Goats seem to be the new Vineyard obsession. The ladies at my knitting group give weekly updates about the progress of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank’s goats, my newsfeed is full of a different kind of kid (the four-legged kind), and chickens are now taking a back seat as the “in” livestock on which to dote.

And why not? Goats have a lot going for them. Besides being easy to care for, they are useful for a variety of purposes, and it is hard to argue that there is anything cuter than a baby goat. At least, that what the knitting ladies say.

It is no surprise that goats were one of the first animals domesticated by humans. They provided food in the way of meat and milk, fuel through their dung, hides for water or wine vessels and parchment, bones for tools, and hair and sinew for clothing.

Thor, the god of thunder, was an early goat owner. He had two, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, which pulled his chariot. After a day in the sky, instead of rest these goats were cooked up and eaten for Thor’s supper. However, if he ate only the meat and then wrapped the bones, they would come back to life during the night and be ready to again haul the chariot. All in all, it sounds like he practiced sustainable ‘capriculture.’

Feeding these munching mammals was (and is) simple, since they subsist by grazing. In fact, goats eat almost anything, and often prefer weeds and vines. They are the antithesis to the picky eater, which is one of the reasons the land bank has a herd of over 200 animals. Their mission is to graze land bank properties, chomping through invasives and keeping fields open.

Perhaps adding to their adorability (or maybe their creepiness) are their eyes. Goats have rectangle-shaped horizontal pupils. This shape is necessary for prey species and serves to promote their survival. When a goat eats, it bows its head to graze, but always keeps its eyes parallel to the ground. This allows for both forward and panoramic vision. Goats can rotate each eye 50 degrees, and so can see predators coming at them from just about any point in a 320-degree arc — and slight turns of their head can give them the rest of the picture. This complete panorama of their surroundings allows them to flee from their predators, which is their best means of defense. 

Goats are not always adored, however. There are, of course, scapegoats, a term that comes from Hebrew history, in which two goats were chosen during Yom Kippur. One was sacrificed for food and the other banished into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the community.

They are also disparaged by the maxim that one should “separate the sheep from the goats,” and by actor Geoff Stults who (like Charlie Brown) observed that you could be “the hero or the goat.” Elton John took them down a notch when he opined that people should be very free with sex, “but they should draw the line at goats.” And an Irish saying goes, you can put silk on a goat and it is still a goat.

Still, as Capricorn, the goat has made it into the night sky and immortal fame as one of the signs of the zodiac, which could possibly get the goat of those who prefer other animals. Back here on Earth, they are liable to remain stars not only in the sky, for a long time.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.