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Dances and Duels with the Domesticated Devil

Reflections on My Week as a Goat Herder in Rural Poland 

I. Introduction: finding my way to goats

There are many places I thought I’d end up after finishing my Master’s degree at Oxford. Living on a goat farm in rural Poland–well–that wasn’t exactly one of them. 

I’ll set the scene for you a bit: after finishing my degree in Geography, I decided to go solo travelling across Southern and Eastern Europe. I’ve always enjoyed getting to know the places I visit in a deeper sense (and on a student budget); when I came across the Workaway posting for a farmhand on a small circular farm two hours outside of Krakow, I jumped at the chance. 

My duties were quite simple. In exchange for a bed to sleep in and a couple of hot meals a day, I was to tend to the garden and the animals, help with the milking process, and, most importantly, take the goats out to pasture each afternoon. 

Whilst the prospect of experiencing life on a goat farm excited me, working with animals was far from my typical routine. Although I grew up in a small agricultural community in Hawai’i surrounded by livestock and rolling hills of farmland, I never had the experience of keeping or caring for animals on a farm setting. There was a lot I had to learn, but I felt up for the challenge.

On the other hand, I won’t pretend that my week spent playing farmer gave me novel, expert insights into the complexities of farming life. Any unfounded confidence I might have come into this role with was quickly shaken up by the demands of the job. The goats I worked with challenged many of my preconceptions of power, control, and care. They exposed my naive belief in a centralised authority in farming life and showed me that power, above all, is co-creative. 


II. Strange (goat) encounters 

A sharp cold stings my face as I make my way down to the barn as the soft morning light filters through the nearby trees. I’m greeted to the sounds of BBC on the radio and the crunch of hay underneath my Wellies. Each morning, the farmer wakes to milk the herd of goats to prepare the day’s milk and cheese production. Whilst milking is crucial for the farmer’s small-scale cheese business, the daily process is also important for maintaining the health and wellness of the lactating goats. Without releasing milk each day, the does become swollen, uncomfortable, and slow. It’s one of the many ways the lives of the goats and the farmers are intertwined within a relationship premised on both care and commodities. 

I walk ahead to guide the next pair of goats from their pen to the milking station. Peering into the pen, I’m immediately struck by how alien they seem. Suddenly faced with twenty pairs of bulbous, rectangular pupils reflecting back to me in the dim morning light, I understand why the devil is often depicted in goat form.  

Scapegoat. Devil horns. Serpentine eyes. I reflect on this for a moment. Why is it that we so often associate these creatures with evil? When did we place morality (or lack thereof) onto animals? And why The Goat in particular? 

To dualist, Cartesian thinkers, the distinction between the human and animal world is an indisputable fact of life. The animal world is theorised in opposition to culture and thus presented as its inherent inverse. We’ve constructed our own theology around this framework: they are the animal, the other, the evil and humans the good, the beacons of progress. Throughout the Bible, the goat is lauded as a sacrificial vessel for our sins

However as humans and livestock, our very survival is reliant on each other. Staring back at the goats, I wonder if it’s their piercing wide-set gaze that unnerves me, distancing me from our interwoven fate. Their glance seems to stare directly through my soul, stripping me of any mask or barrier I may have constructed, leaving me feeling cast open and seen. Perhaps my unease is related to a human fear of the unknown. Perhaps our discontent is but an innate fear of being perceived for our true selves. 

Okay, maybe I’m overthinking this. They’re just goats, after all, right? 

III. Theorising domination 

One of the main ethical dilemmas in the discussion surrounding animal agriculture concerns the sense of domination between farmer and animal. As geographer Sarah Whatmore posits, the act of domestication is the historic, defining act that marked humans as innately distinct from the animal world. To Whatmore, the domestication of animals is inherently rooted in violence. Even in the most “ethical” iterations of farming, domestication and domination go hand in hand. 

When I first arrived at the farm, the distance placed between the humans and animals particularly stood out to me: there is a deliberate separation between humans and the goats, even between the herding dogs and the goats. While caring for their animals, humans keep a distance and maintain power over them.

I must admit I initially viewed this in false absolutes, even internalising this dynamic in my own interactions with the goats. I made the mistake of believing in my unwavering authority as the goat herder,  the crowned leader of the goats if only by nature of my species. 

But, you see, power is a complicated thing. Whilst it might appear as if it is securely vested in a species or individual, it may just as well be embedded in the spaces in between, lurking in unexpected places. 

IV. (Harsh) lessons in power 

Every afternoon, my job was to bring the goats out to pasture and make sure they didn’t stray too far along the rolling hills. I was a bit surprised on my very first day when the farmer set me up to take the goats out myself, with all but a simple introduction to what herding entails.  

