In Chilmark last Friday, a queen and a mother, horned and cloven-hooved, died at the Native Earth Teaching farm after a period of illness.

Yvonne, a white pygmy goat around 10-years-old, had been the leader of the doe-herd at Native Earth for the past several years, said farmer Rebecca Gilbert. She came from a long lineage of previous leaders, she said, and in her death she will be sorely missed.

“I think that Yvonne struck a really good balance. She was assertive but not at all mean,” Ms. Gilbert said, in a recent interview with the Gazette. “I would not say she ruled with an iron fist, I think she was a friendly boss.”

The position of doe herd leader, or herd queen, is the most important in the social hierarchy of a given group of goats, Ms. Gilbert said.

Yvonne with Rebecca Gilbert. — Courtesy Rebecca Gilbert

“You might say that the dominant billy goat was sort of the king of the flock or something, but they all sort of act as individuals,” she said.

And so, while mature male goats live mostly singular lives separate from the herd (save during mating season), the mothers and their kids maintain their own social structure, with herd leader at the top. 

“If you are the lead goat, you do have to be able to dominate the other ones if there’s a difference of opinion. The whole point of having a lead goat is if there’s a sudden crisis, like wolves jump out of the underbrush or something, they all follow her,” Ms. Gilbert said.

It is a position chosen by consensus among the group, after some jostling, with each leader typically the daughter of the last queen. Yvonne’s mother Snowflake was leader, and her grandmother Sari was the founding queen at the farm.   

“It’s the one [the herd] thinks is the smartest,” she said.

The death of Yvonne is particularly affecting for Ms. Gilbert, who described her as a goat with an outsized impact.

“An animal that you have for a long time, that you know you’re not going to have to slaughter, you can get kind of attached to them,” she said. “I would say that she was a farm animal that almost bordered into being a pet.”

Yvonne certainly paid her way on the farm, mothering many kids over the years — some of which were sold as pets — as well as participating in goat yoga and land clearance services. But her impact went beyond her agrarian role.

“She was a lovely, kind, motherly goat with a soft smile and a definite sense humor," in a short obituary for Yvonne which drew dozens of comments on Native Earths' Instagram. “A mostly quiet leader but forceful in her own way.”

Chilmark is no stranger to cloven-hooved celebrities. Raisin, the well-known goat of seasonal resident Tom Ashe, was a beloved town fixture before Raisin died in 2016, and Native Earth goat George Fred Tilton is a common sight on Island conservation properties.

Along with the grief that Yvonnne’s death has brought, Ms. Gilbert said her passing also brings with it an opportunity to show the broader role a farm can perform in a community.

“Farmers have always had the reputation of being very blunt and very practical about issues of life and death,” she said. “And especially as a teaching farm, we have people come to us with questions about mortality... maybe they have a dying chicken or maybe they lost their pet and they trust us farmers to be practical and honest about those issues.”

“Helping people of all ages relate to death and transition and how we’re mortal and things like that is part of what farms can do,” she said.

Meanwhile, among the herd, the goats have yet to reckon with the death of their leader — the herd has been broken up for breeding season, Ms. Gilbert said.

“Once they all get together again, some time will have passed, and Yvonne will not be there. So, they’ll just have to work it out,” she said. “I’m sure it will be one of the older and more experienced goats, but I wouldn’t bet on what one at this point.”

Regardless of which goat emerges from the interregnum as leader, Ms. Gilbert said she is confident that the dynasty will continue, and that one of Yvonne’s daughters will almost certainly fill her shoes.