I know the title above casts me as the fun-hating, PETA-supporting, perfect-Instagram-shot-ruining vegan, but hear me out. I’m amazed at how little thought people give to the thorny ethical problems in the relationship between animals and people. All too often our affection for animals causes us to use them as props or commodities or playthings. When businesses cash in on the image and labor of animals this is unavoidable.
Indeed, a business goat yoga is. As of January of 2017, Lainey Morse, the originator of goat yoga, had a 1,200 person waiting list. CNBC reports that “in her first year of business, 2016, Morse made $160,000 in revenue. This year she expects to double that figure and finally be profitable.” In additional to Morse’s business, “Original Goat Yoga,” there is no shortage of copycat businesses. I live in New Jersey and would not have to travel far to find a yoga studio offering goat yoga. (Aside: Morse went through quite a bit of headache trying to get the phrase “goat yoga” patented before finally giving up that the term is too generic. Hence “Original Goat Yoga.”)
It’s not a powerhouse, but it’s not a flash in the pan either.
You can see from the graph below that goat yoga had a spike of interest in early 2017 as well as in 2018. The decline of interest in 2020 is of course due to the pandemic and not an intrinsic sign of declining public interest.
“Goat Yoga” is in the same ballpark as “cat cafe” and “animal sanctuary,” niche businesses/non-profits that cater to animal lovers.
Step 1: Yoga, Step 2: Goats, Step 3: ?????, Step 4: Profit!
The first point to make about the goat yoga craze is that it’s an inane idea even if you aren’t vegan. Spending time with animals is great in the right context (e.g. a sanctuary or a shelter). Yoga is great. Why mix the two? Particularly when yoga is rooted within the larger tradition of meditation.
Here’s a 5th century Indian text has to say about yoga: “When the five senses, along with the mind, remain still and the intellect is not active, that is known as the highest state. They consider yoga to be firm restraint of the senses. Then one becomes un-distracted for yoga is the arising and the passing away” (6.10-11)
It’s true that most of us practice yoga in a secular context, but the principle of remaining focused on your body and breath during yoga should still be upheld. Yoga and meditation have caught on as such crazes in the modern western world precisely because distraction permeates our normal lives. Perhaps this is the light in which this trend should be understood: we are so addicted to distraction, we’ve started adding farm animals to our meditative practices.
The justification is cloaked in the language of therapy, a highly salable marketing tactic to many people that do yoga in the first place. “It may sound silly, but goat yoga is really helping people,” Morse says. “People come in that have anxiety, depression; they’re recovering from cancer or illness. It’s not curing diseases, but it’s helping people cope with whatever they’re going through.”
The research on the efficacy of therapy animals is still very young and equivocal (per reporting from The Washington Post article and Psychology Today). Even if you did suppose that the research did support animal therapy, spending an hour in downward dog as a goat ambles by is not the sort of focused intervention that might be the topic of research into therapy animals. I doubt that there’s any single person that was helped by goat yoga that wouldn’t benefit at least equally from doing yoga and then visiting a sanctuary. Frankly, this is marketing hype.
Lainey Morse herself has acknowledged that the quality of various goat yoga outfits varies widely.
CNBC reports that “she grew frustrated as other operations calling themselves “goat yoga” popped up around the country, operations which she believes are circus-like compared to the farm experience she provides.”
Part of her motivation for trying to patent the name was to distance herself from her less ethical competitors. “I get attacked by animal activists a lot, because they think I’m associated with those other people,” she says. “That’s the hard part, because I could have gone after them and they would’ve had to change their name [from ‘goat yoga’]. Now I can’t, and that was really hard for me.”
This is unsurprising. The profit motive means that there’s an inverse correlation between giving the animals adequate rest and making money. Even if Morse is comparatively the good guy, she spawned the industry and created these bad incentives. When goats are your most profitable employees, it can only lead to varying levels of exploitation.
It’s not clear if we should believe Morse that she’s on the better end of how well the animals are treated, how clean the operations are, and how busy the goats are kept, but even if we do, issues remain.
(Almost) Inherently Non-Vegan
All goats employed for these purposes are disbudded. A hot iron between 900 and 1000 degrees Fahrenheit is taken to a young baby goats head to prevent the growth of horns. Even if you think this is not such a significant crime and that the goat will be saved in the long run from getting stuck in fences or herd infighting, what gives people the right to make this decision for the goat? It’s pure human arrogance. I’m not sure if this is better or worse than circumcision, but it’s wrong either way. If you have the stomach for it, here’s a video.
Finally, the goats involved in goat yoga are generally part of the animal agriculture system. The goats are usually raised primarily for their meat or milk as they grow older.
It’s usually either very young goats or pygmy goats that are used, since those are the only ones that can climb on a person’s back while they are in downward dog. What happens to the goats once they grow older? Might this lead to reckless breeding of goats without a long term plan for older goats? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’m doubting the responsibility of goat yoga practitioners around the country.
The reason I say this is almost inherently non-vegan is that I do allow for the possibility that some goat yoga is provided by animal sanctuaries from rescued goats that had already been disbudded. None of the vegan arguments against goat yoga apply in this context, but this is not typical.
Let’s agree that goat yoga is simply a bad idea all the way around.