Liebe Coolidge of Plainfield, MA has been winning championships with her French Alpine goats for decades as a USDA class C inspected exhibitor. In addition to that, now she and her husband Douglas Premo travel with their business Traveling Hooves to schools, detention center, and fairs with their collection of French Alpine goats, miniature pigs and assorted donkeys to allow children a chance pet the animals. It is a championship of a different sort — forging ties, however brief — between children and animals they might otherwise never have met.
Most often, students get to visit farms, but not handle the animals. Coolidge’s parallel mission is to dispel fear of animals for children by allowing them to pet them and hold them close.
Kick-off for this season started in April at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, MA. After Coolidge and Premo set up their heavy moveable red metal corral, 11 elementary school children were allowed to pet four one-month-old French Alpine goats and a year-old doe, Rosa Pascali. One by one, the students went inside the corral and Liebe set a baby goat on their lap. Their teacher Penny Gill accompanied them and three teachers’ aides stood by.
Tiny hands reached out timidly to touch the goats. First their faces were blank with trepidation, then broad grins illuminated them. Some of the children wear visible hearing aids in their ears or devices that transmit vibrations of sound across the bones of their heads. On this day, they sounded out the word “goat.” They also sounded out “baa.” Some of the children unexpectedly had a chance to feel the goats’ throats vibrate as the goats made that sound as they held them in their arms.
“I love holding the baby goats. They are so fuzzy and cute,” said four-year-old Grace Carpenter.
Though it was a brisk, cold day in late April, hearts were warmed by the sight of the children having so much fun with the goats. After everyone had their turn, the children were allowed in together as the goats jumped on their moveable yellow castle, complete with board ramps that the goats sometimes used as sliding boards.
“It was magical. Absolutely magical,” said Coolidge.
Since then, Traveling Hooves has ventured to the Department of Youth Services in Westfield, MA. “It was incredible. Big tough kids, sweet as could be. These guys were from all over, enormous, close to 60 of them,” said Coolidge.
The adult-sized juveniles took their turns arranged in four groups of 15. When she asked the first group who would like to come in the moveable red corral, and pet the animals or take turns brushing them, only two volunteered. “They were doing their jive thing; only two boys came in,” she said. But as they brushed the goats and the donkey, others asked questions that she answered, working to dispel a lot of their beliefs about the donkeys and goats, noting that they are intelligent and manageable rather than dumb or stubborn, and whether they were safe or not — as in would they kick or bite — as an educational component of the event.
By the last group, only two juveniles didn’t come in. “The star of the show was little Chester, our rescue pig,” said Coolidge. She informed them of rescuing the now two-year-old pig as a piglet as she set him on their laps. “They all identified with that pig. He was near death; we love him dearly.”
Attendees were asked to write testimonials. Across the board, holding Chester received high praise. One in particular wrote, “It made me very happy and I haven’t been happy in a very long time.”
“That’s why we do this,” said Coolidge.