Lately I’ve been reading a number of books about animal consciousness, intelligence, or sentience, and they all seem to have one thing in common: nearly every one at some point gets around to citing philosopher Thomas Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?”
These sorts of discussions about things such as animal “qualia” also often touch upon whether or not animals have a sense of death. Some appear to understand when an alive thing no longer is alive, even grasping that death is permanent, but almost none have the understanding that death is a thing that’s coming for them, too.
I thought a lot about these things yesterday after receiving a text at eleven o’clock in the morning, as I lay in bed reading because I couldn’t get back to sleep after feeding the cat, letting me know that Phil, one of The Belmont Goats, had passed sometime in the night.
Phil was one of the original four goats to join what became known as “Portland’s nonprofit resident herd”. He and his bonded buddy, Carl—a full ten years ago now, either in late 2012 or early 2013—
joined brothers Chester and Lefty were the first of what grew to fourteen goats in the original field on the street for which the herd is named. (I myself became involved by the middle of 2013, going on to become one of the eventual nonprofit’s founding three officers.) Never really having known anything but each other, the brotherly duo quickly took to the other goats but were the very, very last two in the growing herd too warm to human attention.
By the time the herd moved to its current location in the University Park neighborhood of North Portland (which is when I suffered the autistic burnout/nervous breakdown that led me to quit after five years), Phil was just as people-friendly as any of the other goats in the herd, although always kept a bit of his skittish side. He was something of the exemplar goat when it came to helping children visiting the herd understand not to run around or come up to a goat from behind. Phil to the end remained very good at running away.
Goats typically will live between ten and fifteen years, depending upon what we might as well call lifestyle. Being “goats of leisure”, I think we’d all sort of assumed that most everyone had a shot at those potential upper bounds. Certainly, I don’t think anyone would have picked Phil as the first to go. Bailey is the oldest, old enough to have lost most or all of her teeth; she now gets fed a special mash and is still going reasonably strong for an old goat.
Phil, though, had been ill for some time, although from the outside I wasn’t aware of the details or severity. I did notice the moment I arrived to visit during gate hours over the weekend that Phil was in a pet jacket, something I’d never seen before. (Others of the goats, yes, but never Phil.) Apparently he’d been shivering, which as any pet owner or animal lover knows isn’t always about being cold, per se. It also can be a sign. He’d been monitored, he’d been seen by veterinarians, and he’d been on medication. He’d been cared for. In the end, it simply was the end.
Mostly yesterday, as I helped current volunteers deal with the uncomfortable yet strangely workmanlike things you need to deal with at a time like this, I thought about two things. First, I thought about how Phil’s horns were increasingly growing outward rather than back, curling to the left and right in a way that made me laugh thinking how one day he wouldn’t be able to walk through the “doggie door”-style flaps at the front of the goat barn. I’ll never get to see that, now.
Second, I thought about Carl—which is what made me think about the “qualia” and death awareness of animals. I don’t recall any of these books I’ve been reading saying anything, really, about goats being aware of death. Certainly, they can be aware of absence: once, years ago, when Duchess’ young kids were away from the field, she stood front hoofs up on the chainlink, calling into the Central Eastside.
As near as anyone had been able to tell both before I got to the field and while I was there, none of the goats seemed especially put out by what had happened, or really even aware of it. What had been left behind of what had been Phil was laying in the straw in front of the feeder in the barn. The goats were out and about doing their usual goat things. If they have a sense of death, either it wasn’t on display or goats simply don’t make a show of it.
Phil and Carl had come to be what we called “Bailey’s boyfriends”, because as the smallest of the goats and the only one that had been disbudded before joining the herd, she’d taken to wedging herself between them for protection during feedings, and bedding down with them at night. In a sense, then, however we might position the rest of the herd, Phil especially is survived by Carl and Bailey.
If any goats in the herd might be expected possibly to exhibit some kind of absence awareness, surely it would have to be them.
It’s impossible to imagine exactly what it might be like to be any kind of living thing other than the one that we are, but certainly you couldn’t spend any real time around The Belmont Goats and not get the sense that, yes, clearly it generally is like something to be a goat, and it is like something to be this or that goat in specific.
