July 23, 2017

In Praise of The Goat Gaze

"The Male Gaze" gets all of the attention by gender academics. But right now, I don't care how men see me or even that men see me.

Men can gaze at me all they want, if they even want to, but I don't want to devote any thought to it.

It's impossible, though, to happily go through life without anyone or anything gazing at you—and without being able to gaze back.

So, I figure: if not people, then animals.

Cats might stare at you—out of curiosity or intimidation—but once you meet their gaze, the challenge is on. They'll retreat, or they'll attack.

The best thing you can do with cats is not to avert your eyes altogether, but to "slow blink." You look at them, slowly close your eyes, keep them closed for a beat, and then slowly open them back up.

It works like a charm—and the kitty likely will mirror the behavior back at you, like some ancient bowing ritual.

Aiming your slow blink in the general direction of a cat—rather than keeping your eyes open and locking them with theirs—says to them, "I trust you enough to close my eyes in your presence, and likewise I pose no threat to you."

It's not love, per se—but it is a contract of loyalty, and it feels good.

Dogs, on the other hand, have the gift of the good gaze. They stare directly into your soul, and they allow you to stare into theirs.

Dogs are better able to articulate the muscles in their faces, too, which is why they seem to have so much more personality—and emotional connection to humans—than cats do. Cats, of course, do smile, but you have to have gotten really close up to them in order to be able to see it.

But there's another domesticated animal that both gazes and smiles at you—just as much as a dog does, though it's considered a "non-companion" animal.

Hence, the "goat gaze."

I've experienced it myself in my encounters with goats, of course...

...but personal experience can be unreliable, since it's easy to anthropomorphize animals you spend a little time with.

Goats are goats and not humans—nor dogs, nor cats—so, in order to understand goat behavior, you've got to study goats in a goat world. (I say this with some level of hypocrisy, having just taken a yoga class with baby goats wearing pajamas, which isn't a very natural thing for goats to do.)

About a year ago, the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology Letters published a study on the gazing behavior of goats—specifically, that directed towards humans—that more or less confirms the evidence I've amassed empirically.

Using dogs as a comparison—since domesticated canines communicate with humans through eye contact in a way that wild wolves do not—the authors found that goats similarly need human-facing contact in order to complete a task.

That is, they need to be looked at, as much as they need to look.

You might not expect this from an animal that was domesticated primarily for production—meat, milk, offspring—rather than for companionship.

But, of course, goats also make great companions.

And when you're with them, it's not enough to be present.

You need to be paying attention to them.

That's why when others were perfecting their "mountain" poses and attempting the one-legged Vrikshasana without toppling over, I found myself still sitting on my yoga blanket, letting the goats—the mamas and the daughters—come to me.

At one point I think I had four goats next to me and on my lap while the rest of the class was practicing their Chaturanga—earning me the nickname "The Goat Whisperer" among my classmates.

But I think it's just because when the goats looked at me...

...I looked back.

And that is considered, on both our parts I guess, an "enhanced communication skill."

In my experience (though not that of the researchers), it doesn't have anything to do with food—a prime motivator for both dogs and cats.

In fact, at this yoga class, we had no treats to ply the goats with—and yet they came and sat on my lap and crawled on my belly and jumped on the back of a fellow yogini anyway.

And somehow, the authenticity of the interaction with them made it a much better experience—though I didn't do much more than five minutes of the yoga class.

My time was better spent scratching a pajama-wearing baby goat behind her ears, under her chin, and down both sides of her neck. And besides, if I would stop—to pet a different goat, to scratch my nose, or to get a drink of water—she would start to bleat and nose at me so I'd turn my face towards hers.

This behavior of goats—which is dependent not only on the orientation of the human body but also of the human head (that is, whether or not you're looking directly at them)—has been seen not only in dogs but also horses.

And perhaps the most telling of all is that these goat behaviors, which aren't exclusive to the kids but are shared by the adults, are also found in human toddlers.

That makes more of an impediment to practicing yoga, but it also provides an impetus to actually try yoga. More than a few other people at these classes are trying yoga for the first time—just because of the goats.

And the goats—not just their presence, but also their gaze—is what's brought me back to yoga, after years of trying it and hating it.

This particular "goat yoga" experience at Lavenderwood Farm in Thousand Oaks was the best one I've had so far, with the friendliest, cuddliest goats and the most respectful, least narcissistic students.

But I don't think I'll stop there—because the more I learn about goats or cows or cats or birds or alpacas or mules or horses, the more I learn about myself and the world around me.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Yoga With Baby Goats
Goat Yoga Revelations

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