goat sanctuary in England starred in three European television documentaries. The first was a BBC mini-series on farm animal behavior in December 2018. Following that were documentaries on goat intelligence for France Télévisions in December 2019 and ARTE in March 2021.

The three-part British documentary, entitled Secret Life of Farm Animals, revealed the hidden talents and natural abilities of domestic animals. On the whole, these skills are largely unknown to the general public. However, these skills were useful to their ancestors for living in the wild. The show featured goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats. The beautifully filmed scenes exposed the wonder of how goats adapt to living with humans.

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. Other goats at the refuge have learned from his example. For example, Natalie, a Sable doe, frequently lets out her companions after Bob Hitch, the sanctuary founder, has shut them in 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.

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

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. In contrast, 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.

Matt and Princess Leia. Photo by Di Denman.

Goat Intelligence Attracts More Media Attention

The goats’ performance in cognition tests drew the attention of filmmaker Emma Baus. She took footage of them for her documentary Smart as a Goat for France 2. The fifty minute show explores goat intelligence and their social nature. The movie takes you into the goats’ world, revealing the closeness of goat families in the French Alps, the agility of tree-climbing Moroccan goats, and the emotion displayed by Myotonic goats in the U.S.

At Buttercups, we saw re-enactments of cognition tests. Goats mastered a device that delivered treats if they pulled a lever and then lifted it up. They learned a non-obvious route around a barrier by watching a human doing it first. A friendly character, Vern, was given the inaccessible treat puzzle. He too asked the experimenter for help, this time with an affectionate rub. Footage revealed how goats reacted to the different emotions expressed on human faces and in goat bleats. The show is also available in English. You can view the trailer below.

Princess Leia performed again for ARTE, the European culture TV channel, this time solving the food puzzle in a documentary by Hervé Glabeck. Rupert leaped into the testing area to show us that he remembered how to operate the device although he had not seen it for several years. Researcher Alan McElligott explained how the goats were attracted to people with smiling faces. You can view this breathtaking documentary, Into Farm Animals’ Minds – Very Clever Goats, online.

Goat Behavior 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 exploring how smart goats are, researchers are interested in the nature of goat intelligence. Examples include 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.

Goats of all shapes and sizes at Buttercups Goat Sanctuary. Photo by Fiona Costello.

Some Goats Have Psychological Scars

Goats only take part in tests 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 joined the herd after being subjected to unpleasant scientific trials. They modeled the effects of decompression on the body for a government organization. The bends are a painful condition affecting divers who surface from the sea too quickly. Moreover, the goats remember the pain. Even after years of gentle treatment at the sanctuary, they fear that humans will lead them to more trials. However, they had to be fit and healthy to participate in the experiments. Consequently, they have learned to feign a limp if they see a human approach with collar and leash. It seems that they remember that they would not go for testing when sick.

Why Goats Sometimes Need Rescue

Goats are brought here for many reasons. Sometimes, owners are no longer able to look after them, due to health or financial difficulties. Others are unprepared for the commitments involved. Some goats wander stray or abandoned. Others arrive from projects that closed down. In addition, recent Internet crazes tempt 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. In particular, goats living in solitary conditions arrive with considerable psychological damage.

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

The Story of a Solitary Goat

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.”

Goats join staff and volunteers for a tea break at the goat sanctuary. Photo by Fiona Costello.

How Mindful Care Can Help Goats Recover

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 think positively after several years of proper care. Indeed, the goat 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 working with goats, while the goats enjoy connecting with happy people. 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.

Goat Sanctuary and Center of Learning

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. Here people can learn how to care for goats while experiencing the health benefits of spending time with them. It also makes a fun day out, adding tourism to the many roles that goats play in our lives.

Buttercups supporter, Malcolm Head, enjoys a peaceful moment with one of the goats. 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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