Lauren Hall Ruddell walks the grounds of her Rush Valley farm on a chilly March afternoon. She’s followed closely by a handful of pack goats and large turkeys who defy their extreme attentiveness with a casual, rambling gait. Getting purposely ahead of the pack, the former zoo keeper positions herself at the far end of a paddock to demonstrate a characteristic that makes these animals — specifically the goats — so appealing to her.
“Here, baby goats,” she calls in an animated, treble tone. The goats rush toward her, several turkeys in tow, and coalesce at her feet. They’re ready for adventure-be it a day hike in the nearby Stansbury Mountains, a multi-day trek in the far-off Uintas, or bushwhacking in the Onaquis. Today’s adventure will be limited to a brief afternoon walk. No matter. Several dominant goats jockey for lead positions as Ruddell leads the eager column, bells jingling, in a circle around the 1.5 acre farm.
Ruddell’s 16 pack goats are the stars of Planet Goat, a seasonal trail guide service that she established in 2009. Planet Goat offers a range of guided hikes, as well as workshops on pack goat training and handling. Activities include bird watching, nature photography and interpretive commentary by her and her husband, Edward Ruddell, a professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Lauren is currently a doctoral student in the same department. The Ruddells usually guide customers on local trails in the Onaqui and Stansbury Mountains, including the Stansbury Front Trail and Deseret Peak Wilderness. The couple often takes the goats on private trips to the High Uintas in northeastern Utah and the area of Simpson Springs and Death Canyon at the southern end of Tooele County.
But for Lauren, there’s more to goat keeping than the business and hiking. She sees her Rush Valley operation as a culmination of a life-long fascination with animals and their effect on the human psyche. Her experience observing and interacting with diverse species began as a child in San Diego, Calif., where her father worked as a bus driver and guide at the San Diego Zoo. Lauren spent most weekends exploring the zoo on her own.
“I could crawl through the bushes in between exhibits, sit and read all day in the free-flight aviary if it was a hot day, hang out in the children’s zoo or go behind the scenes to visit with animals that were off-exhibit,” Lauren said. “My father and I usually left after the zoo was closed and many of the big cats were roaring to be fed. What they say about feeding time at the zoo is no joke.”
Lauren inevitably took a job at the San Diego Zoo, where she spent four years handling such species as the Vietnamese clouded leopard and pygmy chimpanzee. She then spent two years as a park ranger in San Diego before earning a bachelor’s degree in recreation administration and a master’s degree in geography from San Diego State University. Lauren worked in several environmental capacities in California before moving to Colorado and eventually Utah.
So how did this connoisseur of exotic animals end up so fascinated with domestic goats?
It started in Colorado 13 years ago, when Lauren bought two baby goats to help keep an injured Gelbvieh bull company.
“The calf did not make it, but the goats did and that began my love affair with them,” Lauren said. “I can take or leave cows, but goats are now family.”
Lauren acquired several Nubian goats in 2001 and began hiking with them a year later, primarily to motivate her daughter to hike. After moving to Salt Lake City in 2006, Lauren boarded her goats in Rush Valley. She and Edward were married in 2010, and they purchased the historic farm along the Mormon Trail the following year.
The Ruddells’ herd is a multigenerational mix of Nubian and Nubian hybrids. Lauren prefers the Nubians for their loyalty and personality traits. Beyond their agility and hardiness (Ruddells’ Nubians can carry between 45 and 60 pounds depending on age, sex and breed), Lauren said the goats’ wilderness-friendly nature makes them ideal pack animals. Their impact on trails and soil is minimal. They leave tiny footprints and tiny droppings, and don’t require hay on the trail.
“They live off the land gently. In a way, goats are a leave-no-trace choice of burden carrying companion animal,” she said. “Besides, you get warm fresh goat’s milk in your morning cocoa even in the wilderness.”
Lauren said goats are also highly intelligent.
“They are deeply curious and are able to draw conclusions about the safety and desirability of engaging in certain actions very quickly,” she said. “They are masters at observation and imitation.”
She said her goats know where the goat treats are kept and how they’re accessed. Lauren sometimes catches them trying to turn the door knob with their teeth, failing only because they can’t turn their heads far enough.
“Sometimes I feel as if I am barely one step ahead of them on any given day,” she said.
The Ruddells begin bonding with their goats soon after they’re born. Edward names each one after historical European figures. The Ruddells hold each one daily, feeding them snacks and talking to them. The goats develop a deep trust with their humans during this crucial period. This is also when they begin to learn their names.
On the trail, the goats see the human as the alpha leader and protector, spreading out in open areas with good visibility, but mobbing their human when the trail is closed in or they sense danger. Goat jam, as Lauren calls the latter phenomenon, lets up once visibility is good again.
“When I forge ahead and they see that the coast is clear, they spread out on front, back and sides like they are biggest and baddest beasts in the land,” she said.
The practical reasons for hiking with goats are clear, but Lauren is exploring the psychological benefits of interacting with-and even just viewing-animals. In fact, it’s the primary emphasis of her doctoral studies. She told of an experience bringing newborn baby goats to a local nursing home to let the residents interact with them.
“One lady in a wheel chair was the last in, and she asked her attendant to keep her at the back of the room,” Lauren said.
The attendant told Lauren about the woman’s lifelong fear of animals. After assuring the attendant that she would be sensitive, Lauren picked up a baby goat and approached the woman. Much to the attendant’s surprise, the woman smiled and held out her arms to take the baby.
“Her attendant literally gasped,” Lauren said. “She blurted out, ‘but Iris, you hate animals.’ Iris did not reply, but the wonder and radiance on her face as she held the baby caused all conversation in the room to stop. That was over 10 years ago, and I still remember the lady’s name, such an impression did her interaction with that sweet baby goat make on me.”
Lauren hasn’t yet reached any scientific conclusions, but studies so far suggest that animals have a profound influence on human mood. She continues to study the fascination with all animals, including the creepy, scary, and disgusting varieties, she said.
It’s true, pack goats aren’t exotic animals. But Lauren maintains that what they lack in that regard, they more than make up for in charm and personality. As she and the goats finish their walk around their farm, Edward arrives home and parks beside the barn. The goats rush to greet him, and one jumps effortlessly onto the hood of his pickup truck. Lauren later tells me this was Romulus, who, like his brother, Remus, is named after a legendary founder of Rome.
“They are worthy of the names, because very little can stop them when they put their minds to something,” she said.