It’s Been One Year Since the Legend of the Lowell Goat Began

We were all witnesses.

Photo by Kyle Clauss

Photo by Kyle Clauss

On December 26, 2014, a young billy goat escaped from Oliveira’s Piggery in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where it would’ve been sold, slaughtered, and feasted upon to celebrate the new year. With a brief chase and subsequent plunge off Lowell’s Spaghettiville Bridge, the goat began a one-month jaunt across the Merrimack Valley, its legend growing with every improbable escape and blurry photo posted in a search party Facebook group. The Lowell Goat surrendered to authorities on January 26, on the eve of a crippling blizzard—the first of several that would wallop the Northeast in 2015. Rechristened “Braveheart,” the goat now lives comfortably on a sanctuary in Central Massachusetts.

I owe that goat a whole lot.

Back then, I was a reporter for the Lowell Sun, covering Billerica. We rotated night shifts, and that Friday night was my old colleague Chelsea Feinstein’s turn to sit by the police scanner and listen for any late-night fender-benders in Dracut or a two-alarm blaze in Boxboro. Instead, she got a goat.

Ross Edwards, sports editor of our sister paper, the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, added what he could make out from the beeps and crackles coming from the dusty scanner.

The following Monday morning, it was my turn to sit by the scanner. In between cups of burnt newsroom coffee—a taste not acquired by shifting palate, but by painful necessity—editor-in-chief Jim Campanini came over to my desk and demanded another story on the goat, in his usual Providence braggadocio.

“I wanna know what this goat eats. I wanna know where this goat sleeps. Do we have photos of where the goat hangs out? Who does he hang out with?” he said. “I want a page-one story, Kyle. Tell me about goats.”

I drove down to Oliveira’s, where a crowd had gathered near the barn door. With the new year approaching, Lowell’s African diaspora needed goat meat. From the December 31 Sun story:

Denis Oliveira paces the worn floorboards of his Tewksbury slaughterhouse, working the crowded barn like an auctioneer. African immigrants laugh and make small talk, as one would do upon running into a friend in line at the supermarket deli counter.

“You want a goat? I can tell by your face,” Oliveira says to one. He is short, charismatic and firm on his price: $285 each, first-come, first-served. Two expressionless teens stand in the pen among the goats, waiting to lead the customer’s selections with a tug of the horn to slaughter. The goats, unaware of their fate, are marked with blue and orange spray-paint.

One is missing.

Oliveira’s was in these communities, not only for its variety (skin shaved or scalded off), but because selling whole goats allowed Muslim customers to butcher the animal in accordance with Halal guidelines—something that Market Basket, despite its myriad other wonders like two-sided receipts and made-to-order deli sandwiches, doesn’t offer. One Nigerian man from Haverhill told me that goat, in case you were wondering, tastes like beef, and blamed “the Lowell Kenyans” for driving up the price.

When I managed to pry Oliveira away from the crowd for a short interview, he said he just wanted the goat returned without anyone getting hurt trying to round him up. I was kicking the muck off my dress shoes before getting back into my car when I heard the guttural howl of a goat being slaughtered.

Back at the newsroom, I called the animal control officer in Tewksbury, who told me that animals go missing from Oliveira’s all the time. “This is not the first, second, or third or eighth time,” he said. “I don’t really recommend anybody try to get involved with any animals. I mean, a goat is more dangerous than you think…They’re not happy creatures. I’ve never run into one that’s laid-back.”

Because my knowledge of goats and goat behavior was lacking, I called the first goat breeder that turned up in a cursory Google search.

“They’ll eat anything, almost. They’re going to eat any vegetation they can find: grass, weeds, brush,” said Martin Farris, a goat breeder from San Angelo, Texas. “It could be in someone’s yard, eating your rosebushes.”

Farris was surprised that one goat could create such a stir up north, as he and his two young sons rope goats together.

“Must be a Texas goat,” Farris laughed.

