I was prepared for the stench of suffering and hopelessness in that barn. I was prepared for manure-encrusted floors and walls, for cows chained in misery, suffering silently while large eyes followed my movements. Every time I walk into a place of suffering such as this one, I leave a piece of my soul with the ones I can’t save, offering deep prayers and salty tears in exchange for a lifetime of brutality.
I was there to rescue one baby boy calf, who had been born two days before and was slated to be shipped to a veal farm later that day. But I was in for a surprise. Another calf, Ogie, had been born in the night, and the farmer was willing to allow me to take both babies home.
Ogie was born into bloodshed and death on that cold March morning, in that dark, dirty barn heated only by the manure and breath of hundreds of cows chained in stanchions. Unbeknownst to me until several days later, his mother hemorrhaged after giving birth to him, but she didn’t die right away. The farmer kept her alive, milking her for two more days while she lay covered in manure on a cold concrete floor, bleeding to death. This is not meant to be an indictment. I know the farmer was desperate. But still, it caused the cows great pain.
Ogie and Nandi would have been sold to a veal farm. This farmer told me repeatedly that he didn’t like taking babies from their mothers, and that he hated selling them for veal. He also shared with me how overwhelming his work was, and that he hated the poor conditions of the cows. He said the work was too much for him, and that he couldn’t afford help to take better care of the cows. Competing against industrial dairies, this farmer suffered almost as much as his cows. I implored him to leave the industry. Working 16-hour days and hovering just above poverty-level for his efforts, he remained convinced that there was no other way for him to survive. Family farmers, too, suffer at the hands of corporate farming. Very few people win in the harsh and strange economy of the modern “food system”.
But I don’t want to tell you about facts and figures. Those, you can find everywhere with a simple internet search.
I want to tell you how I felt when two days later I returned at the moment of Ogie’s mother’s death.
I had come hoping for milk for the babies, not knowing that Ogie’s mother had been down since giving birth. When I found her moaning in pain, covered in manure, I could see that she was fighting to stay alive. Instinctively, I knew why. Her baby. She was staying alive for her baby. I wiped the manure from her face and looked her in the eye. “Your baby is safe. I took him to Indraloka, where cows are free. I’ll care for him every day of his life, I promise you.”
She laid her head on my lap and exhaled for the last time, and in that sacred moment, I was changed. It was as if she imbued in me all of her motherly love and strength when I made that vow.
I kept my promise. I did everything I could, every day of my life from then until now, not only to keep Ogie safe but also to protect the hundreds of other mothers’ babies for whom I now care. I think of her every night and pray that I can be half the nurturer and protector she was.
Ogie was named after a close friend of mine who died just around the time of his birth. Ogema was an Anishinaabe Medicine Man from whom I learned a great deal, although probably not enough.
So, Ogie was born into bloodshed and death, but also great hope. Nandi, the calf born the day before Ogie, saved his life by leading me to him. Those two little calfs were so tiny that I was able to take them home in the back of my small SUV.
At first, Ogie was very sick and used to sleep for hours on my lap while Nandi frolicked quietly nearby. Have you ever experienced another being placing all of their trust in you? Do you know the feeling of innocent eyes looking at yours as if they are sure there is no problem in the world that you can’t solve? Have you ever breathed in the scent of a newborn, and in that breath, recognized the prayer for peace and safety that simply wafts from all innocent young beings? It made me a better person, his faith. Happily, we were able to get him the veterinary care he needed, and he soon grew strong and healthy.
For months, my days were punctuated with the big eyes and sweet moos of calfs awaiting warm milk. I had to bottle feed them at the same time, or they would jostle in an attempt at both getting their bottle first. By the time they had been with me a week, they were both the same size as me, and much, much stronger. After two weeks, they were both significantly larger than me. And of course, they just kept growing. So, I devised a system of bracing myself against the barn wall, a bottle in each hand, also braced against the wall. I was able to use the wall to hold me and the bottles steady, no matter how the calfs pushed and jostled as they nursed.
