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The Goats That Made Her Feel Worthy of Being Loved

A joyful chance meeting with a herd of goats changed her outlook—and her life.

Angela Friis and her goat Wally; photo by Matthew Gilson
Credit: Matthew Gilson
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I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. The 45-minute drive from my mom’s place in Maricopa, Arizona, to my apartment in Gilbert felt longer by the day. Miles of dry, dusty land dotted with scrub grass as far as I could see. Nothing stood out. Even the occasional house seemed to fade into the flat, featureless landscape. A landscape as desolate as my life.

I’d driven this lonely stretch of road hundreds of times in the months I’d lived in Arizona. I had moved with my teenage daughter from our home near Chicago to care for my mom. Her cancer diagnosis had come around the same time my stormy 23-year marriage ended. I’d thought I would help my mom recover her health. I’d wanted a fresh start, a chance to find joy again.

But things didn’t go as I’d hoped. My mother’s cancer spread. The doctors were saying she had only months to live. As usual, my best efforts hadn’t been enough. I wasn’t enough.

Truthfully, I’d felt like this since age five, when my parents divorced. I’d blamed myself—thinking that if I were prettier, smarter, better somehow, my parents would love me enough to get back together. That didn’t happen. My mother remarried and started a new family. My father moved on. I stayed stuck, believing I lacked something that made me worthy of love. Maybe that’s why I related more to animals than people—dogs and cats seemed to accept me as I was. And why I felt drawn to other folks who were hurting.

After high school, I tried different jobs. Certified nursing assistant. Makeup artist. I got a degree in psychology and managed a wellness center, where I learned about mindfulness, prayer and meditation. I started going to church, drawn to the community and the idea that God loves us unconditionally. I wanted to believe that but couldn’t. I was convinced I was the problem, in my parents’ breakup, in my own troubled marriage. Why would God see me any differently?

The wellness center closed. I found work at a psychiatric nursing home. By then, I was in my early forties and miserable. The one person I trusted with my problems was my mom, far away in Arizona. We talked on the phone every day.

Then, in the summer of 2013, doctors were following up on the breast cancer she’d beaten twice, years earlier, and discovered a different type of tumor. This time the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer.

Mom’s problems were a lot bigger than mine. “I’m coming out there to take care of you,” I said.

I left my job at the nursing home and flew to Arizona with my daughter. My son, who was older, stayed with my ex. I rented a place in Gilbert, closer to Phoenix and the urban conveniences I was used to. My stepbrother and his wife were also helping. I was hopeful Mom would pull through.

I drove her to chemo appointments and sat with her. I thought I was making a difference. But her condition worsened with each passing month. By the fall of 2014, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do. The sadness and the emptiness I felt were crushing. Especially on the lonely drives back to Gilbert.

This afternoon was no different. My gaze drifted across the sun-baked landscape. A few nondescript houses. Some fences. Then I saw movement. Behind a fence on the right. Goats! Running and jumping with total abandon. Maybe 20 of them. Seeing them was so completely unexpected, I laughed out loud. Where had these crazy critters come from? I’d made this drive hundreds of times and never seen them before. They looked so carefree. I had to check them out.

I pulled over. I walked to the fence and sat beside it. I didn’t call to the goats. I was content just to watch them do their thing. But a young white goat with floppy ears came running up to me. Close enough to touch. I couldn’t resist. I stroked its soft coat, and it edged closer, nuzzling against me.

The goat’s breathing fell into sync with mine, and for a moment it felt as if the universe consisted of just the two of us. Something radiated through me, pushing away the sadness, filling the emptiness. Love. Pure love. What I’d been searching for my entire life. It warmed my very soul. I’d done nothing to earn this goat’s affection. Yet it had been given to me. And that’s when I knew God had sent this little goat, an angel to comfort me and bring me joy. To show me how much he loved me.

The other goats came over to investigate. A larger brown one leaped up and set its hooves against the fence. I petted it. The white goat calmly looked on. Finally I left, practically floating to the car. “I’ll see you soon,” I told the goats.

A few days later, I brought Mom there. We sat along the fence, occasionally petting the goats but mostly just watching. Mom didn’t have the strength to do much more. They were accepting of us, curiously nosing about the fence, then prancing off. “I could watch them for hours,” Mom said. “They’re so joyful.”

