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By Fred Dickey

May 10, 2012

What better way to kick-start a Sunday morning smile than a story about a teenage girl with a caring heart and a flop-eared farm animal that has served us since before Helen brought trouble to Troy. It’s a combination that would have had Norman Rockwell reaching for his sketch pad.

There is in the farmish village of Valley Center a young girl, just turned 14 and fresh out of middle school. Her name is Jillian Finstuen and she’s rather shy, with a mouth full of braces, a heart full of compassion, and a mind filled with a big plan.

Jillian is a young lady of consequence. She’s active in rural-oriented 4-H, Meals on Wheels and Girl Scouts. She has also made her mark at Valley Center Middle School. Rosa Gonzales, her teacher, says, “Jillian is an excellent student and a good role model. She excels in her studies. She loves all life and approaches her work with amazing tenacity and self-discipline.”

The second player in our story is a critter that eats all day and will never grow hungry so long as there are weeds and brush that humans don’t want and goats do.

The two—girl and goat—became a team when Jillian bought two kid goats a year and a half ago as her 4-H project. Over the months she watched her animals grow, both in her affection and in their worth to the family on their three-acre homestead by consuming vegetation that her fire-captain dad would otherwise have to spend a Saturday cutting.

Normally, after the 4-H farm animals are judged near the end of the Del Mar Fair, they are auctioned off [cq] with the end result of being served on a plate with a vegetable.

The bang of the auctioneer’s gavel is often a tearful parting for student participants in animal husbandry (I love that quaint term) and their projects that have nuzzled their way into young hearts. However, in the case of a goat, the 4-Hers have about $300 invested that might need to be recouped, and space at home that might be needed for next year’s project. They can’t save the goats without a good reason, because farm animals are normally raised for their own reason, and it’s a terminal one.

Jillian elected not to give up her goats for auction last year, and her emotional payback with the animals was cemented a few months ago when she returned home from a six-day hospital stay. “When the goats saw me, they ran over to where I was and stood up on their hind legs and leaned against the fence in order to make it easier for me to pet them--something I had never seen them do before. They seemed to say to me that they understood how I hurt. It's hard to put into words, but it's as if they knew I had saved them and they were now repaying me.”

Jillian says she has also found an environmental reason for hers and other goats to escape the slaughterhouse. It came during a family driving trip a year ago to the Bay Area where she saw a herd being used to clear weed-infested open ground. Looking out the car window, the thought germinated: If I can think of a way to use our 4-H goats for weed clearing, then maybe they wouldn’t have to die, and it could help the environment, too.

The plan she is developing involves convincing other kids with goat projects to possibly donate their animals for brush-clearing, and then to convince landowners to use the goats, and, it is hoped, to buy them from the students.

“I believe every life has value, and it is my hope that people will open their hearts and minds to what these goats have to offer,” Jillian, an avowed vegetarian, says.

She has framed her sales pitch persuasively. To her fellow 4-H members, she will appeal to their commitment to serve the environment by using nature’s way instead of gas-powered mowers to clear brush and reduce fire hazard. Of course, her most effective tool might be to have the student look in those big trusting eyes that have grown so familiar.

To her neighbors and others with properties of two or three acres (average size in Valley Center), she will point out that it takes about three hours to mow an acre, which has to be done at least 10 times a year. It requires a riding mower that can cost in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, and can offer only a hot, dusty ride while listening to the ding of rocks denting the blade.

An alternative, Jillian will point out, is to let a goat do the work while the contented homeowner watches TV with a cold drink.

Jillian says she has learned from research and her own experience that goats are hardy and susceptible to few diseases. When browsing is sparse, or in winter months, they can subsist on inexpensive alfalfa. They also appreciate the guardianship of a big, irritable dog when coyotes are around.

Jillian will recruit only boer goats with the big floppy ears, of which about 100 are entered each year at the fair. Boers are low-maintenance, big-appetite animals that browse on weeds and shrubs, but normally not grass, which means they don’t compete with horses and cattle.

Interestingly, young goats must be trained by their more experienced peers to know what to eat and which poisonous plants to avoid. How they do that is insider stuff known only to goats. For mentoring, she plans to pasture recruited goats with her own for the time needed.

I hope her plan works. So would the goats if they could think about it, and so do people sensitive to the environment, and probably guys who would rather watch football on Saturdays than get a sore butt and a sunburn sitting on a mower.

Obviously, her project could succeed or fail. If it does the latter, then she will share that fate with GM, Wall Street banks, and other behemoths with far less excuse. But for her, out of failure would come personal growth, and—as always--it would come more bountifully than out of success.

This is not Saint Jillian. I have no doubt she has her dreaded teen moments, sometimes doesn’t do the vacuuming, or fights with her kid brother. However, her life’s path is promising because her head is on straight and her heart is good. She has made her peace with the earth and the creatures abiding therein, and wants to do her part. Name for me an admirable person who does not want the same.

Jillian’s self-appointed job is to save goats. Our job is to make more Jillians.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

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