Holsteins are bred to be unnaturally large so that they can produce more milk. However, outside of a sanctuary setting, males rarely live past a few weeks. A few bulls are kept for breeding, but frozen semen is usually shipped far and wide. As a result, rarely do any of us see a full-grown Holstein male.
I knew from the day he was born that his size would probably kill him. I knew every time I fed him and scratched him and marveled at how healthy and strong he was that someday his big body would betray him.
Ogie grew to be larger than a full grown male moose, with horns. Often visitors, seeing him tower above us, feared him despite his gentle nature. All I could see were those same big baby eyes. I didn’t care how big he got, he would always be that same, sweet calf that I loved so much, and I believe that to him, I would always be the woman who tried so hard to make up for the loss of his mother. He trusted me and I would do anything for him.
So, of course, I understood that someday, he’d grow so large that his legs would no longer hold him. I just kept hoping that someday would be many, many days and years from now.
But it wasn’t.
It was a Friday morning in 2018. We found him down in the icy pasture and unable to rise. We worked for hours in the cold, trying every single way we knew how to get him up. His herd– cows, horses, a goat, and a cat– watched us anxiously, comforting him with kisses and cheering us on with looks and moos of encouragement. His eyes held fear, but also that same faith he had in me since he was a sick, little, orphaned calf. I would have given anything to get him up. A small army of humans worked alongside me, and every one of us would have gladly given all that was in us if we could have spared him this pain, or given him another day of joy.
We called experts near and far. We consulted with multiple vets. We pulled out every piece of lifesaving equipment available for cows. We used every ounce of ingenuity we could muster, and every bit of strength our pathetic little human bodies had to offer.
Finally, we were able to get equipment large enough to lift him, but his legs wouldn’t hold him up. He collapsed in a heap, moaning in pain, imploring me with his big baby eyes. Ogie wanted to live, but his body couldn’t comply. It was clear, from his attempts to stand when lifted, that one of his back hips was broken. There was nothing more we could do.
I called the vet, and together we waited. Humans, cows, horses, a goat, and cats gathered around him, all of us crying into his thick, lustrous fur. If you have never seen a cow cry, you should know that tears actually stream down their faces, just like ours. Several of our young calfs, with whom Ogie used to play so gently, sobbed aloud. The adult cows cried silently, as did I.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me,” my voice broke as I tried to sing his favorite lullaby. His eyes never left mine. “Away above the chimney tops, where troubles melt like lemon drops, that’s where you’ll find me.”
I called on his mother’s spirit to take him home.
Together, we took one last gulp of delicious air. As one, we expelled it. The light faded from his eyes. The rest of us breathed on as his mother’s spirit came to gather him up and take him home.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” I promised him, “and the dreams that we dare to dream really do come true.”
Please share your memories of Ogie, or another cow you have loved and lost, in the comments below. We love reading them!
Rain fell on the metal roof, adding to the sacred silence. Humans, bovines, and felines alike gathered round the deathbed of a Divine Mother, a truly Holy Cow.
This old stone barn always brought comfort, as if the stones and beams themselves held all who entered in a loving embrace. Today, it was warmed by the body heat of a several cows, who gazed at us benevolently from under their long lashes. The sweet smell of hay mixed with frankincense, sage, and a death whose time was right.
One by one, people approached to whisper their truths in her ear. My dear friend and I sat with her large, warm, lovely head across both of our laps. Wesley T. Monkey, unusually attuned even for a cat, lay purring across Penny’s back. Others gathered round in the thick bed of hay, laying their heads and hands across her body, most with tears falling into her luxuriant, red coat.
Many brought offerings– prayer flags, which we hung above her; mala beads, which we strung around her neck; crisp apples, which we fed her in small pieces; sage and frankincense, with we we smudged and anointed her; and sweets to comfort the rest of us.
