A Lesson Learned from Fainting Goats


I hate goats. And that’s putting it lightly. On trips to the petting zoo, you can find me kneeling next to a goat and whispering every so gently in its ear, “I’ll be seeing you for dinner very soon, Mr. Mutton Curry”.

I can’t stand them; they’re dirty and dopey-looking and attempt to eat just about everything including the hand of an innocent child who was just trying to share a samosa (yes, this was when my goat-hate began). However, my own prejudices aside, I found one particular breed of goat to be very sympathetic.

Fainting goats, also known as myotonic goats, are peculiar in that the muscles in their legs go stiff and lock up when they get startled, the result of a hereditary condition called myotonia congenita. And these goats get startled very easily by little things such as being chased by their owners or a suddenly opened umbrella. Because of the way that fainting goats usually keel over when scared, you might think that these creatures play dead as a possum would to fool predators. However, the muscular stiffening is entirely involuntary and can last upwards of 10 seconds. The goats maintain consciousness but are unable to move properly for the duration of the “faint”. This brings me to my point: if not for the breeders who find these goats’ condition endearing, they would probably be extinct.

There are no direct evolutionary advantages to freezing up whenever a threat comes your way. In fact, it’s a major handicap in the natural world. The fight or flight instinct is biologically inherent in many animals, humans included. When a predator or some other threat comes along, our gut tells us we have two options: either we fight our way through or we get the hell out of there.

Fainting goats don’t quite flee, and they surely don’t try to fight. They become immobilized, somewhere between fighting and fleeing, in a state of utter inaction. The condition these goats often find themselves in, irregardless of their will, is something you can witness in people as well, though in a more psychological capacity.

Have you every been confronted with a decision, a fight, a threat, or an opportunity that required you to think quickly, only to find yourself unable to react? Everyone has likely experienced moments of hesitation, reluctance,Β  and indecision that almost always result in regret, because the choice you ended up making was no choice at all.

Anything is better than this state of hesitation, even choosing to run. Removing yourself from a problem isn’t always cowardly; sometimes it’s also a way to protect yourself. A man might look brave because he stays to face a lion, but maybe he doesn’t run because his legs are locked in fear: a fainting goat personified, albeit against a top predator instead of an umbrella.

The lesson here is that there could be a fainting goat in all of us, a state of inaction we enter as we find ourselves under different types of duress. Whether the fear is commitment, failure, the unknown, or someone higher up in the food chain, we are able to recognize and conquer it– a luxury that the fainting goat does not have. So the next time you find yourself locked in hesitation, just remember how silly these goats look when they freeze up and fall over in fear, and make a decision, any decision, as long as it is your decision.

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