PLYMOUTH, Conn. — Sara McHugh, 17, spent her last Saturday before school starts sitting on the edge of a barn, cuddling with a goat.
The goat in question is Stella Luna, a brown-and-black 2-year-old that McHugh calls “my little baby.” And the barn is at the Terryville Lions Country Fair, where McHugh just won third place for showmanship in the goat competition. The fair concludes its three-day run today at the Terryville Fairgrounds.
Showmanship contests are more about the knowledge of the animals’ breeders than their physical characteristics. McHugh had to identify and discuss the positive and negative aspects of her goat, such as large or small body capacity, the slope of the goats’ backs and shoulders, and whether or not their cloven hooves splay out.
Joy Scott of Terryville organizes the goat show at the Terryville Fair.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of time,” she said, both for herself as an organizer and for the competitors. “If they want to take the effort and time, it’s worth it.”
McHugh’s older sister joined 4-H, and McHugh followed as soon as she was old enough. She began showing leased pigs at 4-H shows when she was 7. But as McHugh got deeper into the animal competing and breeding, she decided she wanted a bigger challenge. So she switched animals, from pigs to goats six years ago, when she was 11.
“Goats have a lot more to it than showing pigs,” she said. “You have to answer a lot of questions.”
Part of the appeal was the animals themselves.
“I do love my goats,” she said. “They’re very friendly.”
McHugh and her parents, Anna and Kevin McHugh, all compared goats to dogs, with their loyal and friendly demeanors. The family started off six years ago with three goats. Kevin McHugh built a shed for them to live in, but it’s McHugh’s mother who has really taken to the animals.
“She watches them all day long,” McHugh said with a laugh. “My mom’s a crazy goat lady.”
For Anna McHugh, the goats were something of a dream deferred. She was in 4-H as a kid and wanted to show animals, but her mother thought animals were too dirty. So she, somewhat begrudgingly, stuck to crafts. When she and Kevin McHugh were first married, she toyed with the idea of getting pygmy goats, but didn’t pull the trigger until Sara and her sister started 4-H. The family has raised chickens and alpacas over the years, but now the focus is totally on goats.
Sara McHugh said she has 10 now, and shows them four times each year.
“Winning’s nice, but it’s OK if I don’t,” she said. “It’s for fun. 4-H is really about learning stuff.”
For McHugh, the learning has gone beyond goat anatomy. She said she used to be shy, but showing her animals brought her out of her shell.
“People ask so many questions,” when she is out with her goats at shows like this one, she said. “You’re not just going to ignore them.”
Scott, the competition organizer, thinks all of the 4-H competitors get that kind of social and emotional benefit from the shows.
“Of course they learn the competitive thing — how to be a good winner and a good loser,” she said, but they also learn the heavy responsibility of caring for animals.
McHugh will age out of 4-H next year, but she hopes to work with animals as an adult, and wants to keep her goats.
“For college, I’m not going far, so I hope I’ll still see them,” she said, snuggling Stella Luna’s long head in her lap. “I’m definitely keeping her.”
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