Gazing into her eyes, I traveled back in time to revisit many of my most treasured memories: a silent walk we took together, she and I, watching the wildflowers wave in the wind, and butterflies shine in the sunlight; the look on her face as she was surrounded by adoring children; her joy on many a hot summer day we designated as spa days, when visiting school children would giver her a cold bath and feed her cold cucumbers; the time she– literally– joined in on a picnic with our Farmitecture students as they took a meal break from building the new chicken coop; and just a few weeks ago, when a group of traveling Buddhist monks kindly stopped at the sanctuary to pray over and bless Penny and all of the animals.
Penny Power needed no fences to hold her in, but roamed the sanctuary freely, going wherever she was needed. She nurtured all the animals (human and other) here at the sanctuary. She comforted all who sought her, and taught all who had open hearts. She showered us with unfailing wisdom, unending compassion, and the deepest form of pure, unselfish love.
Penny lived fully, simply, and serenely, with a sense of wit and grace. Once or twice, she came right to the front porch of the house to share a salad at meal time, and took to sitting peacefully with us in the evening as we watched the sun set. Last September when we brought home a starving calf, her compassion was so strong and pure that, although she had not had a baby in seven years, she began lactating.
Penny faced her death easily; she was clear that the time was right. She lay her head on our laps and breathed a deep cleansing breathe as the sedative entered her bloodstream. Prayers were uttered as the vet administered her final shot. In the silence after, Penny’s spirit hovered near us, comforting us.
Outside, the rain gently transitioned to soft, lacy flakes– confetti honoring the eternal triumph of a Great Master. Penny’s spirit softly turned from us and landed on her dear cow friend, Gus. A few moments later, she was gone.
Silently, the snow continued to fall.
Please share your precious memories of Penny in the comments below, we love to hear about all the ways she touched hearts.
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.
The old red cow rolls dreamily through the pasture, her benign gaze lingering on spry calfs cavorting in circles nearby. She lays her arthritic body on the cool ground as regally as a queen lowering herself onto her throne. Reclining in the sunshine, she soaks in the peace.
A small long-haired, long horned cow meanders over and settles in next to her. In tandem, they breathe slowly and deeply. They are content in their eternal now, secure in the knowledge that harmonious, all-encompassing love, the Great Truth known to all bovines, reigns here at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary.
The Grand Dame does not focus on others times and other places of her life, where love was not allowed to reign. She’s been a mother many times over, and many times over her calfs were taken from her. And yet she doesn’t hold on to those memories. She is content simply sending light to those times and places whenever they flicker through her consciousness. With love, but without effort or thought, her breath itself is a prayer for her lost babies and the blindness that damages so many.
She holds no fear and no blame. She does not seek vengeance. She is beyond the surface labels of right and wrong.
The sage Grand Dame holds ancient memories of the Light that all beings come from. With a wisdom beyond knowledge, she understands that we are One. Our actions towards each other, ultimately, are our actions towards ourselves. She feels compassion, yet also understands that each of us, a ray of light in earthly form, is on our own path. We will each return to our true nature in due time.
Vast numbers of her brethren, bovine and otherwise, are mistreated each day. Each one of them is a sacred being, a ray of Divine Light. And yet, because we are all rays of the same light, inextricably linked, she recognizes that through her liberation they are also freed. Through her life and in her light, they live. She breathes and prays and loves and feels joy that they may also partake.
As this knowledge-without-thought vibrates beyond her consciousness, the frolicking youngsters and warm sunlight are the manifestation of truth. In this sanctuary love reigns.
I knew before I met her that we were bringing her here to die…
She came to us on a mild, sunny day in early summer. Nobody (human) was around the farm.
It would be risky, I supposed, letting her in the pasture with the big cows right away without the customary transition time. And yet, I knew she needed them, and they’d be good to her.
We backed the trailer right into the pasture. As the trailer door swung open, I caught my first glimpse.
Her eyes, a deep, rich, eternal brown, held the radiant clarity of awareness, and a deep kindness that comes with suffering and ageless wisdom. Tears flowed from my eyes as I gazed upon the precious soul who would be among my life’s greatest teachers.
