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Illegal Goats Are, Sadly, a Thing Now in California

Visalia, Calif., zoning enforcement officials recently gave resident Gingi Freeman ten days to get rid of her pets, Idee and Eos, or face a fine of up to $1,000 per day.

Had her dogs bitten someone? Had they gotten loose? Nope. What’s more, Idee and Eos aren’t dogs. They’re Nigerian dwarf goats. And while the goats aren’t suspected of committing crimes, something goats are known for, a 1978 Visalia law specifically prohibits keeping livestock—including chickens, cows, and goats—in the city.

Life is tough these days if you’re a goat.

Last year, for example, a farmer in Iceland whose endangered goats became minor celebrities after being featured in an episode of Game of Thrones—recall that Drogon, the feistiest of Daenerys’s dragons, flame-broiled one of the goats before carrying it away—was forced to fight to keep the goats from being destroyed in real life.

An IndieGogo campaign fueled by GoT fans was all that saved the Icelandic goats.

Freeman’s story is slightly less dramatic. She’s a mom who’s nursing her pair of human kids with formula made from goat milk. She turned to goats because she’s unable to produce breast milk, because it’s nutritious and because it doesn’t contain additives and ingredients she doesn’t want in her children’s food. Freeman thought she was doing the right thing for herself and her family. But the law in Visalia meant she was forced to send Idee and Eos back to the breeder who had sold them to her.

Now Freeman is fighting the city to get the goats back. And she’s found a herd of allies.

“We want to see the Freeman’s goats returned, and for the City of Visalia to amend [its] outdated ordinances against small, useful and eco-friendly animals within city limits,” Susan Walsh, a Visalia resident and advocate for goat legalization, said in an email to me. “With thousands of supporters in Visalia, and thousands more nationwide, we have a fair chance of success provided citizens step up and speak out and demand change.”

Freeman, Walsh, and dozens of their “pro-goat” neighbors are doing just that—pushing the city council to grant them the right to keep and raise these goats for their milk.

Many major cities around the country—along with smaller cities around Visalia—have rules in place that permit residents to raise chickens. But raising small goats, including the Nigerian dwarf variety, in residential areas has also become increasingly common. Seattle, for example, specifically permits residents to raise goats just like Idee and Eos.

If Seattle isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of livestock and farming, Visalia may be. Milk, cattle and hay make up nearly one-quarter of the area’s massive agricultural output. The city lies in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, said to be “the most productive agricultural region in the world.” Visalia, which is home to a museum of agriculture, has been billed as “the city that represents agriculture world-wide[.]”

Still, the city’s status as a center of agriculture doesn’t mean neighbors in a residential area there should be forced to smell or wade through a neighbor’s goat (or chicken or dog) poop.

Indeed, anti-goat forces, which are a thing that exist, and which include a neighbor of Freeman, have complained that the goats smell bad. But a pro-goat alliance argues that there’s no need to ban goats and that existing laws can take care of the problem.

“If a neighbor complains about an animal’s odor—whether that animal is a dog, a cat, a rabbit or a miniature goat—the neighbor can appeal to the cit[y’]s preexisting health and nuisance ordinances to have the issue resolved,” Walsh told me, rightly noting existing law.

What are the chances Visalia could become a safe place for goats? The process for legalizing scofflaw goats there is cumbersome. It requires a draft ordinance, public hearing, recommendation, another public hearing and then a vote. And it’s a process that has yet to really begin.

But movement in the right direction on backyard chickens might spur the city to act. Visalia city council member Warren Gubler told a local Visalia paper that he’s on board with permitting chickens, even if he’s not entirely clear why he should do so.

“Maybe it’s the ‘grow local’ food movement or something,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why we should not welcome this.”

Amen. If you want to urge Visalia not to pull a Drogon on Freeman and her pro-goat neighbors, check out their website, which maybe has the best name of any goat-centered website ever created, I’m Pro Goat, for more details.


Baylen J. Linnekin is the executive director of Keep Food Legal Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.

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