Bobbie Jo Stinnett, just 23 years old and eight months pregnant, was strangled to death. Bobbie Jo had a passion for dogs, and she and her Rat Terriers were a familiar sight on the dog show circuit. A tearful relative said, "Her dogs were her life, and ultimately they took her life." Lisa Montgomery, Bobbie Jo’s killer, found her by surfing Rat Terrier websites and chat groups. Bobbie Jo often discussed her pregnancy with the "Ratter Chatter" group and police believed Montgomery searched out these posts and plotted the murder for months while posing as Bobbie Jo’s new friend. A trusting nature and enthusiasm for her beloved dogs caused Bobbie Jo’s tragic death.
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This true story, ripped from the news headlines of January 2005, has been on the minds of many in the goat community. After all, Bobbi Jo Stinnett did what many goat owners do often, even daily…visit websites, join chat groups and e-mail lists, and even contact strangers about dairy goats.
The Internet is a valuable resource and network system for caprine enthusiasts. Many breeders create websites to display and advertise dairy goats. They join e-mail lists for discussion, tips, and to share experiences good and bad. Countless hours can be spent surfing countless sites devoted to the goat. Despite its’ usefulness however, the Internet is a dangerous place. It is alarmingly easy to assume a false identity or to assume another’s identity. An e-mail chatting about goats could be genuine, or it could be a calculated ploy for a scam, identity theft, or worse. Lieutenant Lawton of the Lynchburg, VA Police Department said "The Internet causes more trouble and crime than we could ever imagine."
But the Internet still remains a useful tool. It provides many opportunities-often free-to advertise stock. Dairy goats are sold online every day. It is fast and easy to send photos and pedigrees. The entire transaction can take place through e-mails, from the initial inquiry, to forwarding information, to making shipping arrangements and sending directions. Even the payment can be made online through PayPal or similar companies.
So what can dairy goat breeders do to safely advertise and promote herds with the Internet?
Lt. Lawton said to use common sense. Most breeders list contact information on their herd websites. Less is better in this case, and only the most pertinent personal information need be posted. Internet "trolls," spammers, and those just out to cause trouble, tend to frequent chat groups, forums, and bulletin boards. These sites and groups should be used only with great caution. Protect identity by choosing a screen name that will not lead back to a personal website, should someone plug it into a search engine. In other words, never use a real name, herd name, or hometown; instead select an obscure word, phrase, or combination of symbols. Personal information should not be put into online profiles when joining message boards or chat forums. E-mail addresses should be given out with care only. Those who sign up for a free e-mail account with yahoo or hotmail can pick up private messages from chat group buddies there, instead of giving out a personal e-mail address.
When a prospective customer makes contact, don’t give out a personal address until a sale is confirmed. There is no foolproof way to determine if a customer has projected a truthful identify as the Internet offers anonymity with frightening ease. To be safe, ask for a name, and consider asking for references. The goat world is a small one, and in most cases a legitimate customer will share a mutual acquaintance. But, don’t take things for granted and be sure to ask questions! Be suspicious of sloppy inquiries, especially those that are entirely lowercase, poorly written, or contain bad grammar. In typing a reply to this type of e-mail, ask questions before answering their questions. "Do you have goats? What breed?," etc., etc. This will help discourage all but those serious customers.
When making arrangements to meet a new customer, or to have her visit your farm, use caution! Lt. Lawton stresses that we should "Never be alone!" It may be inconvenient but it is nevertheless important to choose a time when a family member, friend or neighbor will be on the premises. And it is equally important to let a family member or friend know when, where, and with whom the meeting will occur. It is best to get together in a public place, though not always practical when dealing with farm animals.
Safely securing a farm is nearly impossible. Most goat breeders cannot afford security gates, surveillance cameras, and the other safety features that are ideal. A large dog is about as high-tech as most go. Therefore it is vitally important to learn to practice safety before any customer ever reaches the farm.
When personal safety is at stake, the owner always has the right to say no to a customer who makes them uncomfortable. Learn to trust instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, there’s a reason. While some might worry about offending potential customers or new friends with these precautions, there is simply too much at risk to take farm security lightly. A simple but sound piece of advice to consider from Lt. Lawton: "Stranger = Danger." Until someone has rightfully earned trust, keep that phrase in mind.
As a resource, a network, an advertising solution, and a way to connect with friends, the Internet has proven its worth for the dairy goat breeder. If used with caution and common sense, it can continue to provide a valuable service but no sale is ever worth the risk of personal danger.