In the world of volcanic formations and thick rain forests that is the Caribbean, Anguilla’s topography is a glaring anomaly. The land, rugged and craggy; the soil, arid and sparse; the vegetation, scrubby and prickly; all conspire to turn Anguilla into goat heaven.
For centuries, goats have ruled unmolested and hardly challenged over this peaceful speck of limestone surrounded by white sand and turquoise sea in the northeast corner of the Caribbean. As a result, Anguillans have learned to live side by side with their caprine neighbors, even coming to embrace their presence as a sign of identity.
Owning goats was a symbol of status, the old-time equivalent of having a flashy car or wearing an expensive watch. Goats have been celebrated in Anguillan stamps, featured prominently in the work of local artists, and have even been turned into heroes in at least one children’s book (“Paddy, the Goat That Saved Anguilla”). Which seems only appropriate to me because, from the age of 2 to 20, visiting Anguilla on family holidays, I was both envious of and awed by the goats’ ability to beat a path through the remotest, most impossible places, locations that I — the self-declared expert excursionist of the island — could only dream of reaching. It was in my youth, as I grew bolder, yet more frustrated in my efforts to out-scramble the goats, that I understood what every local had learned already: that these hoofed gobblers are the only true rulers over this land.
Unlike George Orwell’s despotic pigs in “Animal Farm,” however, goats are magnanimous leaders. They roam free in Anguilla in small groups rather than great herds, dotting the landscape by the thousands, grazing in the meadows, running through the bush, foraging the gardens with insatiable voracity. Baby goats — kids — call out tirelessly with the exuberance of youth and nanny goats scamper behind them, saving them from their own imprudence.
Young or old, goats are not particularly fond of the beach (apart from the odd seagrape tree, little nourishment is to be found there), yet they have somehow still made it to the nearby cays and beyond, like the far-off Dog Island and the pristine Scrub Island, just off Windward Point on the Atlantic shore.
Indeed, goats in Anguilla know no boundaries. No surface is too sharp, no fence too tall. They hug the coastline with ease regardless of whether it be the steep (if modest) cliffs that dominate the eastern end of the island or the gentle slopes that in the west curl into the sea in a sequence of breathtaking bays. No tree, flower or bush is spared by Your Ravenous Majesty, the Goat, except the blooming oleander, whose highly poisonous resin makes it repugnant to animals and enables it to decorate the island’s landscape untouched.
Sometimes, however, goats allow humans to shepherd them, always staying near the alpha male, who is often hitched to a tree. A few years ago, I spent some time in the northeastern fishing village of Island Harbour conducting research for The Night of the Rambler. The house I rented was next to a scraggy, flamboyant tree that was used as a tethering post by my neighbors across the yard. The sight of the mighty buck opposite my doorway — a large animal, horned, bearded and moody, his eyes the color of saffron cut by the horizontal slit formed by his pupils — was beautiful and intimidating, imposing and heartwarming, all at the same time.
That’s exactly what goats are like in Anguilla; both a blessing and a curse, ubiquitous and persevering, unshakable, unavoidable. And yet, they are charmers to residents and visitors alike, having carved a place — inexorably — on the landscape. There is a major difference, though, in the appreciation of the goat: While tourists are captivated by the adorable little kids prancing about, Anguillans see in a young billy goat pretty much what any goat sees in a healthy fig tree: a delectable meal.
After all, masters of the land as they are, these bleating creatures even preside in the kitchen, where the delicious curry goat stands out as the local delicacy par excellence.
Published by the New York Times on Sunday October 11 2015.