Goat Walkabouts in Colorado offers PTSD hikes with goats

Mary grew up as an orphan. The rest of her family was eaten by a mountain lion when she was young, so she was prone to antisocial behavior when she moved into her new home.

Mary is a Nigerian dwarf goat, but goats have feelings, too. And her family history gives her something in common with human trauma victims hoping to find healing through animal therapy, which is her job now.

She didn’t get along well at first with the other goats when she went to live at Skal Farm near Golden after her family was killed.

If you go

For information on how to book Goat Walkabout hikes, go to rockymountaingoatyoga.com or the Goat Walkabouts Facebook page. Hikes for people who experience PTSD are free.

“She’s gone through some pretty traumatic situations,” said Jim Naron, who operates a new service called Goat Walkabouts, which takes people on goat hikes for PTSD therapy or just for fun. “When she came to Skal Farm, she was so skittish, all she would do in the pen, she would pick off each individual goat, head butt them and go sit in the corner. She wouldn’t sit like a goat; she would sit like a dog.”

Naron, who experiences PTSD due to a childhood he says was “one traumatic event after another,” has a catchy phrase to capture what he does with goats in animal therapy: “We are healing hurting hearts by hiking our healing herds.”

And that’s why Naron took five professional victim advocates on a goat walkabout this week atop Mount Falcon Park in Jefferson County: to demonstrate how his service might be able to help some of their clients. Mary was on the trip along with four pals who also live at Skal Farm: Brutus, Zero, Rocky and Pepper.

Hope Hawn, who works in the victim assistance unit of the Lakewood police department, was on the hike. Often her unit responds with officers in the immediate aftermath of a crime in hopes of establishing an early bond with traumatized victims. She’s a big believer in animal therapy.

“We have a lot of victims who don’t do well with traditional one-on-one counseling,” Hawn said. “They’re like, ‘I’ve tried that; it hasn’t worked for me.’ But there are other options, like animals. The (clients) get so excited, especially adolescents. They really, really bond with animals. Therapy with animals really helps our victims feel empowered, because a lot of the power has been taken away from them. Being able to bond with the animals kind of restores that.”

The goat walkabout begins with some instruction on goat-herding from Naron, who demonstrates how to handle leashes and explains the importance of leaving plenty of space between the goats and dog walkers. Everyone in the group also carries a shepherd’s crook.

“This really isn’t to control the goats unless we absolutely have to,” Naron explained. “They hate this thing. They don’t want it around the neck. But in situations where they get loose, this comes in really handy. Other than that, this will serve well as a good defense weapon.”

As the group began a sunny 2-mile hike from Mount Falcon’s west trailhead to the mountaintop ruins of a mansion built in 1909 (and that burned down in 1918, leaving only a weathered shell of stone and mortar), Kelsey Fraser called it “no better way to spend a Wednesday morning.” Fraser is a victim witness specialist for Colorado’s First Judicial District, which serves Jefferson and Gilpin counties.

Her hiking companion for the day was Brutus. Fraser was struck by how each goat had a different story and unique needs.

“Brutus liked to be in the front, and he would pull me,” Fraser said after the hike. “Once he was there, he was fine, but he needed to be able to look out and see what’s in front of him. There are other goats that just wanted to be with the group. That’s just like us. We each have different stories, different traumas, different experiences.

“Making sure the treatments or outcomes or services we provide are really individualized is really important. This was a good reminder of that. No goat is the same, no crime victim is the same.”

Naron, 43, came up with the idea of goat therapy when he started hiking with them on his own, evolving out of his own experience with PTSD. He started Rocky Mountain Goat Yoga in 2017, and last spring began training goats for hiking excursions.

In pauses on the trail, the goats like to nibble on pine needles and small branches. Sometimes they teethe on the clothing of the human hikers, leaving behind goat slobber. At the ruins, they made friends with a 3-year-old girl who seemed delighted to meet the animals.

They were always mild-mannered. But whenever they see dogs on the trail, the goats are reminded that they are prey for other animals.

“Goats instinctually are fearful of dogs,” Naron said. “For someone with PTSD, everything is a danger. They’re able to watch the goat overcome challenges. Someone with PTSD, they learn to take risks, plus they learn what it’s like to interact with the goat to be out in nature. Having PTSD, they can get out and do something healthy.”

Naron believes animals can be great teachers. He says he finds a “divine connection” with them.

“We’re here to learn from them,” Naron said. “A lot of people get caught up in consumption. Not that I’m like PETA, or anything like that, but there’s definitely a disconnect between what we’re actually supposed to be doing with animals and what we are doing with them. The connection tells me that I need to be out here feeling humanity with these guys.

“I have to look at them as, like, if they’re going to advance our species in some capacity, I need to humble myself and not think of myself as above them. I need to bring myself to their level and realize that they go through a lot of the struggles that we do. If we take the time to hike them and watch them face their fears, it’s going to help us face ours.”

Another hiker was Courtney Marshall, a victim services specialist for Intervention Inc., a company that contracts with judicial districts to work with offenders on probation and their victims. She previously did one of Naron’s goat yoga classes.

“The animals themselves bring a lot of humor to a situation,” Marshall said. “People who deal with situations in their lives that are not very humorous would find something like this to be somewhat relaxing, and kind of an escape from something they might be dealing with.”

Maybe it’s an escape for the goats, too. After all, they live in pens.

“Once we get past the obstacles and dogs, they enjoy it a lot,” Naron said. “The biggest thing is being able to get to the highest peak. Once they get there, they love to gaze. Their favorite thing to do is look out and see the world.”

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