Goats have roamed the scrub and rocky landscape of a 70-acre island north of Martin Dam for about 70 years now. And for just as long, boaters have pulled up on the island’s southernmost point to disembark, feed and pet the goats, take photos with them and check off this all-important Lake Martin bucket list item. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for boaters to wait in line for a place to tie up, so they can take their turns visiting the island’s famous residents.
“They’re celebrities,” said Stacie Baker, who now leads the family team that owns and cares for the island’s goat population. “We’ve met people from all over the U.S. and from Canada and Europe who come to see the goats.”
The 16 goats on Lake Martin’s Goat Island entertain thousands of visitors from early May to the end of September when the weather cools and the water level drops toward winter pool. The goats are happy to munch on the potato chips, bread and greens that visitors bring; happy to let toddlers kiss them and let pretty teenaged girls in bathing suits carry them around the island like puppies. But the ruminants can’t live their whole lives that way.
Like any pets would, they need veterinary care; healthy foods to balance the delicious junk food; and shelter and safety from Nature’s sometimes-harsh elements. That’s where the Baker clan comes in.
Baker, a registered nurse, her husband Ricky, a mechanical engineering student at Auburn University, and their children – Blaire, Britney and Bailey now are the main caretakers of the goats, along with a community of helpers and supporters. Michael White helps keep the site clean and the shed in good repair, and Dawn Thornton made a sign to help visitors know what is and is not safe for the goats to eat. A golf tournament earlier this year generated a significant donation, but most of the support for the goats comes from T-shirt sales and donations.
Baker keeps thousands of followers informed through the Goat Island of Lake Martin Facebook page, where visitors often post photos with the goats, ask questions and post notes of appreciation to the Bakers for the investment of their time and resources toward the goat tradition here.
A lake area native, Baker was introduced to the island’s residents by her father, Alan Wallace, who took over the Goat Island tradition nine years ago. Before then, a few families rented goats in the summer and took them to the island. When they chose to end the practice, Wallace carried the tradition forward.
“I came with my family to see the goats, just like everyone does,” Baker said.
Wallace’s grandchildren had fallen in love with the animals, raised them from kids and named them, and he wanted that to continue.
“We helped my dad; then, we decided to take over three years ago,” Baker said. “My father still comes out to visit them and helps feed them, but my husband and my kids and I do most of the heavy work now.”
And there is plenty of that to do. Every two or three days, the Bakers ferry over a fortified sweet feed mix to provide the animals with the nutrition that is lacking in a diet of cheese puffs and chips. They work with Dr. Thomas Passler at Auburn University to ensure that the goats are vaccinated and receive appropriate medical care, and they clean up the old food and debris that collects on the dirt floor where the goats receive their guests.
Last winter, the first through which the goats stayed on the island, they also ferried hay several times a week, as the island forage will not support the goats through the dormant season.
“They are more work in the winter. The goats stay healthier on the island because there are fewer parasites, and Dr. Passler suggested we do a trial with them over the winter last year to see how much healthier they would be,” Baker said. “But it was a lot of work to get on the boat in 20-degree weather to come out here and feed them and check on them.”
In summer, health problems stem less from having enough of the right kinds of food and more to having altogether too much food.
“They are sensitive animals,” Baker explained. “They will eat too much, and they can go from fine to sick very quickly.”
When that happens, help needs to come quickly, too. Fortunately, the goats are rarely without company, and visitors usually will post a photo of the sick animal on the Facebook page with a note about the goat’s behavior. In the alternative, a number of the neighbors around the island keep scopes focused on the goats and can alert the Bakers when something is wrong.
A sick animal is picked up – sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m. – and taken to the clinic at Auburn University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
“They are our pets, and we love them, so we get distressed when one of them is sick,” Baker explained.
To keep the goats healthy, the Bakers ask visitors to feed them only from their hands or by putting food in the troughs. Food on the ground can become contaminated and, if ingested, could make the animals sick. Corn is the worst culprit, Baker said. The goats’ stomachs cannot digest corn well, and visitors are asked not to feed it to them.
Visitors also are asked to keep dogs off the island, as dogs love to chase goats. Whether or not the dog could catch one – or would know what to do if they did – the canines often run a goat to exhaustion or, worse, run a goat into the water, where the goat could drown. Several goats are lost every year because careless boaters have allowed dogs to run free on the island.
It costs about $6,000 annually to maintain the herd, and the public has actively supported the effort in recent years. Donations can be deposited in a Goat Island account at First Community Bank in Eclectic. Donations also can be made through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org or to the Venmo account Goat-Island.
“It’s definitely something that we hope to continue,” said Ricky Baker. “It means so much to the community, to the people at the lake. It’s given me a new appreciation for the small joys in life.”