Fact Check

Billy Goats Bluff

College prank: Students let loose a herd of livestock with an apparently missing member.

Published Nov. 11, 2008


Claim:   Students let loose a herd of livestock with an apparently missing member.


Example:   [Cazzulion, 2008]

In one, possibly apocryphal story, a Victorian school leaver told a chatroom that students in his year had painted the numbers 1, 2 and 4 on the sides of three piglets and let them loose in the school.

Teachers spent the rest of the afternoon hunting for piglet number 3, oblivious to the fact that it did not exist.


Origins:   One prime element of the magician's craft is presenting something that represents only a portion of a larger whole and allowing the audience to mentally fill in the blanks and assume that the larger whole is present. For example, if a magician holds up a card that represents the Four of Diamonds, we view it as an ordinary playing card even though all we may have actually seen is half of one side of the card: Our minds are so used to the norm we don't consider that perhaps only the top half of the card may be the Four of Diamonds while the bottom half (concealed by the magician's hand) is the Six of Clubs, or that the card might be the Four of Diamonds on one side but the Jack of Hearts on the other side. (For this reason,

magic tricks that work well on adults sometimes fail spectacularly when presented to youngsters: Children may not yet have learned to mentally fill in the blanks as adults do, so they will often react only to what they can see and thereby catch on to tricks that depend upon the "portion of a whole" deception.)

This same concept features in the form of college prank referenced above: Students round up some easily transportable livestock (e.g., pigs, sheep, goats), assign markings to them that omit one element from the middle of a sequence (e.g., they label three goats "1," "2," and "4," or paint the letters "A," "B," "D," and "E" on the side of four pigs), then set the critters loose on campus. Hilarity ensues when whichever hapless persons get roped into chasing down and collecting the animals quickly round them all up but then spend additional hours futilely searching for a non-existent critter — the "#3 goat" or the "C pig" — because they've mentally filled in the blanks and assumed the gap in the labeling sequence means one more animal is still on the loose.

An apparent attempt at this prank was undertaken at Florida's Eustis High School in June 2008:

Up to six Eustis High School students could be in big trouble for stealing two goats, tossing them into Eustis High School and leaving behind vegetable oil for the animals to slip and slide in.

A security camera caught the suspects entering the school building around 2 a.m. Nearly four hours later, a custodian found the goats scrambling around in about two gallons of vegetable oil that had been spilled all over the floor. The fire department had to be called to figure out exactly what the liquid was before they mopped it up. Also, the vandals spray-painted the goats. Both now have numerals on them that could not be scrubbed off. One was painted with a "1", and the other one with a "3."


We note that this same form of deception features in other college lore as an element of schemes used to gain advantage on exams or coursework.

Sightings:   Characters in an episode of television's 90210 ("The Jet Set," original air date 2 September 2008) pull this prank on a rival school's lacrosse team, dressing up three pigs in jerseys numbered 1, 2, and 4 and sneaking them into the opposing team's stadium.

Last updated:   24 August 2014


    Cazzulion, Michelle.   "Creativity Beats Plain Old Muck-Up."

    The Daily Telegraph.   27 September 2008.

    WFTV [Orlando, FL].   "Goats, Vegetable Oil Make for Messy Prank at Local High School."

    8 June 2008.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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