While myotonia congenita occurs naturally due to the genetic makeup of an animal, fainting goats only exist as a breed only because humans want them around.
It's hard to imagine an animal with myotonia congenita lasting long in the wild. If a predator was to approach, the animal would stiffen up, fall over and natural selection would take its course. The strong survive, the weak perish -- that is, unless human breeders are there to protect the weaker animals and encourage their traits. This is known as unnatural selection, and it can be seen in any number of domestic and farm animal breeding programs.
While myotonia congenita itself likely predates recorded history, the encouragement of the trait in goats and the resulting emergence of fainting goats as a distinct breed can be dated back to the early 1880s in Marshall County, Tennessee. Some accounts link the breed to a particular farmer named John Tinsley, who reportedly brought a number of goats exhibiting symptoms of myotonia congenita down from Nova Scotia, Canada. According to this account, the animals were bred by a local doctor, and a little more than 120 years later, herds of fainting goats can be found throughout the United States.
But why has this breed been successful?
Historically, humans have always selectively bred animals for two reasons: to encourage certain behavioral traits and/or to encourage certain physical features.
For example, a guard dog may be bred for aggressiveness. Toy and show dogs may be bred for appearance. Whether the purpose is to breed an animal for amusement or to carry out a particular task, there's a purpose driving the course of unnatural selection.
Fainting goats are no different and have been bred for three distinct purposes:
- For meat: As are the primary use for most farm goats, the fainting variety is often raised for slaughter. Goats are natural climbers and jumpers, so they're also natural escape artists when fenced or penned in. Extra effort is often needed on the part of farmers to keep the animals enclosed. Myotonia congenita, however, tends to curb the animals' natural inclinations, as the acts of climbing and jumping can also trigger fainting. Additionally, the excessive muscle tensing tends to result in greater muscle mass, less body fat and a higher meat-to-bone ratio than other breeds of goat.
- For amusement: Like many animals, fainting goats are also sometimes raised as pets. Some owners raise them for the uniqueness of their fainting spells, while others choose them simply because they're easier to keep in an enclosure. Like other breeds of goats, their temperaments and physical appearance often make them good companion animals.
- To accompany herds: Since a fainting goat would fall over or be reduced to a hobble following a fright, many farmers saw them as an excellent form of protection for sheep herds. If a predator such as a wolf or coyote were to attack the herd, the non-myotonic animals could run away, leaving behind any fainting goats either immobilized or hobbled by the fright. The herd would escape and the predators would focus on the easiest kill. But this use has largely fallen out of practice, and the degree to which it was actually used is uncertain.
Whether food or friend, fainting goats don't seem to be going away anytime soon. Numbering an estimated 3,000 to 5,000, the animals are recognized as an official breed and are raised throughout the United States. Enthusiasts have even established breed standards and regularly show their prize animals at livestock festivals.
To learn even more about fainting goats and myotonia congenita, check out the links on the next page.