Legalizing Goats

Rules that prohibit animals because they are useful are odd when you think about it

It simply does not make sense that most cities prohibit goats but allow dogs, even ones powerful enough to kill people. Goats are generally quiet, docile, don’t smell (except for un-neutered males — and these aren’t allowed under Seattle’s new pro-goat rules), useful, and generally nice to have around. Until last 2007, the City of Seattle considered goats farm animals. Today, they have been reclassified as small animals, joining the ranks of dogs and cats. Bucks (unneutered males) are not allowed and goats must be disbudded.

I took on the legalization of mini-goats in Seattle not to spearhead a national goat legalization effort, but just to enable me to keep Snowflake and Brownie. Oddly enough, my battle made the headlines and today, people from all over the country write me to ask how to go about legalizing goats in their community. Here are a few tips if you are interested in legalizing goats in goat legalization.

The Elvis the Taxi Driver Argument

When I wrote to Seattle City Council Member Richard Conlin to ask for help so that I could keep my goats despite a Seattle Code that prohibited farm animals, my letter reminded him of another letter he had received years before. There was once a taxi driver who ran his own taxi business and liked to dress as Elvis. This was quite good for his business. Young people would hire him to take them to their prom (so they could be chauffeured by Elvis). Tourists were always happy to drive with Elvis from the airport into town, etc. Sadly, a rival taxi driver turned him in. Turns out, in some Seattle City Code, there was a dress code for taxi drivers and it wasn’t broad enough to permit Elvis attire. The intent of the dress code was to maintain our cities image. At any rate, the poor taxi driver was quite upset. After all, people loved that he dressed like Elvis, so why shouldn’t he be able to.

And so it was in the spirit of tolerance, that Seattle City Council Members were able to change the taxi dress code to allow Seattle taxi drivers to wear costumes. Changing the code took little work and made everyone (except for the rival taxi cab drivers).

What does this have to do with goats? Tolerance. Why should cities have rules on their books that keep people from doing what they like when it doesn’t bother anyone, even if it what they want to do may seem strange.

I believe that the most effective argument against anti-goat legislation is, “Golly, I just think it would be fun to keep pet goats, milk them, and make cheese. My goats don’t bother you do they?” If you begin making environmental and animal rights arguments, some people will just tune you out. With that said, I do think there are valid animal rights and environmental reasons for keeping urban goats in a responsible manner.

Note: One drawback of the Elvis argument is that some people will say, “Doesn’t our government have more important things to do than making it legal for taxi drivers to dress up like Elvis.” My answer to this is, “Of course government has much more important things to do. However, certainly the larger issues don’t mean that the smaller, simpler issues, should be ignored. Smaller issues usually have much simpler solutions. If there’s a problem that government can solve easily, they should solve it.

My favorite argument for goat legalization
The Cultural Bias of the Pet/Farm animal distinction

(Note: this isn’s actually the most persuasive since it is long and animal rights oriented.)

When I was working on legalizing goats in Seattle I was told by a public official that if I could find a country where people kept goats as pets, we could argue that the farm animal designation was culturally biased. I never did find such a country, but what I did discover was intriguing and made me take a much closer and critical look at how our culture categorizes animals.

In looking for a culture that treats goats as pets, I found out that the Greeks take excellent care of their goats and allow them to wander around villages nibbling here and there. Children play with the young kids, sometimes even dressing them as they would a doll. And then, Easter comes around and they eat the goat! The same seems to hold true in Africa, where people love their goats and then eat them. When researching the history of pet keeping, I found that in in America, “Depending on the tribe, Native American dogs were sources of muscle power pulling travois and sleds, representatives of cosmic forces that were sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies, fellow hunters, livestock herders, sources of protein, playmates for children and beloved companions.” Pets in America, by Katherine Grier.

At first, this eating of pets horrified me, but I then came to the conclusion that the modern American view towards what animals are okay to eat is perhaps more horrific. We have dogs and cats who we treat well and have laws to protect. These animals serve no purpose and are purely companions. Then, we have farm animals which the farming industry treats in a systematically horrible fashion. Because they are raised to be eaten, never named, never loved, and always treated as a commodity and not as a fellow creature, we deem eating these “farm animals” as okay. We also make sure, as does the factory farming industry, that we never come face to face with these animals in any form until they are shrink wrapped beyond recognition at the grocery store. So, which is worse — to treat an animal with kindness and to then to eat it or to let others treat an animal horribly, shut our eyes to the abuse, and then eat it. While I would not promote eating a dog, I think it is better to keep pet chickens and then eat them than to buy chickens at the grocery store. While the Greeks and African’s practice of eating pet goats may seem heartless to us, our system is in fact far more so. Our system is also relatively new.

