My cow sanctuary started at a horse farm in New Jersey. The Black Angus cows there were part of the “pasture management system.” The idea was that the cows would eat all the old, tall grass, leaving the tender young shoots for the horses.
My job was to feed the cows supplemental grain. One morning, after a tremendously stormy night, the cows didn’t show up for breakfast. Cows always show up for breakfast. I knew that something must be wrong, so I went searching, and found them at the edge of the woods – next to a blackened tree – all dead. They had been hit by lightning during the storm, the current passing from one body to another as they huddled together. I counted 16 bodies – 12 cows and four calves.
There had been 10 calves, that meant that six might still be alive!
One by one, I located the babies and brought them back to the barn. They were only a few weeks old, still nursing. As I taught them to drink milk from bottles, a sense of commitment passed through me that seemed to equal the strength of the electricity that had passed through their mothers.
If an “act of God” hadn’t killed them,, there was no way I would allow an act of man to do so either! The Cow Sanctuary began with those six little calves that I half-sadly, half-jokingly called, “The Lightning Herd.” It was 1988 and I was a farm worker earning $5 an hour. I had no land to keep them on, and besides, they “belonged” to the man who owned the farm where I worked. All I had was determination, but I had a lot of that. I traded six months’ wages for the calves’ lives. Never was money better spent.
Next I had to find land. That took three years and in the meantime, they lived in a small field I rented next to my house. When I first brought them to their temporary quarters, my next door neighbor came over to see them. He was a retired dairy farmer, who had milked cows for more than 40 years. When I mentioned that I thought the cows were pretty bored in this new home, he laughed. “Bored?” he said, “Come on! Cows don’t do anything anyway, except eat.” I was amazed that after all those years of being around them, he was unaware of the many different ways that cows spend their time.
Eating is very high on their priority list, but it’s certainly not the only thing they do!
While their days have a regular pattern that includes eating, napping, running and playing, there’s plenty of impromptu activity. For example putting in fence post fascinates cows. While I’m digging, they sniff each lump of earth as it comes out of the hole. When the hole is done, they think they need to inspect it, getting down on their knees and poking their heads as far into the hole as they can.
This is what they do as a herd. Within that general routine, they have all kinds of individual things that they like to do.
And of course, each cow has his or her own special story, including Oblainka, so named because that’s what Old Blind Cow sounds like when you say it as loving baby talk.
Oblainka didn’t grow up with the Lightning Herd. She is an old, blind cow whose first owner was a rodeo cowboy who practiced bulldogging on her when she was a calf. Struggling against him was how she lost one eye, and all trust in humans. The other eye clouded over as a result of pinkeye.
The herd that she belonged to was pastured in a field very close to my cows. Their “owner” was going through some hard times and didn’t look in on them very often. When winter came, and the grass died, he didn’t bring them any hay. They could see me feeding my animals and would moo like crazy when the hay truck went by. I couldn’t watch them go hungry in the snow, so I started to feed them too. I noticed that one cow with white eyes was being pushed out by the others. She must not have been completely blind, or maybe she could tell with her hearing, but when I set a flake of hay down far away from where the other cows were eating, she came right to it and chowed down. By the third day she didn’t even try to fight her way into the main pile of hay, she just waited and followed me. That’s how she and I became friends.
After about a month, her “owner” finally resumed feeding these cows, but when I would go by, she still came running over. I’d give her a little grain, which she ate out of my hand. We did this through the winter. One day the man came with his livestock trailer. “That old blind cow isn’t bred,” he said. “Guess I’ll beef her.” I asked him what she was worth. “Sixty cents a pound,” he told me. I gave him the money and Oblainka joined our family.
Cows are pregnant for nine months, just like humans. Eight months and three weeks later, Oblainka gave birth to Charlie!
Cows have an extremely strong maternal instinct. They really love their calves…a lot. I knew that Oblainka must have had at least nine or 10 calves already, and that they had all been stolen from her, so I was happy for her that she was able to keep this last one.
She was determined to keep him, too, unaware that he wasn’t in danger. For the next six months, if anyone except me came into the pasture she would position herself between Charlie and the intruder, head down, ready to charge, pawing the ground and throwing clods of dirt high into the air with her hooves.
Somehow she communicated to him that he was not to trust any humans, and he didn’t let me touch him until he was three months old, even though she continued to eat out of my hand every day. Eventually she let Charlie share the grain she was taking from me and soon after that, he decided that being scratched all over felt wonderful. Oblainka still worried, though, and would jump up the moment I entered the shelter, nudging Charlie to get up, too and be ready to run if necessary.
As Charlie got older, Oblainka became less alarmed and would let me move about the other cows without getting up, provided that I didn’t come close to her and her son.
The breakthrough came when Charlie was just over a year old. I came into the shelter late one night to check on the cows before I went to bed. Oblainka and Charlie were lying down in a back corner. I could hear that there was something wrong with her breathing. It was very loud and wheezy. I moved closer, slowly, so as not to disturb her. When I got right next to her and she didn’t get up, I was sure that there was something seriously wrong. Pneumonia, I thought. Kneeling by her side, I tried to listen for the telltale gurgle in her wheezing. Then she woke up and the terrible wheezing stopped. Oblainka had been snoring! When she sniffed me, and stayed lying down, I knew that at long last she trusted me.
Every cow has a story…a number of stories. Not just mine, but each and every one of the billions and billions “served.” Every pot of beef stew was once a cow-person. Please think about it before you decide what to have for dinner.
(Editor’s Note: The strange twist of fate in this story is that Oblainka was also killed by lightning.)
Excerpted and adapted from What Cows Do: Personality Sketches of My Cows, published in Humane Innovations and Alternatives, volume 8, 1994.