I introduced myself to the owner. She was raising the goats for their meat, not as pets, but she didn’t object to our visiting. There was something centering about the goats. Naturally calming. Our visits with them were some of the most beautiful moments Mom and I spent together, time I cherished. A gift from above.

Mom passed away in March 2015. I wasn’t sure what I should do next, only that it needed to involve goats.

I came across an ad for a goat wrangler, working for a woman in California who provided trained goats for movies and commercials. I applied. Despite my having zero experience, she hired me. I learned how to train goats. Working on movie sets was fun, but I sensed God wanted me to do more with goats.

I met an incredible guy, an actor who believed in me and loved me for being me. We got married. There were no goats in the ceremony, and yet I couldn’t help but think that my life had changed because of those furry, flop-eared angels. They’d helped me see myself as someone who deserved to be loved.

“I want to get a goat of my own,” I told my husband one day. “One I can train to be a comfort animal.”

“Where are we going to keep a goat?” he asked. Our place in California didn’t exactly have room for livestock.

“I’ll get a farmer to keep him,” I said. “Back in Illinois.” My daughter had moved to the Chicago area after I remarried.

“Go for it!” he said. See what I mean about him believing in me?

That’s how I found myself visiting a goat farm on the outskirts of Chicago. Several goats came rushing up, butting against me, nibbling at my clothes. Not quite the pastoral experience I’d enjoyed in Arizona but typical goat behavior. I surveyed the herd. There were plenty of candidates. Then one goat caught my eye. Brown. Flop-eared. Only eight weeks old. He wanted nothing to do with me. When I stepped toward him, he backed away, determined. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“He’s the one,” I told the farmer.

I named the goat Wally Bentley and stayed with my daughter in the Chicago suburbs while I was training him. I was sure we’d bond just like the little white goat and I had. But Wally had other ideas. Before I could consider taking him to schools or nursing homes, I needed to teach him to be calm around people, never to nip or be aggressive.

I tried to work with Wally the way I’d trained goats in California, rewarding good behavior with treats. Nothing doing. I put him on a leash. He refused to budge. I sat next to him and tried to pet him. He pulled back, his whole body tense. Not exactly a comfort animal.

Was I wrong about where God was leading me? I’d been so sure Wally was the one. Maybe the whole idea of using goats for therapy was crazy.

Finally, after weeks of trying to get through to Wally, I gave up. I plopped down in the grass. I didn’t reach out to him. Didn’t talk to him. Didn’t even make eye contact. Have it your way, I thought.

I don’t know how much time passed. I was aimlessly plucking at the grass, ready to call it a day, when I felt something soft and furry rub my arm. Not aggressively but gently. Soothingly. Then Wally nuzzled his head against mine. “Hey, buddy,” I said. I stroked his coat, and he leaned into me. A feeling of oneness, of pure love, enveloped me. Like that day in Arizona when I’d been at my lowest. There too I’d let myself be vulnerable. Let the goats come to me. Trusting them. And they’d responded.

After that, Wally and I spent many more hours learning together. He grew completely relaxed around me. I trained him to walk on a leash, to shake hands and roll over. I bought a blue baseball hat for him to wear so that he would know when he was working. I took him to parks and playgrounds, exposing him to all kinds of people and situations. He was sensitive, caring, loving—God-given traits I’d only had to encourage.

Six years later, Wally has comforted scores of people in the Chicago area. I call my business The Mending Muse. I take him to schools and nursing homes. I hold goat yoga events with Wally and some of his friends from the farm. But my favorite moments are one-on-one sessions with Wally and someone who’s hurting. Like I was. There’s no agenda, no prescribed regimen. Just time spent connecting with a goat—and reconnecting with joy. I call it the goat effect.

Not long ago, we had a session with a young woman who’d called wanting help with her anxiety.

We met at a park. I let Wally, wearing his baseball hat, off leash. He nuzzled the young woman, and she reflexively jerked back.

“You have to trust him,” I said. “I’ve been there. My life was a mess. Until a goat saved me.”

Slowly she lowered herself to the grass and took a deep breath. Wally rubbed gently against her, focused entirely on comforting her. Her shoulders relaxed, and she let out a soft sigh, a smile dawning on her face. The goat effect.

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