The word pet did not even come into the English language until the early 1500‘s and then it was used to describe “an indulged or spoiled child; any person indulged or treated as a favorite.” By the mid-sixteenth century, “pet” included animals “domesticated or tamed and kept for pleasure or companionship.” The term was especially applied to orphan lambs that required raising by hand. It morphed into a verb, meaning to fondle an animal, and by the early 1600s, although it did not become slang for sexual foreplay until the early 1900s. Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 also defined “pet” as a “ lamb brought up by hand,” or “any little animal fondled and indulged”; as a verb it meant “to treat as a pet; to fondle; to indulge.” Pets in America, A History, by Katherine Grier

I think humans have a natural affinity for other animals. For tens of thousands of years, people lived with animals. Animals always served a purpose. Virtually all dogs (perhaps with the exception of the pug) were bred to serve some purpose — retrieving, hunting, sled pulling, guarding, ratting. Cats too served a purpose. They took care of rats and mice. However, with the industrial revolution, people moved off the farm, farming became industrial, and your average person no longer needs to keep an animal since they can buy met, eggs, and milk so cheaply at the grocery store. Still, though, people seem to be hard wired to want to be around animals. Because dogs and cats are so sociable, they have become companion animals and companion animals only. Other animals, those whose purpose is to be or make food, are sadly, less fortunate.

In Katherine Grier’s Book, Pets in America, A History, she writes, “pet keeping is the only one-on-one relationship with animals left to most of us, and I wonder what the long term impact of this enhanced recognition of animals as individuals will eventually be on the treatment of millions of invisible animals whose lives support our own.” p. 17.

I would argue that pet keeping is not serving this purpose since many Americans have created in their minds a distinction between farm animal and pet. It is okay to buy factory farmed meat from the grocery store because that animal was never a pet — it was simply the animal version of a commodity.

Like the concept of pet, this concept of an animal — that of a commodity, is also new. Stockyards such as those described in Upton Sinclaire’s, The Jungle, sprang up in the early part of the 1900’s. Today, factory farmed animals are hidden from view in gigantic buildings far from population centers. With capitalism allowed to run amuck, the animals within are abused for profit and production. Modern farming has lost the picturesque quality it once had in the days of James Herriot when farmers named, not numbered their animals.

Fred Brown, in his PhD dissertation, Cows in the Commons, Dogs on the Lawn:
A History of Animals in Seattle, provides a fascinating case study of the gradual banning of cows from the city of Seattle. In 1891, cows were part of Seattle life. Women and children herded them among public spaces and vacant lots. Keeping cows in the city was the norm up until 1900. A random survey of tax records of households from north Seattle neighborhoods indicated that 38% of families kept a cow and an additional 14% kept two or more cows. (To read Fred Brown’s dissertation, visit the website:

This mixing of urban and domestic farm animals soon came under attack. As developers worked to sell their newly defined parcels of land, they became frustrated with the wandering cows. They believed that cows suggested backwardness and diminished their land value. They petitioned city hall to ban them, arguing that they were spreading disease and were a danger to children.

The campaign against cows achieved its first success in 1873 when the city council voted to ban bulls from the urban core. In 1874, the ban was expanded to include “unruly cows.” Well-behaved dairy cows were left undisturbed until 1884 when a cow-free zone was established and cows were prohibited from anywhere within ten blocks of the urban downtown core.

Sadly, many of the people who kept cows were widowed and divorced women who relied on the cows for their livelihood. These people had little political clout compared to real estate developers, and so the cow-free zone expanded each year. By 1907, only the sparsely populated peninsula of Magnolia remained cow tolerant. Thus, in a period of only seven years, from 1900 to 1907, Seattle turned from one where most people had cows to one where cow-owners were outlaws.

Certainly, the relationship between cow, goat, and chicken with man has changed and I would argue it has changed for the worse. Modern factory farming of animals is cruel and evidence suggests that the eggs, milk and meat from these factory farmed animals has less nutritional value and is more prone to contamination than eggs, milk and meat from small scale, sustainable farms. Does this mean it’s time to let cows run loose in our cities?

Probably not. Cows are just too big. However, why not let people with yards keep dairy goat does or wethers. They are not smelly. Their poop is a valuable fertilizer. They eat invasive plants and make delicious milk. They are not noisy and do not attack people. Certainly, any escapes might be problematic, but there could be rules about this with a series of citations that would allow the banishing of goats whose owners could not keep them reined in.

When goats are legalized, people are able to opt out of our food production system run afoul. Plus, people seem to enjoy seeing goats. At my local farmers market, when the usual chef didn’t show up in for the scheduled cooking demonstration, I was called in with my goats to take her place. The next week, the Market Management stall was bombarded with the question, “Where are the goats today.” People loved visiting with them. Children love handing them So, let’s go back roll back the industrialization of farm animals and welcome them back into the lives of the average American. Let’s start with goats and make it legal to keep them in suburban and urban areas as pets AND farm animals. Why can’t a modern goat be both!

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