Here at Goats and Soda, a feel-good goat story makes us smile like little else. So when we came across pictures of “Sweateredgoats” on Instagram, we wanted to know more.
The goat pics turn out to be about more than making people go “awwwwww.”
The caprine fashionistas are featured on a calendar, the sales of which have benefited local organizations in Varanasi, India, where most of the images were taken.
Christy Sommers, who takes the photos, first noticed the cuteness that is clothed goats in 2010, while living in a village in northwestern Bangladesh as a Fulbright scholar studying rural primary education. Now she considers the project as adding “net happiness” to the world and helping to share a little slice of life from parts of the world that Americans don’t often get to see.
“It blends my love of cute things with India and this desire that I have for people to understand the rest of the world better,” Sommers says.
Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Sommers has spent much of the last five years working in northern India as an instructor and administrator for a high school and college travel abroad program called Where There Be Dragons. She started to notice goats, particularly in lower-income urban areas, decked out in winter gear. Varanasi doesn’t actually get too cold — typically not dropping below a January average of 60 degrees.
Sommers says when she asks families why the goats are clothed, they usually tell her it’s because they’re cold — and look surprised that she’s asking something so obvious.
And it turns out to be a good idea.
Jagdip Singh Sohal, assistant professor of microbiology and microbial genomics at Amity University in Jaipur and organizer of the Asian Regional Conference on Goats, confirmed that goats can get cold, especially in areas where they’re not sheltered during chilly periods, which may explain why Sommers finds this happening more in poorer areas.
Sohal says that the extra insulation, whether from a sweater, a discarded track suit or a burlap sack, allows the goat to divert more energy to productive purposes, like getting meatier and birthing more kids. “Every practice farmers are doing is to increase production,” Sohal says.
The first two years, profits from the calendar sales benefited Guria, an organization combating sex trafficking and bonded labor in India. After determining Guria had capacity to solicit large donations from international donors, Sommers shifted gears. Now, she gives about half the profits to Asha Deep, a school for underprivileged kids in Varanasi. (The rest of the money she views as compensation for her labor.) The $4,500 donation from 2018 calendar sales provided the funds the school needed to operate for one month.
Asha Deep is a vetted charity on Global Giving, a U.S.-based nonprofit that crowd funds donations for local NGOs around the world. Goats in sweaters might be gimmicky, but Alison Carlman, director of impact and communications at Global Giving, says gimmicks can work, citing the ice bucket challenge that raised over $220 million for groups fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
“Sometimes these things can really catch fire and raise a lot of money in tiny increments,” she says. Beyond the actual donation, these types of campaigns can also build new networks of small donors for an organization that wouldn’t have gotten on their radar otherwise, Carlman explains. Goats also sidestep ethical issues, like using images of children that strip them of dignity or that their parents may not have consented to, in an attempt to solicit funds. “This actually seems pretty smart and respectful,” Carlman says.
Sommers still ships the calendars out of her mom’s house in Des Moines and counts her sister, who handles logistics, as her only paid employee. Three shops in Des Moines sell the calendars, but they’re also available here.
Meanwhile, the goat owners aren’t that impressed. To them, dressing a goat in a sweater is no big deal. “They generally think I’m crazy,” she says.
Danielle Preiss is a freelance print and radio journalist based in South Asia. She tweets @daniellepreiss.