The Dangers of Imprinting
It’s essential to raise a goat to be a goat.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Sometimes, circumstances make artificially raising a kid goat best for the kid or the dam. It is essential that when we raise a baby of another species, we consider the risk of imprinting.
Imprinting is when an animal no longer recognizes you as a different species, and it is easy to do inadvertently, especially when raising bottle baby goats. Aggression toward humans is often a symptom of blurred boundaries. Unlike aggression from a goat feeling threatened by a history of abuse, the imprinted goat feels no threat and does not recognize a hierarchy. It does not see itself as different from the handler and will challenge the handler as one of its own. Bottle-feeding is not a recipe for disaster; it depends on how you bottle-feed.
Charlotte Zimmerman of High Uinta Goats, LLC rents pack goats to the public. They have both dam-raised and bottle-fed goats. “It is important that a goat’s first interaction heavily involves its mother or another goat. This is the first 24 to 48 hours and will forever impact its interactions in the herd and with its handler.”
In our herd, we start them on a bottle for a week — and then switch them to a bucket to lessen the degree of imprinting on us — so they stay goats. We bring the bottles to them; they stand on the ground to eat and never leave the herd. While very fond of us, many still retain attachments to their mothers. Although they don’t feed them, mothers nurture, discipline, and protect them.
There is a wide spectrum of imprinting; it ranges from benign to dangerous, depending on how the kid is isolated from other goats and handled by people. It is more often hazardous in the case of imprinted intact males when they become bucks, but it can result in pushy, demanding, disrespectful animals of any gender.
Elisa Teal of Dreamcatcher Dairy Goats in Spirit Lake, Idaho, sees a difference between two of her artificially raised bucks. One was raised exclusively on the bottle; the other was started on a bottle and switched to the bucket. “The bottle-fed buck is the only buck we’ve owned who is relentless during rut, and he is obsessed with trying to mount us humans. The other acts like a typical buck in rut and doesn’t come after us. It makes me want to rethink some things. Luckily, he is not aggressive, but we plan to castrate him.”
Micki Ollman has an end-of-life sanctuary for farm animals, Sherrod Grove Stables, in North Carolina. They took in an abandoned goat who gave birth to twins and was unable to nurse them because of mastitis. Micki raised the bottle babies in the house, as part of the family. They even traveled with them. The male, Fergus, was left intact. As he went through puberty, Micki says, “He was still my boy, always a sweetheart.”
Then Fergus was moved to another pasture so he wouldn’t breed his mother or sister. For a year, he followed the same routine, with Micki coming into the pasture to feed him. Then one day, two-year-old 200-pound Fergus attacked her. “I honestly thought I was going to die. I felt helpless and was completely unprepared. I would have never believed it until it happened to me. He knocked me to the ground. I put my feet up, and he slammed the soles of my boots. He gored me in the arm and side. It went on for 30 minutes before I was able to get away. He bruised my legs from my hips to the soles of my feet.”
She is unsure if Fergus meant to hurt her or wanted to play. “I don’t think he realized I couldn’t play that way. I never allowed him to jump on me or head butt, but he had never been with goats other than his mother and sister. I was his herd.” Micki shared her experience with other goat people and was surprised to hear that her experience was not uncommon. Fergus was not aggressive with anyone else — only Micki, the person that raised him.
There is a difference between socialization and imprinting. Imprinting is not required for a goat to be a friendly pet. Holding, cuddling, and playing with baby goats to help them learn to trust humans is different. It is called socialization. We prefer socialized dam-raised kids, as they learn herd “manners” and how to be a goat. We separate them from their dams at weaning, and they crave contact. It is a window of opportunity to create a bond but requires an investment of time.
It boils down to what do you want from your goats. Do you want an “in your face, in your pocket, attention hog?” Bottle feed by hand, with baby in your lap. Treat it like a member of your family. Do you want a loyal friend? Bottle/bucket or dam feed; and love on them every single chance you get, as many times a day as you can manage. The more time you spend with the goat, the more loyal it will be. Allow it time and opportunity to be a goat also.
Originally published in March/April 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.