In the following weeks, the goat—identified by the scraggly, green rope around his neck and, well, being the only loose goat in the area—developed an almost mythical quality. There were sightings all over Greater Lowell, most notably in Chelmsford. (Oddly, the goat kept out of Billerica.) Groups formed to pool information and resources for tracking the Lowell Goat and delivering him into safety. Any animal tracks found in the snow were immediately and thoroughly scrutinized. I heard one woman broke her wrist while jumping across a creek in the woods in pursuit of the goat. In a matter of weeks, “goat expert” became the Merrimack Valley’s leading growth industry.

I’d be lying if I said I never lost hope that the Lowell Goat would be found alive, if at all. But early on in a lazy Sunday shift, I received a tip that the goat had been spotted near mile marker 83.8 on southbound I-495. I parked on the shoulder and checked in with the Westford animal control officer, who gestured toward a ridge off in the wooded area. There, under sparse tree cover, was the Lowell Goat, grazing on a patch of grass peeking out from the melting snow. It was surreal, seeing the object of a thousand bored Chelmsfordians’ undivided attention, noshing unassumingly upon the hill.

The Animal Rescue League of Boston showed up only once the wind chill had sapped all feeling from my toes, all ink from my pen, and all juice from my phone battery. They tried luring the goat off the mound with a salad bowl of baby spinach, clementine sections, and apples. But the hircine hero would not be swayed by such light fare. So as sundown approached, the ARL erected a mesh trap on the mound and hoped for the best.

The next morning, on January 26—exactly one month after he went on the run—Lowell police tweeted that the goat had been caught. They scooped me, I thought, screaming any number of unprintable things as I zipped down 495.

And sure enough, the Lowell Goat stood in the mesh trap—yesterday’s salad, gone. I helped the ARL rescuers slide the trap down the snowy mound and into their truck, but not before taking a selfie with the goat at the behest of the overjoyed state trooper who had joined our caprine cabal upon seeing the line of cars illegally parked on the shoulder. My gloves still reek of goat.

I dined with my editors that night at the Athenian Corner in downtown Lowell. I got the stewed lamb. The story of the Lowell Goat’s capture ran on the front page of an edition few in the area read, as their copies were buried beneath the three feet of snow that had fallen overnight. Ho-hum.

When I left The Sun three months later, my coworkers gave me a Lowell Goat shirt crafted by Lowell artist Eyeformation. When I started at Boston magazine, my new editor-in-chief Carly Carioli introduced me to Dan Koh, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff, as “the goat guy.” A filmmaker from Bridgewater State named Elliott Marquis later made a short feature on the goat, who had traded in his green rope for a golden chain while enjoying a new life of luxury at Sunny Meadow Sanctuary in Holden.

From left, Sun reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey, the author, and Chelsea Feinstein. Photo by Todd Feathers

From left, Sun reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey, the author, and Chelsea Feinstein. Photo by Todd Feathers

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of his new “Braveheart” moniker, and I say that as someone of proud Scottish heritage. I don’t doubt his bravery, nor his ability to dispatch a few dozen Englishmen in the name of freedom if called upon to do so. Lowell made the Lowell Goat. His gritty tale of survival runs parallel to that of the recovering mill city he was first spotted in. On the other hand, Helen and Steve Rayshick at Sunny Meadow nursed the goat back to health, introduced him to his new best friend, a fellow goat named Chloe, and have given him a wonderful life he never could’ve imagined behind those rectangular eyes. They can call that goat whatever they like.

Did the Lowell Goat, or Braveheart, know he was being led to slaughter on that fateful Boxing Day, prompting his peregrination? Did he know a nor’easter was on its way a month later, and the ARL’s mesh trap was a one-way ticket to a warm refuge? That’s not for me to say. But if I ever make it out to Holden, we’ll share a toast over some cask-aged wheatgrass juice, and I’ll thank that beautiful creature for all he’s given me.