Californians and Texans Open Arms to Refugee Goats

Times Staff Writer

Granted, not everyone has it in his blood to adopt a homeless kid from overseas.

But that’s one of the few things--maybe the only thing--Betty Ahrensberg, a Spring Valley tax return preparer, and Leonard Johnson, a car dealer in Edna, Tex., have in common.

The two, along with scores of others in San Diego, elsewhere in California and in Texas, have found themselves caught up in the campaign to adopt the hundreds of Andalusian goats that have been rescued by the Fund for Animals over the past three years from San Clemente Island, 60 miles off San Diego’s coastline.

Johnson picked up his pair of goats in September and, with the marketing savvy of a car salesman, added them to the barnyard animals that populate the two-acre petting zoo behind his Buick-Pontiac-AMC dealership 100 miles west of Houston.


After all, there’s nothing like keeping the children happily occupied while closing a deal with Mom and Dad.

Ahrensberg is a more recent goat adopter, having picked up a pair of young nannies last weekend from the Animal Trust Sanctuary in Ramona.

Although she has been around animals--her younger son is active in the 4-H program--Ahrensberg said she felt no burning desire to go out and collect any more animals.

But she admitted she was touched by the plight of San Clemente Island’s infamous wild goats, which are blamed by the Navy for destroying island habitat that is essential for the survival of endangered plants and animals. Because the goats are not endangered, they drew the short straw in the question of who or what was most expendable.


Goats were dropped off on the island more than 200 years ago by sailors, to provide food for their passing brethren, and at one point the herd numbered 30,000, biologists estimate. Since the early 1970s, all but the 1,200 to 1,500 now on the island have been shot or trapped and removed.

The Navy wants them off, once and for all, and the international Fund for Animals, which has trapped and removed about 1,000 goats from the island in the last two years, was given until March to capture as many as possible before marksmen begin a wholesale goat shoot. So far, about 420 goats have been taken off the island. Some of them were taken to the Animal Trust Sanctuary to await adoption.

The Ahrensberg family already owns a dog, a cockatiel, a sheep and a milking goat, “and my husband thought I was kind of crazy, going out in the rain to get two more goats. And my neighbors say I’m the only one they know who would get a pair of goats that I can’t even show (in 4-H competition).

“But they’re such self-sufficient and wonderful-looking animals. With their horns, they remind me a little of deer,” Ahrensberg said. So, she laid down a blanket in the back of her station wagon, put down a layer of oat hay and drove to Ramona to pick out two young nannies.

The goats don’t seem to be suffering for the experience, she said, laughing. Not only do they have the run of three acres, but she and her husband stacked a bunch of railroad ties “like Tinker Toys” for the goats to climb on and hide beneath. “They went to it instantly. They jump on and off and play on it all day long.

“Everybody comes to visit our own little wild animal park and our San Clemente goats.”

The Ahrensbergs, of course, are not alone in their fondness for the little brown and black critters.

Karen and David Sheldon were the first people in San Diego County to adopt a pair of goats. The couple adopted two young nannies to go with their African pygmy goat, a wild burro, five dogs, a rabbit, a chinchilla, a mouse and two horses on their one-third acre in Bonita.


“I love them,” she said of her newest boarders. “They follow me around, and they ‘baaa’ when I go out in the backyard.”

There is some disagreement about the wisdom of adopting the wild goats and transplanting them into a backyard setting. Dr. Patrick Ryan, a public health veterinarian for the County of Los Angeles, warns that the goats might become upset in close quarters, because they are not familiar with enclosures.

Such stress, he said, could lead to medical problems.

He also noted that since the goats lived in a relatively germ-free environment, they might be susceptible to illnesses and parasites that are more common on the mainland.

And Ryan suggested that unless the goat is less than a year old, it may not socialize well with humans. “It’s like taking a tiger out of the jungle,” he said. “Wild animals are trained to think totally different than domestic animals. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have survived in the wild. So people might be in for disappointment if they hope a mature goat will be a pet for their children.”

But people who have adopted mature goats say they were surprised by how quickly the goats showed signs of affection to their new owners.

The Fund for Animals operates a 600-acre ranch at Murchison, Tex., 75 miles east of Dallas, where 600 goats were taken last year after being captured on San Clemente Island. About 250 of those goats have since found permanent homes in Texas, including the two goats taken by Kenneth Grace, who lives in nearby Tyler.

“I promised my two kids (boys, ages 3 and 5) goats for Christmas if they were good, so the day after Christmas, we went out and picked up two,” Grace said. “One of them is fixing to have a baby and we’re looking forward to that.


“Every morning, my boys go out and feed them, and they (the goats) have been just fine towards them. They don’t like the dogs too much and they’ll chase them, but now the dogs chase them back, and I think it’s gotten to be a game between them.”

Harold Currin, who owns a plumbing and electrical supply company in Athens, Tex., adopted 102 goats in June to eat the brush on the 300 acres of ranchland he owns and leases to run a herd of beef cattle.

“I don’t do anything with them; they’re just out there, eating the brush that the cattle won’t eat,” Currin said. “And I hear there’s another herd of the goats over at the Boy Scout reservation down the highway.

“We’ve had quite a few babies since we got the goats. They’re gentle animals; they come right up to us when we put hay out for them.”

Dr. Hubert Johnston, the San Diego County veterinarian, suggests that people who adopt the San Clemente goats vaccinate them against enterotoxemia, a digestive upset that is caused when the animals eat too well and bacteria proliferates in undigested carbohydrates, creating a high level of toxins.

Other than that, he said, the goats have little problem with illness and disease.

Johnstone and Herbert Weisheit, the livestock expert at the University of California farm adviser’s office in San Diego, suggest that the goats be put on a diet of grass, brush and cereal hay before any richer feed supplement is introduced.

Weisheit said the goats are more affectionate than most farm animals and enjoy human companionship, although they thrive best when with other goats.

“People should want goats for more reasons than just because they’re cute,” he said. “Like all pets, they do require some care and attention.”

Cleveland Amory, who heads the Fund for Animals, said he is concerned that people might adopt goats with the intent of slaughtering and eating them. The Fund for Animals asks that those adopting goats sign a contract in which they promise to “show respect, affection and dignity” toward them.

“Those words aren’t very legal, but everyone certainly knows what they mean,” Amory said.