PRINCETON, MASS. — Most people have relatively simple concerns when venturing into public: Is my hair brushed, face clean, fly zipped? I, on the other hand, worry about whether I'm sporting half-moon hoof-prints on the back of my coat or tracking dung across the floor.
You see, about seven months ago my husband and I agreed to help a nonprofit organization by housing 14 goats and four sheep in our barn.
It all began when Dale Perkins, the farm steward at the Northeast branch of Heifer Project International (HPI) in Rutland, Mass., asked if we could quarantine the animals for 90 days before they headed to the Dominican Republic.
Mr. Perkins explained: In 1998 hurricane Mitch wrought such destruction there that the organization was now trying to replenish the goat breeding stock.
His barn was full, and if they were to make a planned shipment to Central America and some Caribbean islands, the overflow of animals would need to be quarantined at satellite farms. Perkins offered to build a fence, provide food, muck out the quarters, and make our compost pile the envy of every gardener in Princeton. In turn, we offered to feed and water the animals.
We were already volunteering weekly at HPI's Overlook Farm, and it seemed like an even greater way to contribute to such a noble cause. The sheep were a short-haired breed valued for minimizing erosion through grazing. The goats would provide milk for struggling families. And the first-born female of each donated animal was to be given to an impoverished neighbor with the goal of lifting an entire community toward self-sufficiency.
For us, it was a concrete way of teaching our two young sons about the value of helping others - not to mention the benefits of having a petting zoo in our backyard, with neighborhood children bottle-feeding a bunch of frolicking baby goats.
I'm no farm girl. I grew up in suburban Detroit and attended a private girl's school. My menagerie in nouveau riche Birmingham, Mich., consisted of hamsters, goldfish, cats, and a dog. I once had six-year-old delusions of boarding a horse in our tiny garage, but never imagined I would one day be catering to a raucous herd of goats eating everything from the bark on our Japanese lilac trees to the barn walls.
Voracious eating results in excessive excreting. Although Perkins and his group of volunteers diligently carted away the steamy stuff to the compost pile, the number of flies in the barn began to multiply. We hoped a hard frost would lay the swarm to rest. Flypaper racked up the insects like magnets attract metal filings.
But the invasion only intensified. They infiltrated our house and vehicles: Musca domestica have an uncanny way of sticking to car ceilings - despite my efforts to evict them while hightailing down the road at 50 m.p.h., windows and hatch open wide.
One day, while attempting to shoo several out the window, I decimated a roadside mailbox with my side-view mirror, causing $200-worth of damage.
As the end of their quarantine and our trials drew near, Perkins approached us rather sheepishly. The only airlines that ship goats and sheep to the Dominican Republic had been sold to another company that was changing the policy, he explained. "No goats, no sheep." If their hooves didn't touch down in the Dominican Republic by Nov. 15, our gang would have to undergo another 90-day quarantine.
We began to take a more practical approach to our guests. We bought flat-bottomed cowboy boots for our two young boys who had taken to sneaking into the pen to play cowpoke by climbing atop the goats.
The days ticked by. Nov. 15 arrived, passed, and Perkins showed up at the back fence with an offer of two goats and $4 per day in payment for the use of our barn through February.
We considered the offer. "Naw," we told him, "but would you train Chaser, our Australian shepherd puppy, in exchange for housing the goats and sheep?"
Chaser enthusiastically knocks children down, leaves paw marks on the pants of every visitor, and escapes the backyard to chase cars, cats, and roosters down the road. She needs a firm, but kind, hand.
Perkins is a farm boy from Minnesota, and the local paper has referred to him as the "Horse Whisperer of the East." Certainly he could train a mere pup.
The ground froze, and so did the hose and the goats' watering trays. We grew weary of trudging back and forth from the house to the barn with buckets of boiling-hot water in attempts to melt blocks of ice. The animals were no longer the cuddly fluff-cakes we used to nurse with a bottle. Now they rushed me like a bunch of Green Bay Packers when I entered the pen with their grain, and seemed to take delight in simultaneously trying to trip me while using my back as a springboard.
I regularly looked like a walking hay bale with flecks of gold sticking to my wool coat. When I reached into my pocket for a Kleenex at the grocery store, I left piles of dried grass down the aisles.
Meanwhile, Perkins was experiencing his own purgatory with training Chaser.
"I think she's in heat," he told me one day, looking rather exasperated.
"Why do you think that?" I asked.
"She's just so-o-o-o-o bad," he replied.
The winter dragged on, and one day in January, Perkins wearily announced the shipment might be delayed yet again. Apparently some difficulty had sprung up between Dominican Republic officials and the US government over a shipment of animals unrelated to HPI.
I cautiously shared the predicament with my husband. After all, I had convinced him of the benefits of this venture. I considered briefly starting a goat-cheese farm. I began to pray.
At the end of January, Perkins stopped by and announced that the conflict was resolved; the goats had a new shipment date - in March.
I must confess, the back pasture is going to feel empty once they're gone. I know Chaser is going to miss them and her routine of munching on their hay when their bales get thrown into the feeder. (I think she has delusions that she's part of the herd.)
Perkins, on the other hand, will continue to visit our backyard until Chaser becomes the well-behaved herding dog she's supposed to be. That was the deal, right?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society