Cows and Cowches
by Helga Tacreiter
I LOVE COWS. Big, beautiful, breathing cows. I grew to love them when I worked on farms, milking and feeding these
peaceful creatures and getting to know their distinct individual personalities. My heart broke each time one of my friends
was sent to slaughter, which is the sad reality of farm life. But what could I do? I made their lives as decent as possible
while they were in my care, then I had to kiss them goodbye.
Until the storm: a huge spring storm that lasted most of the night, with roaring thunder and lightning bolts hurtling down
with deafening cracks.
In the morning, when I went out to feed the cows, I found them beneath a split and blackened tree, all dead. Six little calves
huddled together a few feet away. As I led the orphans back to the barn, something inside me changed. The years of
accepting sad reality were over. If these little guys had survived an act of God as powerful as that storm, they sure weren't
going to be killed by an act of man, not if I could help it!
That's how the cow sanctuary began.
Trouble was, I wasn't a rich heiress. I was a farm worker making minimum wage. These calves weren't even mine. They
belonged to the man who owned the farm. How was I going to save the calves?
I exchanged six months' wages for the lives of those calves. Never was money better spent, I thought as I hugged them.
But what next? They were growing fast and would soon weigh at least half a ton each. No matter how hard I worked, farm
wages weren't going to be enough to feed them. "How? How? How?" filled my thoughts.
The answer came to me as I lay in the straw snuggling with my cow family: I'd make life-size stuffed cows for others to
snuggle the way I snuggled with my real cows.
Then again, "How?" I'd made an apron and an A-line skirt in eighth grade Home Ec class, but that was the sum total of my
The answer to ths "How?" came most amazingly.
Knowing only that I had to start with material, I bought several yards of fake fur at the fabric store. One evening after the
feeding was done, I sat on a bale of straw and stared at my package, wondering how in the world to begin.
As I sat, Harvey, my favorite cow, came to the barn door and mooed to come in. This was unusual; he almost never left the
others. I looked outside and saw that the cows had all gone down to the woods, which is what they usually did after eating.
"Maybe [Harvey] wants a treat," I thought, and offered him grain. He didn't take it, though he loved grain. He followed me
around as I swept the floor so I could lay out the material on it. When I moved, he followed at my heels. When I stopped, he
stopped. This is not how cows behave.
I sat back down on the bale of straw and looked at him. "What do you want, Harvey?" I wondered aloud. He, of course, said
nothing, just looked back at me calmly with his huge brown eyes.
"Could it be," I thought, "that he's offering to help?"
I took the material out of the bag and, instead of laying it out on the floor, draped it carefully over Harvey's back. He
continued to stand calmly. Suddenly, it became obvious how to make the pattern. I chalked lines where his legs were and
cut away the extra fabric. Harvey stayed perfectly still. I used duct tape to hold the pieces together, not wanting to risk
sticking him with pins.
For five hours, Harvey stood perfectly still while I fitted the pieces of material around him. Finally, he was completely
enveloped in a fake fur cow suit. I marked the pieces, then took them off him. When I was done, he moved for the first time;
he went to the door and asked to go out. I walked him to the woods to join the others, awed by what had happened. Then I
went back to the barn and sewed the pieces together. By sunrise, the first Cowch was born.
Ten years have passed since then, and the Cowches have fed the cows the whole time. I make them on an old Singer
sewing machine, next to a window through which I can watch my cow family grazing peacefully.
The first Cowches were pure black, like Harvey. Later I began to make others, also portraying real cows. I made a black
and white Cowch in honor of the very first cow that befriended me at the dairy farm 20 years ago. Her name was #9. She
was a sweet, gentle Holstein with a perfect heart in the middle of her forehead. I miss her still.
Oblainka is an old, blind cow that used to live in the field that adjoins my cows' pasture. Her owner was a rodeo cowboy
who had used her as a practice cow when she was young. She lost her eye struggling against him.
When winter came and the grass died down, I realized that the cowboy wasn't bringing his cows hay. I knew it wasn't any of
my business, but I couldn't ignore their frantic bawling. I threw hay over the fence for them, too. When I noticed the old, blind
cow being pushed out by the stronger cows, I started to take an extra slice for her around the corner, hidden from the
others. She caught on quickly, and by the end of the week I found her waiting in the hidden place.
Eventually, the cowboy brought them food and they stopped bawling when I went by, except for Oblainka, who kept waiting
in the special spot. I was touched, and began bringing her a little pan of grain each day. We did this for a year.
One day the cowboy came with his trailer and started to take Oblainka away. "She's not bred," he explained. Can't afford to
feed her if she won't give me a calf."
"What's she worth," I asked.
"Sixty cents a pound," he said.
I gave him the money and Oblainka became one of the family. Eight months later, I noticed her udder beginning to swell.
Can't be, I thought. She had become fatter, but I was sure it was because she was getting more to eat. Not so. In three
weeks, Charlie was born.
