It began to scream as soon as its feet left the ground. Levi clutched it to his chest and tried to keep its legs restrained. Its beady eyes rolled back into its head and its entire body shook with fear. Levi, his own face pale, thrust it toward me like a sacrificial offering. Its chest pumped rapidly up and down and I could almost feel its heart racing behind its breastbone. It continued to cry out, a long bleating wail filled with fear, desperate to be released. I looked at the two fur-covered balls dangling from its crotch and stepped back, my arms dropping limply to my sides. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I looked away from the young billy, out to the dry grassy farmland beyond the pen.
My victim, a billy goat about to be emasculated by my hand, was one of six hundred Boer goats farmed for meat on Lochenbar Station, a ten thousand acre cattle station in central Queensland, Australia. The ranch is operated by the Sandilands, an Australian family said to be descendants of the early pioneers of the area. Lochenbar also runs an ecotourism destination called Kroombit Park that allows travellers to experience life at an authentic cattle station. I happened upon a brochure for the place while travelling up the coast of Queensland with two friends, Melissa and Levi. Keen to get away from the somewhat tedious backpacker scene of dorm rooms, expat piss-ups, and barbeques, we decided to give Kroombit a try for a few days. We piled into Levi’s bright yellow 1980 Ford Falcon Station wagon (nicknamed the oh-so-original Millennium Falcon) and set off for the outback.
We headed inland about 150 kilometres from the coast toward Biloela (pronounced bee-o-EE-la), a small town where the grand attraction is a twenty-eight metre tall silo. Here we turned off the paved highway onto a bumpy dirt road where it was another thirty kilometers to Lochenbar.
Upon arriving at the station, we were welcomed by the Sandilands and their staff, then shown to our accommodation- – a dorm with rows of stalls that made it seem like nothing except a stable. The top half of the wide wooden door of our room even opened independently from the bottom half. The ranch, although peaceful in its vast natural surroundings, was abuzz with activity as the “jackeroos” (the Australian farmhands) rushed about to muster cattle, tend the flocks, and set small bush fires to keep the grass short and appetizing for the livestock.
We took a walk around the farm grounds to inspect the ostriches, chickens (or “chooks” as the Aussies say), and horses. The animals lazed about their pens in the hot sun, hardly moving except to shake off the occasional fly. In the distance I could see the jackeroos zipping about the property on their four-wheel-drive quads. They were all dressed in what seemed to be the Lochenbar uniform: dusty worn jeans; torn flannel shirts; beaten scuffed Blundstone boots; and leather Akubras to block the hot sun. I eyed them enviously as they raced about, and wondered if our authentic farm experience was going to consist of nothing more than our thematic dorm and the glorified zoo in front of me.
My concerns quickly abated when a battered truck (or “ute” as the Aussies fondly call them) pulled up beside us. Andrew, one of the jackeroos, leaned out of the window and, with a mischievous grin on his face, asked us if we would like to help round up some young billy goats for ringing. Beside him in the truck sat his dog Trig, a blue heeler. Uncertain what he meant by ringing, but excited at the prospect of seeing a herding dog in action, we climbed into the back.
We drove out to the paddock where a herd of goats milled about, grazing on the short grass. Andrew let Trig out of the truck and started calling out sharp commands, to which the dog responded instantly. He chased the goats, running back and forth behind them, keeping them together, occasionally nipping at their heels to hurry them up. Under Andrew’s direction, Trig urged the goats into a large pen.
Once the goats were closed inside, Andrew leaned against the fence and, with the same mischievous grin, explained the task of ringing. In order to keep the population from getting too large, it is necessary to limit the number of billies in the herd. This is done by “ringing” the billies when they are about three months old. When a goat is ringed, a thick elastic is fit on the skin between its body and its testes. The elastic cuts off circulation to the testes, causing no pain, but after a few weeks the testes dry up and fall off. Andrew pulled a small silver instrument called an elastrator out of his pocket. It had a two-tiered handle and four thin prongs at the top. He pulled a plastic bag of thick green elastics, or “elastrator rings,” out of his shirt pocket. He fit the elastic over the prongs and squeezed the handle. The four prongs widened, stretching the elastic into a golf-ball sized loop, just wide enough for a goat’s testicles.
