A little history about Nigerian Dwarf Goats

Posted by on March 10, 2010 in On the farm


Breed Focus:
Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats
History in the Making

Like many breeds of domestic livestock, the history of the Nigerian Dwarf is incomplete. Through the years and stages of development, records were not always kept, or they were sketchy at best. Developing the history of the breed is much like putting together a jigsaw that is missing many of its pieces. To produce the present day Nigerian Dwarf, one has to use a combination of documented facts, speculation, deductive reasoning and a little imagination. What is known is that throughout tropical West Africa, there is a type of goat referred to as the West African Dwarf (WAD). These goats are used as a food source, providing both meat and milk for the local population. Due to economic hardships, keeping “pets” is not an option. It appears that today little thought is used in breeding and a survival-of-the-fittest phenomenon is taking place.

Denning Hill Michi Kasu in the pasture
Denning Hill Michi Kasu in the pasture.
Photo by Cheryle Moore-Smith.

In the writings of Albert Schweitzer a local goat is often times referred to, credited with supplying the milk for the hospital Schweitzer worked at in Lambrene in the country now known as Gabon. The imported breeds, typically known as dairy breeds, weren’t able to withstand the tsetse fly, and therefore were not productive. The WAD goats continued to survive and thrive. Throughout books on Dr. Schweitzer, pictures of goats similar to those referred to as Nigerian Dwarves in the U.S., can be found.

The beginning of the breed in this country lies in zoos. Exactly how the WAD came to American soil is one of the missing pieces in the puzzle. One theory is that as big cats were shipped to zoos, goats were loaded onto the vessels as a food source for the cats while in transit. The goats that weren’t consumed went on to the zoos. The first miniature goats to appear in this country were part of zoo exhibits and research institutions.

As early as 1918, Joseph Crepin reported in the second edition of La Chévre that WAD goats had been imported to the United States. Additionally, there were a number of documented importations from the 1930s to the 1960s. As they grew, it became necessary to reduce the number of animals, and individuals had an opportunity to own these unique goats.

Originally, all small goats of WAD origin were indiscriminately referred to as pygmies. In the beginning, “pygmy” was used more to describe a size of goat rather than a specific breed, much like “Swiss” is often times used to refer to the various erect-eared breeds hailing from Europe. As time went on, breeders began to notice differences in type within what had become the Pygmy breed. There were two distinct types: the shorter legged, heavier bodied, round-boned animals more typical of what is known today as a Pygmy, and the more refined, angular animal that has become today’s Nigerian Dwarf.

As breeders began to communicate, they discovered there were others in the Unites States and Canada that had similar observances. Mrs. Bonnie Abrahamson of North Ogden, Utah, was one of the first to notice the distinctive difference while working in a zoo in California. Mrs. Abrahamson brought several black and white animals that she referred to as “Nigerian Dwarves” to an AGS Pygmy certification committee. Despite their more refined bone and dairy appearance, these animals were accepted into the AGS Pygmy herd book.

At about the same time, Mr. Heabert Woods of Alexandria, Indiana, had animals similar in type to Mrs. Abrahamson’s but brown in color, which were refused entry into the National Pygmy Goat Association (NPGA) herd books because of their color. These two breeders petitioned the International Dairy Goat Registry (IDGR) to open a herd book for Nigerian Dwarves. IDGR opened a separate herd book for the breed, complete with a standard emphasizing dairy characteristics, and on July 24, 1981, Mr. Robert Johnson’s Bullfrog Alley Johnny Jump-Up #2, a buck bred by Mrs. Abrahamson, became the first Nigerian Dwarf registered by any registry. By January 1987, there were 384 animals registered in the herd books of IDGR as Nigerian Dwarves, with 93 of those registered in the previous year alone. In part, largely due to the fact that IDGR does not sanction shows, the popularity of the registry has waned over the years.

Old Mountain Farm McDermott and kid. Photo by Cheryle Moore-Smith
Old Mountain Farm McDermott and kid.
Photo by Cheryle Moore-Smith

The early Nigerian Dwarves were seen most often in three distinct color lines, all of similar type, even though many of the early breeders attempted to keep each color line separate from the others. A majority of these early animals were brown, black or gold, all with or without random white markings. Possibly because of the limited number of representatives of the breed, breeders did begin to mix the color lines fairly early on, although references to specific color lines could still be found as late as 1988.

