On Wednesday I picked up a purebred Jersey heifer. I had run across her on Craigslist. The price, five dollars, caught my eye.
What’s that you say? No, of course I don’t need another cow. But Katika is almost nine years old, twice the age of the average dairy cow, and I’ve always dreamed of a classic fawn-colored Jersey. I also have grown to love cows with the foolish affection many feel for kittens and puppies. Just looking in their eyes makes me happy.
Finally, it felt like a rescue situation. The ad said that the owner was looking for a good home for a Jersey heifer that was abnormally small.
I wrote with questions. The reply came back. As a summer calf the heifer had suffered from coccidiosis — the cattle equivalent of amoebic dysentery or giardia, a vicious, wasting diarrhea caused by a parasite. The idealistic young owners had been committed to organics and had chosen not to administer meds, instead providing “herbal support.” Only after seven months did they give in and purchase the $13 bottle of Corid. By that time the heifer’s growth was stunted. She was now fifteen months old and the size of a five-month calf.
She had also lost half her tail to frostbite, due to non-stop liquid stools at sub-zero temperatures. Half of one ear was also gone. She had not been de-horned and had had no vaccinations.
Lucy was horrified. “Mom, we have to get her!”
I studied the cell phone photo of the heifer the owner called “Mini Shortcake.” I wanted to be responsible. I wanted to be smart. I asked my friends on my internet cow board what they thought. I even titled the thread, Tell Me Not to Pursue This.
But in my heart I was loading her into my pickup. Sure enough, there were voices of reason pointing out the drawbacks, echoing my own concerns. Why take a risk? But I was listening to the ones who asked, “Why aren’t you already on the road?”
I emailed David, my vet, for his opinion. He had no concerns at all — and de-horning would only cost $15. “I look forward to meeting her.”
Really, wasn’t it out of my hands? Hadn’t I done due diligence? Tuesday night I used scrap lumber to add a foot of height to my stake rack, tied a tarp over the top, and Wednesday I set out.
The trip was epic. First the ferry was delayed almost an hour both ways. There were whitecaps on the lake and the boat plunged in the swells, drenching the truck windshield with spray. Then my directions from Mapquest led me through rural mountain roads that grew smaller, narrower, and twistier. Road signs disappeared. The road dwindled to a single lane. I began to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic. I wished for my elderly friend Allen, who grew up in the woods. I could picture him sitting in the passenger seat, unconcerned and whistling.
Now the road seemed to be disintegrating. Poplars scraped the sides of my truck. A spruce widow-maker was hung up high above. Boulders jutted up out of deep muddy ruts. Surely this road was impassible without a pickup? I’d seen deer paths in better shape. I plowed through puddles that almost came up to the floorboards. No wonder the heifer wasn’t given meds. The serum would have had to be brought in by sled dog.
But then I was out into a clearing and onto a new road, climbing free of the woods, and a minute later I had arrived at the farm.
Instantly, most of my irritation vanished. The house was a tiny clapboard Cape, obviously hand-built. Small red-cheeked children in rubber boots and chunky hand-knit sweaters ran to greet me, scattering chickens. When I opened my truck door, a large hairy dog jumped in, tongue lolling happily. Even before I shook hands with Emily, my internet correspondent, and we went indoors, I knew I would find the woodstove, the kettle of soup simmering, the cloth diapers pegged on a line across the living room, the lack of appliances and television, the composting toilet and row of homeopathic remedies in the bathroom. Everything about the place said Serious Granola. I was once a fairly serious granola myself. Except for the herbal supplements, it was like a visit to my youth. As I picked my way through the jumble of homemade toys on the floor, it was easy to see what had happened with the heifer. Good intentions, naive care, lots of small children, and no time.
Emily was delighted to find I was a woman (my name is unusual and I often forget that people won’t know). But I think the final seal of approval came when I admired their composting toilet. “I built the same one for my husband’s cabin,” I told her, “though mine is much less elegant. It’s from The Humanure Handbook, isn’t it?” This turned out to be the secret handshake between generations.
I’d brought a halter and lead rope, and together Emily and I loaded the heifer into my truck, backing up to a pasture rock, lifting her feet one by one, and heaving. Though the heifer was very small indeed, she wasn’t halter-broken and wasn’t in favor of the proceedings. Still, at last it was accomplished. When I brought out my wallet, however, Emily wouldn’t accept any money. “I’m so happy to know she’s going to a good life.”
It was almost 7 PM before I drove into the farm at home. I’d planned to unload the heifer onto Allen’s rock peninsula, but it was pitch dark and icy. I was afraid she might slip and break a leg. Instead I backed up to the big manure pile and offloaded her there. As stars twinkled overhead, we both staggered down the mucky slope and into the barn gratefully.
Here she is the next afternoon. Pardon the lack of focus, but the boy who took the picture had trouble with the camera. I will take better photos today.
Meet our new girl. Lucy has named her Moxie for her spunk and determination to survive. She’s our teacup heifer, our pocket cow. I hope Moxie will have many happy years with us.