Not to overstate the somber lesson of the zebra, but the very first thing you learn in a veterinary comparative anatomy course is that, as a general rule of thumb, animals indigenous to North America are pretty lame compared to their counterparts in the rest of the world. That’s not to say that animals such as rattlesnakes and Bobcats are boring per se. But compare a Bobcat to a Siberian tiger or place a rattler side-by-side with a King Cobra (nota bene: you will instantly regret doing this), and you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that many North American fauna are rapidly falling behind.
Let’s face facts. Our eagles are bald, our trout are swimming at third-grade levels, the star-nosed mole is an unmitigated disaster, and, with the extinction of the American mastodon, 100 percent of our circus elephants are now imported from overseas. And to think North America was once home to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. These days it’s become so bad that even our myths fall short. The Pacific Northwest’s grainy, 18-frames-per-second Bigfoot vs. Nepal’s laser-eyed (apparently) Yeti? Game over.
Even North America’s pretend animals are clearly outmatched.
However, all is not lost. There is, of course, the Bear Category, where the American Grizzly regularly defeats China’s panda in under ten seconds (including the three-count). What’s more, there is also a shining hero of an exception in the Goat Division: the North American mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus, lit. ‘Mountain Goat American’). A large, sure-footed, attractive, aggressive, even-toed ungulate, the North American mountain goat manages to at least achieve parity with high-altitude goats across the globe. Even its harshest international rivals, when pressed, will admit it’s rather cool.
‘Any of you Gobi Desert wild camels wanna climb up here and try to knock me off? Japanese snow monkeys? Koala bears? Anyone? That’s what I thought.’
Sure, reflexively anti-American critics will point out that there are mountain goats in the world with much larger horns. But longer horns likely mean a more competitive mating environment, meaning that the North American mountain goat is, when it comes to mating, confident enough in himself to keep his horns to an understated length. His are horns that say, ‘Sure, I got horns – here they are – but there’s so much more to me than just horns coming out of my head.’
Pakistan’s high-altitude Markhor might be competitive were it not for the wine openers. Also, he reeks of cologne.
Likewise, the Ibex of Africa and Eurasia has cleared 22,000 feet but is disqualified by the bike rack, which is incredibly inconvenient to hook up to his rented Lamborghini.
Moreover, the American sense of restraint so present in our mountain goats’ culture doesn’t make them less effective, nor does it stop them from butting heads so hard that their hoofs sometimes fall off. Apparently less is more (though it can also result in fewer hooves).
Their first criticism rebuffed, the Le Monde columnists will likely then fall back on the old trope of scoffing at the relatively lower altitudes achieved by North American mountain goats. Yes, the reality is that North America’s mountains simply leave much to be desired, with not even one in the top 50 peaks. But let’s please not go punishing goats for the lack of compression forces in the lithospheric plates deep beneath their feet. If it were there, they would certainly climb it.
Most independent experts agree that mountain goats should be judged on two qualities: skill and looks. And the North American mountain goat more than holds its own in both departments.
First up, these animals can jump about twelve feet on their strong, thick legs. When they eventually land (on some precarious cliff in the Rocky or Cascade Mountains up to about 13,000 feet), it’s on split cloven hooves, each with two widespread toes to increase balance. Better yet, their hooves sport a unique super-grip surface that provides additional traction. This is why you have never seen poorly-shot video of a mountain goat slipping and falling into a wedding cake on America’s Funniest Home Videos. They climb ferociously, without oxygen tanks or ropes or sherpas or gorp or pretentious lecturing about how awesome Denver is. They effortlessly navigate inclines greater than 60 degrees with ease, never once bringing up some long-ago post-climb trip to a Denver-area microbrewery. And just to show what fearless adventurers they are, females prefer to birth their young up on the highest peaks they can find. For the North American mountain goat, it’s all about the thrill of the climb (and avoiding wolves). Never once is Denver mentioned.
As far as looks go, the North American mountain goat has a beard, which is because it’s a mountain climber who likes having a warm face. Even the females have beards. That’s how hardcore they are. They also have thick, beautiful, white coats to protect them against extreme temperatures reaching 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
There is one area where the mountain goat, well, falls down. They don’t have good mountain climber names. Male mountain goats are called ‘billies,’ the females are ‘nannies’ and, indicating a complete lack of imagination, they refer to their kids as ‘kids.’ Those who have seen Stallone’s Cliffhangar or read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air know that serious climbers should really go by names like Walker, Tucker, Weathers and Hall. Markhor and Ibex were on the right track here, but then they overshot things by adding techno music to their website.
Can we at least call him ‘Billie the Kid’?
Names aside, the North American mountain goat is a living tribute to all that is good and right with the continent: understated competence, a willingness to take risks, and a rich tradition of high-altitude birthing.
So well done, North American mountain goat. Here’s to you.