A couple of months later, I got a phone call asking if I could give another cow a home. Her name was Beatrice, and she
was a 4-H cow. The girl who had raised her had turned into a vegetarian and was determined that nobody was going to kill
and eat her friend. Unfortunately, the 4-H club was Beatrice's legal owner, and the club sold her at auction.
The girl discovered to which slaughterhouse Beatrice had been sent and went there. She put a rope around Beatrice's
neck and walked away with her. They walked for five miles until they reached a barn, where the girl hid Beatrice then started
making phone calls, looking for help. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals quickly raised the money to buy
Beatrice's freedom, then contacted me. How could I say no? Beatrice became one of our family, and Cowches grew horns.
When I heard about another cow sanctuary in Canada, I was eager to visit. As I was being introduced to the cows, I noticed
that the cow named Amazing looked as if she was getting ready to have a calf. "Impossible," I was told. "We do no breeding
here. Our cows are old cows who were being sold to slaughter because they couldn't get pregnant."
"She looks just like Oblainka looked three weeks before Charlie was born," I told the man who ran the ranch. "Perhaps I'm
mistaken, but it sure looks to me like you'll have a new calf soon."
Three weeks later, I got a phone call. "We've named him Surprise."
These are just a few of the stories. As the years go on, I'm sure there will be many, many more. My hope is that the
Cowches will continue to feed the cows. But I hope they will do even more. I hope they will make people think.
UPDATE: February 2006
Harvey and his five herdmates were born in the early spring of 1988. Eighteen years have passed since then, filled with
Through a series of near-miracles, and a lot of finagleing, the Cows now have a 77 acre farm, with enough pasture and
hayfield to be self sufficient. Their spacious new barn is tucked into the corner where the woods and the fields meet.
The biggest change, though, has been the Life-cycle. It was easy when they were all sweet young calves, to say that I’d do
everything in my power to give them a safe and happy life , until they died naturally, of old age. Old age was a lifetime away.
I didn’t know how long a cow’s lifetime was. It turns out that cows live about as long as dogs do. They pass away in their
late teens. Which, as anyone who has loved a dog, or a cow, will tell you, is far far too short a time.
But that’s how it is.
And they did have a safe and happy life, filled with love and plenty. Ten have passed away so far. They are buried here at
the farm, their graves marked with wild roses .The living graze peacefully amongst them.
There are ten cows here now. Mary is the youngest of the original six calves, and she’s still going strong at 18. Her
constant companion is Karen, sweet 16, Burry’s baby. Bocita, also 16, is Apple’s adopted baby. They are the last three of
the original herd.
The others have come from near and far.
Emmie came from Mexico. PeTA rescued her when they were documenting the abuses that Mexican heifers went through
before being allowed into the USA. She arrived as a tiny, terrified, trembling little waif. For a whole month she huddled in a
corner of the barn, shaking. Eventually she realized that she wasn’t going to get hurt anymore, and gradually she joined the
rest of the herd. Now, at 13, she is a self assured beauty.
Willis, also 13, came from Pennsylvania, his safe-being the last wish of a farmer’s wife. She died the day after she met
with me to arrange his coming to the sanctuary.
Then there was Bucky, standing up to his knees in muck in small pen next to a busy highway, with a big plywood sign:
BULL FOR SALE. The members of the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance raised funds to bail him out of his situation. A
few hours after he arrived, he knocked me over and put me in the hospital, but the only real damage was a broken nose,
and that healed. I learned to be more cautious, and after being neutered, Bucky became as gentle as all the others.
Bianca was born on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Every day, a young mother who lived close to the farm took her two little
girls in a stroller past the field where Bianca lived . And every single time they rolled by, Bianca left the other cows and
came running over to the fence to schmooze.The mother fell in love with her,, and asked the farmer if he would sell her He
refused, but the mother was determined, and called every day for about a year and a half, to ask if he’d changed his mind.
He kept refusing, but as fate would have it, when he tried to breed Bianca, she couldn’t get pregnant, and therefore couldn’t
produce milk. Lucky Bianca! The farmer finally agreed to sell her . She’s been here for the past ten years.
Angy was also saved by pure love. A girl worked at a farm, just as I had years ago, and just as I had, years ago, thought
about Harvey “I know I can’t save them all, but I can save just this one…” And so Angy arrived, bright eyed and bushy tailed,
in a minivan .
At three years old, he’s the “baby”!
Billy came from Delaware. He was a 4-H “project” whose kid decided that animals were to love, not eat. The family kept
him as a beloved pet until the mother became terminally ill. Even in the midst of that human tragedy, they made sure that
Billy was placed somewhere he’d be safe forever .
Prince George is the most recent guy to join our cow family. Animal control officers in Maryland found him chained to a log
in the woods, starving. Although they seldom dealt with “livestock”, they felt the same compassion for him as for the
companion animals that they worked with daily. They fostered him for 11 months, until they finally found him a “forever
home”. Now fat and sassy, he has been part of the family for almost a year.
What’s next? I don’t know, but my heart is open.
*Portion prior to 2006 was published in Teddybear and Friends, March/April 1996