In 1984, the American Goat Society (AGS) opened a herd book for Nigerian Dwarves, and by September of the following year, 82 animals, representing breeders from eight states and Canada had been registered. The first AGS registered Nigerian Dwarf distinction goes to Wright’s Pansy, AGS #D-1f, owned by Francis Wright of Indiana.

Mr. Woods was instrumental in getting a separate herd book for the breed with AGS, and was made chairman of the Nigerian Dwarf Committee. Mr. Wright and Pat Freeman of Dutton, Ontario completed the original Nigerian Dwarf Committee for AGS. To form the foundation of the breed, applications were submitted to the committee, along with a clear photograph of the animal and a measurement of the animal at the withers. If the committee unanimously agreed that the animal, which had to be at least one year of age, met the breed standard, the animal was then eligible to be registered as a purebred Nigerian Dwarf. Animals that were accepted for registration using this process are oftentimes referred to as a “committee animal.” Some of the animals submitted, such as Mrs. Abrahamson’s, were previously registered as Pygmies. It also would include animals with unknown backgrounds that showed true Nigerian Dwarf characteristics, and as time went on, animals that were of registered ancestry but which did not have current paperwork. Many times, it was easier to submit the animal for certification than to retrace the paperwork for several generations.

The original closing date for the herd book was set at December 31, 1987. A change in the standard that year, however, would allow animals that previously were ineligible and the date was extended to December 31, 1990. In 1990, with fewer than 400 Nigerian Dwarves registered, the AGS Board voted to extend the deadline until December 31, 1992, to allow for a sufficient genetic base of foundation stock. The certification process ended in 1992. All animals registered through his point, whether by ancestry or committee approval, carry the “f” suffix to their registration number to indicate that they are considered a foundation animal. Unfortunately, accurate records were not kept indicating how many animals were admitted via certification, but by the end of 1992, approximately 2000 Nigerian Dwarves had been registered with the American Goat Society.

There was still some concern that the breed needed a broader genetic base, and a progeny program was put into place until December 31, 1997. An unregistered animal would still be considered for registration if, when bred to several different AGS registered Nigerian Dwarves (three for does, four for bucks), the animal and all surviving offspring met breed standard and received unanimous approval of the Nigerian Dwarf Committee. Again, accurate records were not kept, but one committee member recalls very few of these coming through committee. In keeping with AGS’ philosophy of closed, purebred herd books, since January 1, 1998, the only way to be registered as a purebred Nigerian Dwarf is to be the offspring of two registered purebred Nigerian Dwarves.

Old Mountain Farm All That Jaz. Photo by Wyl Smith.
Old Mountain Farm All That Jaz.
Photo by Wyl Smith.

All breeds begin somewhere, but where we are going is more important than where we started. Using the wide genetic base created though the open herd book, breeders are now molding the breed into a superior milk-producing animal that also happens to be small. While the Nigerian Dwarf and Pygmy share common ancestry, they have clearly become two distinct breeds through the efforts of breeders. The popularity of the breed has continued to grow, in part because of AGS sanctioned shows being held across the country.

The first show that offered a separate sanction for the breed was the 1985 AGS National Show held in Graham, Texas. Only two exhibitors of Nigerian Dwarves were present (Shaula Parker and Kathleen Claps), and the breed wasn’t official, but there has been no looking back since. Pine Cone Valley Black Satin, a doe that is listed as an original import, owned by Ms. Claps, had the distinction of being crowned the first AGS National Champion Nigerian Dwarf. While the popularity of shows skyrocketed after this, another AGS National Show would not be held until 1996. Through the hard work of the Nigerian Dwarf breeders, and AGS sanctioned National Show has been held every year since.

As the primary registry of the breed, AGS has registered more than 41,000 purebred Nigerian Dwarf goats to date (April 2008). AGS maintains a closed-herd book on which both the NDGA (Nigerian Dwarf Goat Association) and the ADGA (American Dairy Goat Association) have based their herd books. The Nigerian Dwarf which was until recently considered a rare breed has grown in popularity over the years. The number of animals registered with AGS each year, continues to increase.

Used by permission from The American Goat Society, For more information visit www.americangoatsociety.com