I had an electric bike to corral them and two trusty canine steeds–Chili and Pepper. Their job is to help corral the goats by running alongside my e-bike and circling the herd once they’d ventured too far.

(They’re excellent herding partners, until they get distracted sniffing and digging up moles.)  

Out in the field, I let the goats take their time munching the grass as I rockily tried to get the hang of herding. My feet could hardly reach the pedals of this enormous e-bike, and I desperately tried not to fall over as I raced around these rambunctious goats. It was all starting to go smoothly until I had to turn the herd around to get them back to the barn. 

Noting the dwindling sunlight, I pedalled up behind the herd and hollered. 

“Get on! Git!” 

No one moved. 

Instead they stared blankly right back at me–chewing long strands of grass hanging out of their mouths. 

Mocking me.

I tried again. 

“Get on! GIT! 


I suddenly felt transparent. 

There's something entirely humbling when you realise how animals can see right through you. I had come into my role of herder with a flimsy facade of confidence, and somehow the only ones who had seen through my act was a group of goats.  

My position as the herder (bestowed upon me by the mere coincidence of me being human) meant that I was the one with the power to decide where they went, and when. And yet, somehow, as I stood there, breathlessly yelling at these stubborn goats, I was hardly the one in control. 

I spent nearly an hour trying to corral them back up to the barn, ultimately to no avail. Only when the sun began to set did I run to get the farmer. He got them going with a single yelp and a shake of a bucket of bread. The goats trotted back to the barn swiftly and without protest. 

I trailed behind, thoroughly embarrassed and utterly ashamed. 

I spent the rest of the evening sullenly contemplating where it all went wrong.


After a long, restless night, I headed back to the barn for the morning milking. Humbled by the previous day’s herding fiasco, I decided to take a more reserved approach to today’s duties by quietly watching and observing. 

Like clockwork, the goats went on with their daily milking. They lined up, two-by-two, to get their grain to munch on as the farmer led them up to the milking station. 

When the first goat, Sunday, had settled down, I stretched my thumb and middle finger around her udder in a firm loop. Carefully applying pressure between my fingers, I pulled down as a warm stream of milk hit the pail below with a satisfying plink

After a moment, I looked up to see Sunday happily chomping away on chunks of dried pumpkin. She ignored me as she went along with her daily schedule. Suddenly I realised I was only there because she allowed me to be; in this moment, she was the one in control.  

While the farmer establishes a routine, the goats are the ones that enforce it. They are the keepers of their daily habits and ensure their routine is followed through their stubbornness. 

If one thing is out of place, the goats will immediately fight against it. If a pail of grain that is usually placed on the left side of the barn is one day placed on the right side, they freeze or become skittish. They will fight and rebel until they get their way. It's a trait that makes them perceptive and detail oriented. It’s also one that can make them resistant to change. 

It struck me that I was the newcomer getting in the way of their day-to-day routine. Just like I had to get used to my new role, the goats needed to get used to me to be able to have our relationship work. There was a give and take, and I had to allow for them to adjust to me in their lives. Letting them get comfortable around me was just as important as learning about their habits and routines.  

IV. Conclusion: Loosening the Reins 

As I got to know the goats a bit better, my solo herding improved. I did not try to force them onto my schedule, but rather let them take the lead.  They began to get used to me–this strange girl yelling at them atop an enormous bike–and slowly let me guide them. I also learned to relinquish control, and to understand that they are as much a part of this process as I am. 

Farming, much more so than I had previously thought, is a co-creative and collaborative production. 

My time with the goats redefined my understanding of what it means to “care”, or “care for”. It made me confront the inherent dualities of farm life and reflect on how humans can value life in our food production.

There were many contradictions and dualities I had to accept in my farmhand role. The most difficult lesson I grappled with was understanding that my care for the goats was also contingent on my dominance over them as a human. That even as I learned to know and care for the goats, I still enacted power over them as I milked them or herded them out to pasture. But power and control are not one-way vectors. They are forces that disperse and permeate in ways that might not be easily seen at first. While I enacted power over the goats, they were also in control of me. It was our mutual collaboration.

Maybe care and agriculture do not need to exist in opposition to each other. When we value farming as a co-creative and co-productive engagement, maybe, only then, can we begin to mend the harm we have inflicted on the planet. 

Though, I wonder, what would the goats have to say on that? 


Emma Schneck is an environmental writer and photographer and one of Anthroposphere's Head Editors. She recently earned her Master's in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance from the University of Oxford. You can read more of her travel content at


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