They just couldn't leave them behind.
While helping with kidding season at the Avalanche Goat Dairy on Bone Mesa, Dena and Saul Smithson of Hotchkiss made a most unlikely bond with four of the 200 male goats born there in 2010.
"These four goats decided that we were their mommy and daddy," said Saul. The four were destined for the slaughter house, "But we just couldn't see that. We didn't know a thing about goats, except that they had horns," added Saul. The Smithsons, who have rescued numerous cats and dogs over the last 30-plus years, and recently found a home through a system of animal sanctuaries for three blind goats, decided to take them home.
The couple was living at the time at a local bed and breakfast, and found temporary foster care for their four kids at the Trading Post. They learned that Colorado is a big pack-goat state, and that pack goats can haul 30 percent of their weight. So they started to train them to pack. "In the process, we found out these guys are smart and could learn how to do tricks," said Saul.
Part of their inspiration came from a YouTube video of Keci, a Russian circus goat, performing a high wire act with a monkey dressed in a red suit riding on his back. Keci balances on all four hooves on the top of a tea cup, with the monkey still on his back. "We figured, if that goat can do it, these goats can do it," said Saul.
Training goats is very similar to training dogs, said Dena, who started them on basic commands. A year and a half later, the four wethers — Lovey, Sweetie, Bello and Saunter — are becoming quite the performers. They dance and pirouette, then take a bow. They walk a balance beam and jump through a hoop. They come when called by name, and all come running at the word "Goats!" They love to play piano and ring a bell, and expect rewards of organic dried apple treats or the sound of a clicker.
They are very proud of themselves.
Rescuing animals isn't new for the Smithsons, who were once heavily involved in humane education. In the 1980s they produced and acted in skits for more than 30,000 children in the St. Tammany Parish school systems in New Orleans. For four years, they also produced Animal Tales, a twice-weekly television program, while Saul was a professor at the University of Arizona. Both are writers (Dena is an accomplished grant writer) and they began to envision the goats as characters in a story book.
In recognition of Dena's Italian heritage, they came up with a working title of "Mr. Carlini's Goats." Set in the North Fork Valley shortly after the Civil War, the Italian immigrant widower Mr. Carlini, whose wife and child died in child birth, rescues four goats destined for the meat market. Mr. Carlini owns an apple orchard and a cat named Bocce. Of course, he trains them to perform. Soon, people come from all around to see Mr. Carlini's goats, and he is surrounded by children.
The book quickly became a series, with the second book having the goats perform in the Chinese New Year parade in the Year of the Goat. In book three, Saunter escapes (as the real Saunter tends to do) and goes on an adventure, where he meets the friendly deer and elk and owls, and gets a scare from bobcats and mountain lions. The wisest of the forest animals helps him out of his predicament.
The fourth book, with a working title of "Rescue," has Mr. Carlini panning for gold by the North Fork River when a child falls into a ravine and is trapped. People can't get to him to save him, but Mr. Carlini's goats can.
The Smithsons chose Holly Quinn to illustrate the books. Quinn is working with partner Michael Bailey to illustrate a fantasy series he's writing. Both are students of Saul's in the martial arts, and when Saul saw Quinn's intricate work and dynamic use of color, he knew she had what it takes to bring their characters to life.
Quinn, who grew up on Rogers Mesa, is a self-taught artist. Her father and brother are both artists, and she has learned from them, through years of practice, and by observing art and her surroundings.
The challenges to illustrating a children's book are many, said Quinn, who particularly enjoys working with Japanese anime. Drawing to scale, drawing different expressions on the same characters, expressing their personalities, and allowing the viewer to see how they view the world are among those challenges.
"I'm trying to get the goats to look like their goats," said Quinn, who works at the Avalanche Ranch dairy. Bocce, the cat, should be easy, since Quinn has drawn cats since she can remember.
Her illustrations for the book, and Dena's story boards, are still in the preliminary stages. Quinn begins with a pencil sketch, then inks in the details. She then adds color through a variety of media, including colored pencils, watercolors and pastels.
For the Smithsons and Quinn, it's all a labor of love. As far as royalties, they all decided to work that out later, should the books be successful. They plan to use the on-line publishing company Lulu, which offers a variety of options in printing, marketing and distribution.
The goats and their trainers have much to learn, but the Smithsons envision the four boys performing locally by next summer, and are in contact with farm markets in Cedaredge and Paonia as possible venues. Training will continue through the winter. They are slowly learning to pull a wagon, and eventually will wear custom harnesses and outfits.
Dena has posted some training videos online. They can be found by searching "Colorado Goat Whisperer."blog comments powered by Disqus