The Love Goats

It’s an idyllic, green summer in Maine when Max Knudsen and Jamie Codispoti meet. They are both in their 20s. “The first moment, I was like, bam,” Knudsen, now 47, says. “Summer lovin’, and that’s where we thought it would end.” The goat count is zero.
      Fast forward to present day, and Knudsen and Codispoti, partners, sit on the floor of the Shenanigoats studio in Madison where, three days a week, they run sold-out goat yoga classes that both bachelorette parties and country star Maren Morris frequent. Off days, they ferry a group of hard-eating goats around the greater Nashville area to clear overgrown lots to the open-mouthed delight of owners.
      “People go outside and watch them the whole time they’re there,” Knudsen says. “People can’t tear their eyes away from it, the goats just chewing.”
      “We were just on a job the other day and the family kept calling: ‘We want to keep them one more night, we want to keep them one more night,’” Codispoti says. “They love them.”
      Despite their seeming fluency in cloven-hoofed mammals, the pair is as city as they come. Knudsen, a self-described SLC punk from Utah, and Codispoti, from South Florida, have scant ties to the ag life, both being several generations removed from the farm. Social workers by education, Codispoti moved to Nashville because of a job and Knudsen, for Codispoti. It wasn’t until two years ago, during what Knudsen describes as a mid-life crisis, that they rented their house in Inglewood and bought a farm near Smithville.
      It was a steep learning curve.
      “I think everybody romanticizes it,” Knudsen says. “It’s hard work, and you have to work with the weather and with the animals. Sometimes they aren’t agreeable.”
      It’s also hard to make a buck. Gone are the days when a small farmer could be a generalist, growing a few crops and raising a few animals. “The small farmer has to find a niche. That’s the first thing we found,” Knudsen says. “A year in, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, how am I going to pay this mortgage?’”

Which brings us to the goats.

      A few months into farm ownership, they got the first two: a 4-month-old pair named Nettie and Amos. They were a means of keeping an errant farm dog from wandering off. “I’d get phone calls: ‘Your dog’s in Smithville, your dog’s two counties away,’” Knudsen says. “Every time I went to get her, they were like, ‘You need to get her some animals so she can tend them.’” The goats also had a secondary benefit: a practical, organic solution for keeping the weeds in check.

In April 2016, the goat count is two.

      But two goats are hardly enough to keep 47 acres from overgrowth. On New Year’s Day 2017, their pair had its first offspring, and a few weeks later, Knudsen was driving to East Tennessee where a preschool with a herd of its own was liquidating stock. Five more goats. A few weeks after, the same school called back and offered a “killer deal,” they say, on the rest of the animals.

Goats beget more goats. Goat count: 17.

      As Codispoti puts it, “It’s always time to get more.” As the herd grew, so did the bills, as Knudsen continued to search for the farm’s niche. Their eyes fell on the goats. “Those wheels had already been turning for me, but Jamie thought it was nuts,” Knudsen says. “She thought, ‘No way is anybody going to pay to have goats come chew up their backyard.’”
      The solution presented itself right in East Nashville. Responding to a message board request for landscaping goats, the two loaded the animals into a Craigslist-bought trailer and hauled them from farm to neighborhood, where they happily grazed for the next three days. They made $300. “We thought, ‘Oh, this is it. We found our ticket to get at least our mortgage paid,’” Knudsen says.
      The couple began to work in tandem, with Codispoti booking out and Knudsen delivering. It was a kind of grayly defined, honor- system pay scale — pay what you can. But a post on the East Nashville Facebook group was a boon, going viral and landing a dozen more jobs.

Demand grows. Herd grows. Count is at 117.

      Goat yoga, while new to Nashville, isn’t to the U.S. Images of goats holding graceful positions may come to mind, but it’s simply yoga classes with friendly and curious goats present and interacting with participants. Goat yoga has taken the country by storm in recent years, and Knudsen was already calculating it as their next move.
      “It made sense, but I was like, ‘Really?’” Codispoti says.
      “There are a number of benefits to human health from connections with animals, whether that’s a companion animal or a therapy or even something like goat yoga,” says Elisabeth Van Every, the marketing & strategic partnerships coordinator at Pet Partners.
      Van Every’s organization, the largest therapy animal registration organization in the U.S., has seen a host of benefits from animal visits in locations as disparate as hospital rooms, college quads, and corporate campuses. In therapeutic interactions, patients experience reduced blood pressure, decreased perception of pain and discomfort, and an improved outlook on treatment outcomes. Because of this, animals are regularly utilized as part of holistic treatment plans for heart disease, cancer, and other critical illnesses.
      But animal therapy is not just for people with life-threatening diseases. “Being with an animal can make your day feel brighter, it can improve your mood, and just generally make you feel like things are going OK,” Van Every says.
      While we can surmise some of the reasons for these effects — how we value animals as a society and a possible primitive connection to animal husbandry — much of the research as to the specific pathways between application and effect is unknown. We can simply see their myriad effects and utilize them accordingly.
      Codispoti and Knudsen’s first goat yoga class was held on June 10, 2017, in the backyard of a private residence in East Nashville. It sold out in three hours, and the interest has steamrolled ever since. Two months later, the newly minted Shenanigoats opened its studio in Madison.
      At the time of this writing, the current goat count is somewhere around a hundred. Codispoti and Knudsen have sold some, and others have passed away. But that’s not to imply that the goats are nameless. The loss of any goat is difficult.
      “It’s the hardest part. I’ve cried a lot,” Knudsen says. “They’re our pets. They all have names. We can tell you the story of where each of them came from and what their personalities are,” Codispoti adds. “It’s like losing a dog or a cat.”
      Regarding the phenomenon that is goat yoga, the two are still somewhat flabbergasted by its popularity. But they’re happy to speculate.
      “I think it helps people not take themselves so seriously,” Codispoti says.
      “People need something to laugh at,” Knudsen offers. “People are looking to find pure joy and laughter, and the goats are so innocent. They don’t want anything from you.”
      There was a time recently when a veteran English rock star’s rep called regarding renting out a session for him and his crew. Codispoti and Knudsen didn’t bat an eye. What time would he like? It’s symbolic of where Shenanigoats is at right now, rapidly growing but always looking for the next opportunity, be it more goat yoga classes, other non-goat yoga practices, events, and even therapy.
      “We’re open. We’re saying yes a lot,” Knudsen says. “I think we’ll just run the goats as long as the goats will go.”

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