SciSun: Bah, Bah Humbug   Leave a comment

During the festive Holiday Season, when most everyone is finding something to celebrate, there’s always someone who, for whatever reason, can’t embrace happiness but rather finds focus in complaints: Too much commercialism, shopping too busy, too much holiday music, heavy traffic, not enough holiday music, the season is too long, the season is too short, and on and on. But for one group; actually, two groups (and that misunderstanding is the ground of their gripe), the holidays are just another reminder that most people, despite their good intentions, know little about the native wildlife living among, or just a short distance, from many of us.

Sheep (Ovis spp.) and Goats (Capra spp.) are obviously different, yet similar, domestic species. Sheep are most often thought of as the fuzzy, mostly harmless, easily-influenced animal that congregate into groups and for some reason as young lambs are frequently lost and need to be rescued (and forever reminded of their poor self-responsibility in childrens’ books, songs and rhymes). If a person is a follower more than a leader, can’t make up his or her mind, and generally stays in the background, he or she could be labeled sheepish or gentle as a lamb. Goats, though, are usually considered obnoxious, single-minded, loners, and likely to eat anything including tin cans, although where this myth started no one knows. (Domestic goats might closely investigate empty cans and other containers looking for something edible, but that isn’t the can itself.). While these behaviors have lead to sheep frequently cast as victims and goats placed in the bad-boy role (and ‘goats out of control’ video games), the truth about the wild relatives of these animals can be quite different

Three wild species of Sheep (along with some sub-species) are native to North America: Dall Sheep (Ovis dalli dalli); Rocky Mountain Bighorn (Ovis canadensis canadensis); and Desert Bighorn (Ovis canadensis nelsoni). All live only in the western or southwestern, usually mountainous, areas of the continent, and none are directly related to the wooly domestic sheep (Ovis aries) that most of us recognize. In fact each of the wild species are rather short-haired, live in small family groups, can be aggressive and short-tempered, and not suited for wool-sheering nor any other type of domestication. An adult male Bighorn ram can be over five feet tall, weigh over 200 pounds are are known for ramming, or butting heads, with other males in a show of force and dominance that can leave both the winner and looser dizzy and disoriented for a few minutes after the duel (all characteristics that would make the ram a good draft choice for football, if they ever wanted to try out). Our common domestic sheep is probably a descendant of the Mouflon (Ovis orientalis orientalis), which is not a type of sandwich bread but a European and Asian species so old their origin is unknown; along with the date when men first began to domesticate sheep, which goes back thousands of years.

Goat standing on Sheep R

Goats enjoy standing on top of things. Sheep don’t seem to mind being stood on top of.

While native sheep are well-represented in North America, there are no native goat species on the continent. Every goat can trace its ancestors to families of Europe, Asia, and Africa (assuming, of course, a goat ever wanted to research her genealogy) and while there is the native Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) of the far northwestern United States, western Canada and Alaska, this animal is not truly a goat, but more closely related to antelope. Also, it is relatively calm, peaceful (as long as it’s not disturbed), and has long, shaggy hair that can be woven just as domestic wool, which was gathered by Native Americans for use as padding and insulation. While this native has never been domesticated nor sheared (at up to 300 pounds with sharp horns and strong legs suited to climbing rocky cliffs, the ‘peaceful as long as not disturbed” is important to remember), the non-native goats we see on farms, advertising, and in culture today started on the path to domestication probably before sheep, and may be the first animals man took in for resources and companionship (except dogs, whose history is a completely different story).

So this tangled and baffling lineage, confusing sheep for goats and mistaking goats for sheep while the only true North America native sheep just slightly resemble the common sheep and the one native goat is not a goat at all but a type of antelope, is the real reason goats are upset during the holidays and sheep could be troubled, but are probably hiding their true feelings just to get along? No, the reason is that in almost every Christmas scene, there are sheep and donkeys and cows and even camels, but almost never even one goat. And for an animal with such a long history of giving and giving and asking little in return, they are more than a little insulted to be left out of the festivities.


Michonne Says: I’ve never known any of these goats or sheep, personally. They live far into the rocky-ist parts of the rocky mountainsides, further than even most marmots live. But I’ve seen lots of the fuzzy-whites that men keep, and they seem friendly enough. You’d think since there are always so many more of them, and only one or two men, the fuzzy-whites would ask for greener grass to eat or treats or something, but they don’t seem like the demanding type.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: