The trembling calf hid in the brush, peering out fearfully. Finally, lured out with the promise of a bottle, he sucked hungrily. He was less than half the size he should have been, stunted from malnourishment and trauma. His red coat was lackluster, with big patches of hair missing along his bony spine. Fleas and lice crawled over him, while flies painfully bit at his exposed wounds. Manure encrusted his tail. He was little more than a skeleton, every bone clearly visible.
His eyes, though. Oh! His eyes! Big, round, deep brown eyes gazed through achingly beautiful long lashes. Even as he sucked at the bottle, he watched warily, ready to bolt. This calf had already learned, in his short, painful month on earth, not to trust.
In the car on the way home, he leaned into my touch despite his misgivings. Soon, his desperate need for affection overcame his fear, and he laid his head on my lap, sighing with relief. We named him Moksha, which means liberation. I smiled to myself, knowing that soon, he’d be with Penny.
Penny is a wise, wonderful, elderly cow whose nurturing instincts extend to the young of every species. She had been raised on a beef farm, bred yearly. Each time, she loved her babies, and each time they were taken from her. She came to us in 2007 and is now in her mid-twenties. Of course, we would still bottle feed the baby, but she could provide motherly love. Finally, Penny would have a baby she could keep. And Mookie would have all of the love he so needed.
When we introduced them, tears rolled down Penny’s face, and her udders became enlarged, despite the fact that she had not given birth for at least seven years. We could see that something was wrong, and were glad we already had the vet scheduled to come out the next morning.
In the meantime, Mookie was refusing his bottle and having trouble settling in. All he wanted was affection from Penny, but Penny just cried and turned away. By morning, Mookie was nursing on Penny, clearly causing her tremendous pain. But Penny, being Penny, withstood the pain and treated him kindly.
Her eyes seemed glassy. She clearly wasn’t well. A closer look made it clear that Penny had rapidly developed mastitis, an infection of the teats which can be life threatening.
We separated the two and awaited the vet anxiously.
When Dr. Elena arrived, she was all business. Penny’s condition was advancing far too aggressively and we had to act fast. I sighed as life-saving medication was administered intravenously– not knowing that the worst was yet to come.
We moved on to treat the calf, whose numerous health problems also required urgent care. Crouched beside him on the ground, we conferred on the best course of treatment, discussing the pros and cons of our options. Suddenly, Penny was looming above us, unsteady on her feet, eyes unfocused, and saliva pouring from her mouth.
She was about to fall on the calf, all 2,000 plus pounds of her. And Mookie was too weak to get up. We tried to lift him, but he struggled and fell back to the ground. Penny took an unsteady step closer. At any second, she would fall and crush us all.
Two strong volunteers who had been hovering nearby came to our aid, and carried Mookie out of harm’s way just before Penny collapsed. Rushing to her side, we found her heart pounding, her fever skyrocketing, and her udders strangely, excessively, expanding.
Dr. Elena acted fast, giving Penny a steroid to help her body fight the lethal infection coursing through her blood. I do not like pharmaceuticals, and avoid using them with the animals at all costs. Yet at this point, I had to trust in the doctor’s wisdom. This was our beloved Penny. The beautiful, wise, grand dame who acts as the heartbeat of the sanctuary, whose compassion and calm have comforted so many humans and other animals, who gives and teaches and loves unstintingly. And it seemed that she was dying.
She leaned her massive head against my chest and cried in pain, her chest heaving. Her eyes rolled back in her head. All I could do was hold her and pray. Mookie looked on, distraught. Would the poor baby lose a second mother in his short life?
Silence descended on the farm, even the songbirds stopped chirping. Time stood still and the universe collapsed into the pained eyes of this one, marvelous, blessed, perfect being. This cow. This Divine Mother.
We waited an eternity in those few moments.
And then slowly, Penny’s eyes rolled back into place and focused on mine. Her breathing slowed. “Thirsty,” she weakly mooed.
We brought her water and she drank deeply, sat back, and sighed.
Penny lived. Mookie lived. Both are still fighting to recover as I write this, but their hearts are still beating, pumping blood through their veins. They are both breathing, giving their all to beat the odds. And together, they face the unimaginable task of recovering from the physical and emotional traumas that humanity routinely inflicts on cows.
The vet will return tomorrow. We will continue to bottle feed, nurse, medicate, and comfort. And we pray that Penny and Mookie survive to help one another heal their wounded souls.