I don’t wish to malign the fine people who run the Oregon Zoo in Portland, but their recent press release about a mountain goat that has arrived on the premises demands a gentle admonition.
I have no objection to mountain goats being confined in a zoo, to be clear.
They are among my favorite mammals, although as an occasional traveler among the mountains myself I can’t help but taste the bitter flavor of envy when I watch goats saunter with grace across precipices I wouldn’t venture onto unless I was all but enveloped in stout ropes.
At least one of which would be attached to a helicopter hovering nearby in case I put a foot wrong at the precise instant that every other rope snapped.
Which is not plausible, I’ll concede. But I have a deep and long-standing distrust of gravity, and an even deeper distrust of my own agility.
Notwithstanding the occasional bout of acrophobia, I prefer to gaze upon goats in their natural habitat rather than in the ersatz atmosphere of a zoo, where in place of snowfields the goats are more likely to see kids clutching ice cream bars, and the keen wail of the wild wind must compete with the blare of sirens.
Yet I understand that goats, if left to their own devices, generally roam in places that are rather less accessible than the nicely paved layout of a zoo. It seems to me a reasonable trade-off that we confine a relative handful of these majestic animals so that anyone who wants to see them can do so, and perhaps come to appreciate goats and advocate for preserving the places where they thrive.
(Not that goats are in a particularly precarious position as a species. Although biologists worry that mountain goats, in common with other alpine species, could be threatened in the future by a warming climate that changes their high-elevation, and still pretty chilly, habitat.)
Anyway I wasn’t troubled to learn, by way of the press release, that Sassy, a young nanny, not only has joined the zoo’s attractions but is in fact sharing quarters, so to speak, with a billy goat named Honovi.
Zoo officials hope the pair will become even better acquainted, in fact, and that they will rectify the zoo’s lack of kids.
My dispute with the press release stems from a single sentence.
“In the Pacific Northwest, wild mountain goats can be seen on various peaks in the Washington Cascades and Olympic Peninsula, as well as Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.”
The problem with this sentence is not that it’s inaccurate.
The problem is that it’s incomplete.
The Wallowas aren’t the only mountains in Oregon where you might see a mountain goat in a place where there are neither fences nor walls.
Indeed, among the ranges that mountain goats occupy in this state, the Wallowas aren’t even the best place to try and spot the animals.
That distinction belongs to the mountains that the zoo’s press release didn’t mention — our very own Elkhorns, which rise less than 10 miles from Baker City and are lousy with goats.
The Elkhorns, in fact, can be called, without hyperbole, the cradle of Oregon’s mountain goat population.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which deploys teams of biologists and volunteers every summer to count goats in the Elkhorns, pegged the population last year at 339 animals.
Moreover, the Elkhorns have proved to be such accommodating habitat for goats that ODFW, over the past dozen years or so, has trapped more than 125 of the animals in the Elkhorns and moved them to other ranges, some in Oregon and some elsewhere.
The Wallowas would be a comparatively goat-deficient range if not for periodic drafts of goats that were born in the Elkhorn.
Goats from the Elkhorns — and their progeny — also gambol about in Hells Canyon, the Strawberry Mountains south of Prairie City, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness north of Elgin, and on the east slopes of Mount Jefferson on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
Perhaps the Oregon Zoo has not needed mountain goats to supplement its herd, which with Sassy’s arrival numbers three (Honovi’s previous companion, Montane, is also a female, but according to the press release Honovi “has been shy around females so far.” Zoo officials obviously hope Sassy is more to Honovi’s liking.)
But certain it is that had the zoo needed one goat or a dozen, the Elkhorns could easily have filled the bill.
The zoo’s oversight in this matter is, I concede, a decidedly minor transgression. Perhaps the zoo’s PR people were influenced by the Wallowas’ reputation. This is forgivable, since the Wallowas get vastly more publicity than the Elkhorns do.
I was prompted to mention the matter in print through sheer provincialism, a shallow motivation to be sure.
But my affinity for the Elkhorns is considerable, and like all love affairs this one has an element of fierce loyalty.
It pains me slightly to consider that zoo patrons, as they watch Sassy and Honovi doing whatever it is they’re doing, might think only of the Wallowas.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.