But whatever it was like—expressly, uniquely, specifically—to be Phil, today that something is gone.
This was supposed to be a post about the life and death of a goat, but life has a way of intervening.
This morning I awoke to a post on Nextdoor linking a news story that overnight The Belmont Goats’ enclosure was vandalized by (per the vandals’ note) “some anarchists” in protest of the upcoming Safe Rest Village which will move the herd to another portion of the current lot and displace the population of houseless campers.
So now we have to talk some more about the life of a goat, but also a bit about the life of human beings.
Vandalism like this, which disrupts the lives animals as part of professing to help humans, is giving in to the scarcity mindset that tells us we live a zero sum game where someone has to lose. I’m doubtful that “some anarchists” ever became involved in trying to find solutions that would protect campers, provide transitional sites like the SRV, and maintain the "oasis of rural community amidst the built, urban environment” and mental health respite that The Belmont Goats have provided for ten years.
The scarcity mindset and the force of capital, as I’ve said before, requires the negation both of solidarity and of capacity. Anarchists are supposed to believe in solidarity and capacity.
It’s all well and good for “some anarchists” to claim that “[t]hese goats are not at fault for the fact that their owners have decided to move them to a new enclosure” and argue that “[a]ll goats are born escape artists, so we’re sure they won’t mind”, but their actions belie any concern for the goats at all. As indicated in the linked article, the seven goats who escaped were found near rhododendron, which is toxic to goats.
While “some anarchists” would not have known that the people who care for the herd already are grieving due to the loss of Phil yesterday, one real-world impact of their vandalism is that now these same people are deeply worried that more loss could follow. Contrary to “some anarchists”, I think the goats would mind.
(There’s also this: “some anarchists” robbed The Belmont Goats’ ability to announce Phil’s death in their own time and in their own way, effectively also robbing Phil of his own due attention in death.)
So, let’s talk about the human beings.
The Belmont Goats have lived around houseless campers since their time in the original field, where there used to be a man who camped near the corner of Belmont and 11th who once stopped a caretaker to say that he knew the rules against feeding the goats, but was it okay to feed the chicken. This man served as our unofficial eyes and ears on a corner of the lot that wasn’t very well lit at night. I later learned that this man was a sort of leader in the houseless camping community in that area.
Then there’s this, from the above article, about the situation at the current site along the Peninsula Crossing Trail.
Additionally, Casey said that relations between [The] Belmont Goats and the homeless population nearby have always been good, and that it was an unsheltered person living in the camp that alerted them of the goats on the loose.
This is exactly the sort of solidarity and capacity in which anarchists are meant to believe. It came not from “some anarchists” but from the very people in whose cause they claimed to be wrapping themselves.
It’s not often that news coverage gets things right, but KATU is right editorially to refer to this as vandalism, not anarchism. Anarchism believes in mutual aid, not buying into the false scarcity mindset that pits us against one another.
I’d meant today to wake up, get myself psychologically situated, post a tribute to a goat, and try to get on with things.
While this wouldn’t have been the way I’d script it, I’m somewhat grateful for the opportunity and reminder also to talk about the ways in which that goat (and those he left behind) was embedded within a community of human beings. Or, really, multiple communities of human beings.
The Belmont Goats only has ever been about giving people a place of respite. It’s served housed people, and it’s served houseless people. It’s served people who just wanted something they saw as weird or quirky or “oh, so Portland” to do on a weekend afternoon, and it’s served people in real need of the quiet of an empty field and the therapeutic companionship of willing, non-judgmental animals.
Really, I can’t overstate this point: the goats potentially have been physically harmed—and the people who take care of them, already reeling from grief, have been psychologically harmed—not by the houseless campers surrounding them on three sides, but by “some anarchists”. You can’t profess in a note that you “believe all beings deserve a life of leisure” and then inflict unnecessary and extraneous harm.
If you’re at all thinking about Phil today, tomorrow, or in the future, I’d like you to think about that, too.