Back in 1960 my parents bought 200 acres of Williamson County ranch land near Georgetown. It was a rugged but beautiful piece of real estate crossed by limestone ridges, dotted with ancient live oaks and bordered by the South San Gabriel River on the south and by Highway 29 on the North. The property, which didn’t cost much in those days, came with an old frame house, a barn, some sheds, and three black and white Spanish goats—two nannies and a billy.
The property was to be purely an investment. Our family never planned to do any livestock raising or to ever stay in the old house, but my twin sister, Lynne, and I enjoyed exploring the property, collecting arrowheads from an old Native American camp- site on a river bluff, and fishing for sunfish in the clear flowing, white rock bottom river.
We didn’t pay a lot of attention to the goats as they seemed to get along fine fending for themselves, usually sleeping in the barn at night and dining during the day on brush and weeds, of which there was no shortage. One day though we noticed that one of the goats was lying in a corner of the barn while the other two nibbled on new- growth cedar some yards away. We approached the goat and discovered a tiny, wet, black and white baby by it’s side. It’s twin was in the process of being born and was about half- way out of it’s mom’s birth canal but seemed stuck.
My dad reached down and helped the nanny complete her delivery. As city folks with no goat experience we were enthralled by the tiny kids. Baby goats are among God’s most delightful creatures, even if the adults certainly are not. A few days later the other nanny, not to be outdone, produced a pair of black and white babies, and at that point we became amateur, citified if not certified, goat ranchers.
In the next few months my parents fixed up the old house a bit and started spending weekends there. My dad bought a second- hand- pickup, a couple of horses, eight cows and six more goats. We soon discovered what all goat owners know: these curious animals spend a great deal of time looking for ways to get through fences to explore neighboring property. They are superb escape artists.
Soon after buying the six new goats, my dad was driving his truck near the fence separating our property from that of Mrs. Fletcher to our East when he saw the goats making a dash for a gap in the fence. He honked several times, hoping to turn the goats, and then something remarkable happened. All six goats stiffened, fell over on their sides and were unable to get to their feet. Eventually they did get up and wandered off as if nothing had happened.
By then Dad had become a customer at Wolf’s Feed and Mohair in Georgetown so the next day he asked some farmers who were in the store if they had ever heard of goats falling down like that.
“Mr. Lowry, you done got yourself some Tennessee Falling Down Goats,” said one weather- beaten old guy. ‘It’s some sort of inherited defect that makes them stiffen up and fall over when they are startled or scared. That’s real handy for hungry coyotes, bobcats and wild dogs.”
We kept those goats and they bred with our original ones and after a few years we had a herd of around sixty goats, more than half being of the falling down variety. Eventually as the years passed we lost some to predators and others to poor fencing and we sold the few that remained.
No longer called Tennessee falling down goats, at least not in Central Texas, they are known now by several different names. The scientific name is myotonic goats, but they are most often known today as fainting goats. They are also called Tennessee meat goats, nervous goats, stiff legged goats or Tennessee scare goats.
According to information on the internet, a few of the goats were brought to Tennessee by way of Nova Scotia in the 1880s. They became useful to shepherds who would put one or two in with their more valuable sheep. When coyotes or wolves attacked a flock, the goats would stiffen and fall over, making easy prey for the predators while the sheep escaped. These days fainting goats are gaining in popularity because of their novelty and relative inability to squeeze through fences. They are also considered to be good table fare, and they bring premium prices.
The genetic condition is called myotonia congenital. When the goat is startled, muscle cells undergo prolonged contraction causing it to stop moving, stiffen and fall down.
The goats are sometimes advertized on Craig’s List for up to $300 or more. There is even a national Myotonic/Fainting Goat Breeders Directory.
To watch fainting goats in action (and then inaction) watch the video below.