As I’ve said before, cows are BIG. Imagine yourself, as I was the other evening, standing in the barn as three calves –two with horns and all three closing in on a thousand pounds– come charging in, literally kicking up their heels with excitement.
“No running in the barn”1 I said, jumping back. Maddox cooled his heels and hung around to see whether I might be giving out treats. Equinox and Justin trotted out the other door. A few moments later, I went out that door myself, to close the coops. There, by the duck pond, Justin had just finished a bout of head butting with grown-up Luna, who galloped off gleefully, perhaps in search of another partner. Meanwhile, Coco-the-Boy2 (a young adult) had next with Justin.
It was dusk, which seems to be the favorite playtime for cows. The snow glowed blue with the refracted light of the setting sun. The excitement in the air was electric as Coco and Justin pressed their foreheads together, each trying to push the other backwards. As often happens at that time of day, the impulse to play passed from cow to cow, creating a sensation of overall giddiness that I felt very glad to have the opportunity to witness.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” So said TJ, who has recently joined the VINE crew, after witnessing a different kind of group play only a few days later. Few people have, so let me describe it for you:
Luna started it all, by dashing madly up the hill, her black face coated in brown dirt, after playing by herself in a big dirt pile halfway down the driveway. The calves immediately caught the contagion of her excitement and began running behind her as she loped in figure eights around the pasture and my trailer, sometimes dipping to make a pass through the barn. More and more cows, including CocoBear, joined in as she ran. Even those who did not run were enraptured, looking up from their grazing at the hay ring to watch the runners.
Nine-year-old dairy survivor Rose isn’t physically up to such exuberant galloping, but she joined the runners in her own way, doing a little jig in place and then trotting in a circle. Even elderly dairy survivor Autumn, who has twice survived going down and who we thought we would lose both times, broke into a slow trot as she positioned herself to have a better view of the festivities.
Again, cows are big. Their footfalls thunder, especially when the ground is hard. I guess because of stereotyped pictures of placid cows incessantly chewing their cuds, visitors are often surprised to see cows breaking into a run, for fun, because they are hurrying toward something or someone interesting, or because they have just spotted the scary emus. So, try to imagine yourself in the midst of the scene I’ve just described, both seeing and hearing half a herd of happy cows careening around a pasture while the other half watches with evident excitement.
We were all transfixed, I looking out my window and Cheryl and TJ in the midst of it. Cheryl finally thought to pull out her phone to try to catch a clip, but by then the running had petered out. She did catch CocoBear and Justin expending the last of their energy in a low-key game of push. As adults often do with calves, Coco let Justin win. (You can see a video of Coco and Justin playing on our Facebook page.)
Of course, the cows aren’t the only ones who play here at VINE. Rams also enjoy head-butting, although their version is rougher and I’ve never seen anybody let anybody else win. (It’s so funny to me that sheep are stereotyped as docile followers. While they do have very strong herd instincts that keep them safe, no-one here is more headstrong and independent than the ram called Broggy… unless it’s the ewe called Lamby.) Many of the birds also play, but I’ll save news of that for another day.
On the two days I’ve mentioned here, I was most happy to see Luna participating so whole-heartedly in the festivities. Confiscated from a small-scaled “beef” farm due to extreme neglect, skeletal Luna had begun to digest her own body even as she nursed not only her own calf but also a calf whose mother had become too ill to nurse. When she and her daughters Orchid and Oryx arrived at VINE after a period of recuperation at Farm Sanctuary, Luna was still quite thin and had a haunted look in her eyes.
Even as she settled in and made friends (Princess is her bestie), Luna remained dampened. I’d often see her standing by herself, seeming sad. She remains more of a loner than most cows, but her mood has improved steadily over the months and now years she has been here. To see her not only joining but initiating group play — that made me feel like every ounce of energy each of us has poured into the sanctuary was worthwhile. And that made me want to join Rose in doing a little jig.
1 “No running in the barn” is one of our few rules, implemented for safety’s sake. The cows seem to understand and agree that the rule is a good idea, just forget sometimes when they’re excited. Of course, we have no way of enforcing the rule except by talking in a disappointed tone of voice or shooing any scofflaws outside, where they can safely kick up their heels with abandon.
2 13 year-old Coco is the matriarch of the herd. So, when a young male cow arrived with the same name, we got in the habit of calling him Coco-the-Boy. He is also known as CocoBear. His best friend is Lamby, with whom he lived before coming to the sanctuary.