Goats are not just barnyard animals, sharing space on farms with chickens and cows. Local goat farm owners have a different story to tell about these incredible animals and the healing powers they can have on humans.
Sandra Coffman is a recovering addict. She also co-owns Split Creek Farm in Anderson with Jessica Bell, a vet tech at a private practice in Clemson. Coffman came to South Carolina after a long, demanding career with the U.S. Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., where she came face-to-face with violence on many occasions.
Her work led her down dark paths of addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, and she checked into a treatment facility to get help. Through her best friend, she ended up visiting Split Creek Farm, which is best known for its award-winning goat cheeses and fudge, and was blown away by the interactions with the goats.
“They saw me,” she said. “In my old life, no one ever saw me. They saw a police officer, a tough woman, but never me. The thing that people don’t get about goats is that they see you; they look at your face. And they give you unconditional, complete love.”
A 2018 study out of the United Kingdom revealed that goats indeed intently look at human faces, deciphering emotions. Researchers were surprised, having no idea livestock such as goats were able to do this.
But do goats really have the power to touch something deep inside people that needs healing?
At Mischief Managed Farm in Greer, owner Emily Mitchell hosts a free annual event where children with special needs can interact with her goats, chickens and ponies. It’s a hefty load of work for her, but she sees the same kind of positive effects the goats have on people.
“A mother brought her autistic son to the farm and told me he refuses to play with other kids and avoids social interactions,” Mitchell said. “He ended up playing with the goats for a while, and then I watched him start interacting with the other kids in attendance. His mother had tears in her eyes and said it was the first time he had done that.”
People seem to gravitate toward these animals once experiencing them for the first time. At Possum Kingdom Kreamery in Belton, as well as Mischief Managed Farm, the owners open up their goat farms to the public during winter to feed the baby goats. Slots are filled almost immediately.
A vast number of scientific studies have found that positive human-animal interaction can be responsible for a reduction in stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, promotion of calmness, a reduction in the use of pain medication and a multitude of other benefits.
The impact of the goats has been so powerful for Coffman and many others she has witnessed that she founded Goats4Goodness, a nonprofit with the sole mission to bring happiness to others through the goats. Goats4Goodness offers goat therapy, educational tours, hands-on classes and opportunities for people to interact with the animals.
“There was this woman who came one day and sat in a ratty chair next to the baby goats, and I noticed she was sitting on her hands, just shaking,” Coffman said. “Normally we don’t let visitors hold the babies, but that day I made an exception and asked her if she would like to hold one. The second I laid a baby in her lap, she started sobbing. A few days later, she sent us a heartfelt message that this was the first outing she’s had since she lost her child. The experience made an impact on her journey of healing, and she ended up coming back several times through that kidding season.”
While visitors also come to forget about life for a bit, co-owner Bell said the farm has become a refuge for employees as well.
“We have a history of hiring people with special needs, anxiety, addictions and social disorders,” Bell said. “After working here, the difference is easy to see — they are happier, less anxious.”
Coffman said her life and so many other lives have taken a turn in the right direction because of the experiences with the goats.
“My retirement plan was to drink and be a gym rat,” she said. “I was a negative, miserable person as an addict. I am a much better human as a result of having goats in my life. I truly wouldn’t be who I am today as a person or in my own recovery had I not stepped foot on Split Creek.”