“So which one of you wants to do the deed then?” asked Andrew with a laugh. Suddenly the idea of a beach barbeque with drunken expats seemed extremely appealing.
Melissa and Levi turned and looked at me. Levi shuffled nervously from foot to foot and cleared his throat as he stared down at the ground. Melissa suddenly became entranced with a barely visible scratch on the back of her hand and rubbed at it with her thumb. I made the mistake of making eye contact with Andrew. He gave me a slightly smug grin and handed me the elastrator.
“Right then, Helen you ring ‘em. Levi you snatch ‘em up. And Melissa you let ‘em back into the paddock once they’re done,” Andrew ordered.
We moved to a smaller pen connected to the main pen by a gate. Andrew explained he would herd a few goats into the small pen, and then point out which ones were the billies. He opened the gate and seven or eight goats rushed toward us.
“That little white one there, Levi,” Andrew called out. “That’s a billy. Snatch him up.”
Levi tried to grab the little goat but it lowered its head and ran full speed toward the corner of the pen. Levi hunched over and chased after it with his arms thrust forward. All the goats in the pen crowded into the corner and began to climb on top of one another to avoid capture.
Andrew hopped over the fence into our pen and drove the goats out of the corner.
“You gotta catch ‘em fast,” he said. “Otherwise they can smother one another trying to get away from you by piling up on top of each other. You want to try and separate one from the group.”
He stepped in front of a white and brown kid and forced it toward the fence. In one swift motion, he scooped up the animal and flipped it onto its back. It began crying immediately.
“Oops,” Andrew said. “Looks like I got me a girl. Levi, go after that white one again.”
Levi managed to block the small goat’s efforts to join the others and ran it up against the fence. He grabbed it awkwardly around its torso and flipped it onto its back.
Andrew now explained that when ringing the billy it was important to be sure you had both testes secured with the elastic. Sometimes a testicle would retract up into the body and it was necessary to squeeze them back into the ball sac. I cringed at the idea of having to massage a goat’s balls, but Andrew warned if the testicle escaped ringing, it wouldn’t shrivel up like its partner, allowing the little goat to keep its virility.
I looked again at the terrified goat in Levi’s arms. It was struggling less frantically now, although it occasionally twisted its torso in a meek attempt to escape. Worse, its screams continued to fill the air.
“Go on then,” Andrew said.
I looked up at Levi. His face was pale and his eyes were wide. He thrust the goat toward me again, anxious to let it go.
Was this the adventure I had been wanting? I squeezed the elastrator, still amazed that I was actually going to do this. As I cupped the billy’s small furry testes into my hand, the screaming stopped. I clumsily fit the big green elastic around its balls, making sure both testes were present, and then pulled it off the elastrator, leaving the elastic secured.
Levi placed him onto the ground, and the young billy looked up at him as if nothing had happened. Melissa opened the gate and the little guy ran out into the paddock to begin his life as a eunuch.
“That’s not so bad is it?” Andrew asked as he pointed at another small billy for Levi to grab.
This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as Levi flipped it over, I grabbed the billy’s balls and shoved them into the elastrator ring. Again, the goat stopped screaming as soon as I touched his testes. I was beginning to wonder if these goats were actually getting a bit of a thrill from this.
The next goat Levi flipped over was so well endowed I couldn’t fit his testicles into the ring – they were as big as a tennis ball. Andrew showed me how to slip the goat’s balls into the elastic one teste at a time. They slid about in my hand like Jell-O wrapped in plastic wrap.
I was starting to get a little bit disgusted with what I was doing. But I was too stubborn to give up. I became more efficient with practice, and after my sixth or seventh goat I was a pro. I could slip the testicles into the elastrator ring and pull off the instrument in one fluid motion.
When we were finally done, the goats all released back into the paddock, I wondered if what we had done was really for the good of the goats, as Andrew claimed. They seemed none the wiser as they grazed, occasionally butting heads playfully.
Back at the dorm, one of the farmhands laughed, saying that when guests came back from ringing, the men were always pale and the women were always smiling. I couldn’t say I was smiling from my actions – in fact, I was still mildly disgusted with myself. But I was pleased I had the courage to do it. I felt like I could now handle, literally, anything the farm sent my way.