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Friday, August 12, 2022

Just behind the wooden barn on this rural patch of Gainesville, Myron Johnson is readying himself to spring a surprise on his herd of unsuspecting goats.

First, though, a few last-minute preparations: To lure the animals near, Johnson sprinkles a few handfuls of feed from a bright blue bucket. (Better to bring them close before they learn what he has in store for them.)

"C'mon, girls!" he calls out. Dozens of his black and white goats trot happily toward him, unaware of what is about to transgress.

Once Johnson has the animals just where he wants them, he steps closer with a gargantuan umbrella in hand. Here it comes. The moment of glory is tantalizingly near.

He moves toward the goats - they never see it coming! - and pops the umbrella open right in front of them.

And just like that, a few of them tumble to the ground like bowling pins. Once they're on their backs, they lie with their legs pointed toward the sky, looking as if they're dead, hurt or possibly undergoing some kind of religious experience.

Then, like magic, they're back on their feet and scattering into the field as if nothing happened.

It's a sight that manages to be charming and laughable, not to mention impossibly odd. But for these goats, the aptly named "fainting goats," it's all simple genetics.

Of course, there's a decent chance you've never heard of fainting goats - let alone Coyote Creek Ranch, where Johnson raises his 80 or so goats in southwest Gainesville. But for a select group of devoted fans, these curious animals can make for a unique hobby and even a livelihood.

It's not always easy. The slipping economy means these are tough times for agriculture.

Still, for fainting-goat aficionados around Florida and the rest of the country, there's no better animal to raise. One visit to Coyote Creek Ranch is all it takes to become a believer.

Mysterious Beginnings

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The first thing to know about fainting goats is that they don't really faint at all, so brush away that misconception.

In fact, the hereditary condition that causes them to fall so easily, known as myotonia congenita, only affects their muscles. When the goats are startled, they often stiffen and topple over, although the fall isn't painful.

In spite of their quirks (or perhaps because of them), fainting goats aren't quite as popular as, say, the more regal Boer goats. Nonetheless, they boast a loyal fan base.

The most recent figures available indicate there are about 300 breeders registered in 36 states and Canada, according to the International Fainting Goat Association, one of the oldest registries for the animals.

The goats themselves are said to have originated in Marshall County, Tenn., but much of their past is shrouded in mystery.

What's known is this: In the 1800s, a farm worker came to Marshall County with three does and a buck - all of which fainted. He never revealed the secret of his animals, but he eventually sold them to a man named H.H. Mayberry, who bred them and gave rise to the modern goats.

Johnson has been raising his own line for 11 years. He first learned about the breed through a bulletin board post, which advertised a rare goat type that somehow wasn't prone to jumping or climbing.

It sounded appealing enough. Johnson had always known goats as the sort of animals that might end up climbing on the hood of someone's new car.

Not these goats. And if any do misbehave, well, they're not exactly hard to catch.

Now Johnson spends his days with his Great Pyrenees dogs, Sasha and Patty, who help him herd as he tends to all things goat-related. The goats can be sold for around $400 each, so they need to be in tip-top shape.

"They're just like people," Johnson says. "They come down with colds and things like that."

Keeping his herd healthy has paid off, and Johnson has established himself as one of the most prolific fainting-goat breeders in the state. The 10 or so acres where his animals roam have become the home of a dynasty.

By now, Johnson says, he's sold more than 1,000 goats.

Life as a Goat


Goats lie on the ground after a fainting episode at Myron Johnson's Gainesville ranch Saturday.(Andrew Stanfill / Alligator Staff)

Some will live and others will die. That's just the way it is, really, because not everyone who buys a fainting goat wants it for the same reasons.

A few are whisked off to live their lives as pets - a fairy tale ending for a fainting goat.

For others, a different destiny awaits.

These creatures are meat goats by nature, and some will inevitably end up slaughtered.

Never tried goat meat before? You probably won't find it sitting next to chicken cutlets at the supermarket.

The demand for goat meat tends to be concentrated in cities, says Angela McKenzie-Jakes, an extension animal science specialist for Florida A&M University.

In cities like Gainesville, finding customers can be challenging. Herders tend to develop their own "marketing niche" to keep business strong, McKenzie-Jakes says.

Of course, not everyone with a penchant for fainting goats has meat in mind.

Jody Workman, a vice president at the International Fainting Goat Association, raises goats at a farm called Way To Me near Lincoln, Neb.

"When I found out there was such a thing as a fainting goat," she says, "I thought I would die laughing."

She began raising a herd in 2000, and eight years later the goats are still finding ways to amuse her.

When a male tries to mount a female for breeding, he'll sometimes get so excited that he'll actually stiffen up and fall off.

"Sometimes it'll take two or three tries before they get the job done," Workman says.

She's come to adore her animals and has even bestowed them with names. A goat with has a black circle around one eye is called "Dot the Eye." Get it?

But even Workman struggles a bit when trying to explain the goats' appeal as pets.

"It's like how people sometimes get a pot-bellied pig," she says.

If it were a fainting pig, maybe.

'People Fall In Love With Them'


A fainting goat sign at Myron Johnson's Gainesville ranch is seen Saturday as several of his animals stand in their pen in the background.(Andrew Stanfill / Alligator Staff)

As cute as they are, fainting goats can become expensive. Like any other animal, they must be fed, they must receive shots, and their land must be properly maintained.

For people like Johnson, whose animals are his livelihood, a slumping economy has added extra strains.

Sometimes he worries he'll have to find another job, because selling his goats just isn't as profitable as it used to be.

Thanks to Florida's recent drought, he says, the cost of hay has skyrocketed. Six years ago, he could buy a huge bale for about $85.

These days, he's usually paying around $200 for the same amount. Meanwhile, as gas prices creep up, fewer buyers are willing to travel to Coyote Creek Ranch to make a purchase.

Workman faces the same problem in Nebraska.

In 2005 and 2006, she sold her baby goats almost instantly. Last year, she only sold two. And lately, she's noticed more people are cutting their herds to push down costs.

But in spite of the financial burdens, there's something about these goats that just won't let people go.

Take David Kotait, for example. He's a high school teacher who also raises goats in Bell, about 45 miles northwest of Gainesville.

His goats are "like human beings," he says. "They talk to you - they communicate."

When they're sick or depressed, he says, the goats begin to cry. And not just through a faint whimper, the way a dog might cry.

He swears that actual tears stream from the goats' eyes.

"I've never seen anything like that before," he says.

The animals have also found fans online, of all places. A quick YouTube search for the term "fainting goats" yields about 200 results.

There's even a clip of Johnson's goats, which has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Heck, his animals are practically superstars by now. Over the years, they've even made appearances on Animal Planet and Univision.

But is it insulting for a goat owner? To raise creatures that are acclaimed for something so strange, so absurd?

Not particularly. And although times are difficult for agriculture, Johnson isn't counting on quitting his line of work.

After all, there's something special about his fainting goats.

By now, all of them are back on their feet, but they still seem wary of Johnson and the umbrella.

Most have wandered off, but a little one is gobbling away at the feed spilt on the ground. Johnson stares out into the field as his goats bah at each other.

"See, that's the problem," he says. "People fall in love with them when they start raising them."

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