"Fainting goats?" you ask. "This must be a joke!"
"No," I reply, "they are definitely real." Fainting goats are a slightly smaller version of the standard goat, who, believe it or not, thanks to a genetic condition called myotonia congenita, actually seem to faint when they are startled.
As strange as this may sound, these little critters have actually served an historical purpose. Shepherds often kept the goats in with their flocks as insurance in case of predator attacks. The theory went something like this- as wolves would come down from the hills to attack a flock of sheep, the goats would become startled and, as per the name of their breed, they would faint. The sheep would make a clean getaway, as the wolves would focus on the stunned goats rather than pursue the fleeing sheep. Not that wonderful if you were one of the goats, sure, but downright dandy if you happened to be a sheep.
This breed has several names- the most common are Myotonic, Tennessee Fainting, Nervous, and Scare goats. The names refer specifically to myotonia congenita, a condition in which the muscle cells experience prolonged contraction when the goat is startled. The transitory stiffness associated with these contractions can cause the goat to stop moving, stiffen, and even fall down. This is not a true faint, but a muscular phenomenon unrelated to the nervous system. The actual degree of stiffness may vary widely from goat to goat and is based on a number of factors, including age, species purity, and degree of fright.
The breed's recorded history (or at least as much of it as I can find) reaches back to the 1880's, when a migrant worker named John Tinsley brought four of them to Tennessee. Not much is known about Tinsley, though he is reported to have come from Nova Scotia. The breed soon became popular throughout the region, thanks to three major factors: 1) they were less prone to climbing (and therefore escape), 2) they had a higher degree of muscularity than their non-fainting relatives (and thus would make a better dinner), and 3) high reproductive rates (typically two or more to a litter).
The breed has gained popularity in recent years (especially evidenced by the number of emails I receive from interested students, TV news shows, and people who have lost bar bets), with two major trends developing amongst breeders. The first, a more traditional approach, emphasizes the meat qualities of the animals and selection based on growth rate and reproductive efficiency. The other trend emphasizes the "novelty" aspect of the goats, focusing almost exclusively on stiffness and small size.
For information on 'Fainting Goats' goto http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jimknapp/goats.html be quick as I don't think they are going to be around for long!