She began to move, and my attention was then drawn to her physical form. My eyes took in the broken little cow that embodied this radiant light. She was 4-5 months old and about 300 pounds. Her coat was a pure, shining black.
Instead of walking, she crabbed forward on gnarled front legs that would never straighten. It was for this reason she was deemed unsuitable as a dairy cow. If she can’t stand, she can’t carry a baby, and therefore can’t produce milk. So, she was going to be slaughtered for meat until we intervened.
When we decided to take her in, I didn’t know if we would need to euthanize her as soon as she arrived, or if she’d be able to live pain-free for a few more months before her body became too big for her legs.
It didn’t matter to me.
I just wanted to give her a peaceful and loving end, and knew a slaughterhouse certainly would not do that for her.
As it turned out, she was relatively small, so for the moment, her contorted legs could still hold and transport her, albeit slowly and awkwardly.
Patiently, she made her way out of the trailer and onto grass for the first time in her life. The other cows lovingly gathered to greet her, touching their noses to hers. One by one, they each gave her a kiss, and then they all turned back to the pasture to graze together, walking much more slowly than usual so that she could keep up!
Holstein heifers (young cows) grow up to 2 pounds a day during the first 15 months, so I realized that she would not be able to support her own weight for long if we could not fix her legs.
A voice inside said her name was Mo Chridhe, Gaelic for “my heart”. Quickly, I arranged to take her to Dr. Randy Bimes of Quakertown Vet Hospital. Randy specializes in treating lameness in horses, so if anyone could fix Mo’s legs, Randy and his team could.
Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, the vets were unable to help her, although I was glad we tried. I was reminded our job was not to save her, but to escort her out of this plane with love.
At Indraloka, every animal is showered with affection and healthy treats everyday. We did even more for Mo, and the other cows took it on themselves to do the same. Never was a cow more beloved than our little Mo.
Our intention was to fill her life with peace, love, and joy until it was time to let her go. And yet it was she who filled our lives. But with so much more…
Time and again, when visitors came to meet Mo, they wept at the sight of her, not uttering phrases of pity, but of awe. More than one fell at her feet and cried. She exuded calm compassion and grace, and on each of these supplicants she bestowed a blessing with a gentle look or a soft nudge.
We all learned so much from Mo. She paid no attention to limitations in her physical form. She never seemed stressed or concerned with the need to crab slowly around the pasture instead of cavorting like other young cows do.
As months went by, Mo grazed on grass, enjoyed the company of other cows, and ceaselessly taught us lessons in non attachment. Although she savored each moment and embraced life fully, Mo never sought more than she was given, and always gave of herself freely. By November, she was laying down more, and began to have difficulty holding herself up.
It was time. I spent the days leading up to Mo’s crossing preparing myself, the volunteers and the animals. Our compassionate farm vet Jen agreed that Mo would soon be in pain, and that it would be best to let her go while she was still enjoying life.
Instead of looking to us for comfort, our bovine bodhisattva gave us comfort. This little crippled cow managed to do what so many of us strive for our whole lives. She seemed to live by the words of St. Francis:
…grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love…
Mo was ready.
She was not attached to this life, for she knew that we are all eternal, that this is just one stop on a boundless soul’s journey. Living this example was her greatest teaching. Still, it was unbearable for some to think of losing her light and being plunged into darkness. For, when someone has brought so much light into your life, it is easy to think there will be only darkness in their absence. Mostly, it seemed they would just miss Mo terribly.
Finally, the hour of Mo’s death had arrived. Dr. Jen and I went out to the pasture, where Mo reclined in the lush grass, waiting for us.
The other cows gathered around.
As I held her head in my lap and murmured a loving prayer, Penny and Gus each placed their muzzles tenderly on Mo’s body, Dr. Jen gently administered the shot that would send our Mo out of her body forever.
This is the prayer I prayed as Mo crossed over:
Navajo Beautyway Ceremony
In beauty may I walk
All day long may I walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk
With beauty may I walk
With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively again, may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty