My memory is not as sharp as it once was. Details fade as I age, but I never forget the emotions of each experience. For instance, I remember the day I learned about Mikey, maybe 10 years ago. I got a call from a woman whose name I no longer recall, and she told me her step-father had died and her family could no longer maintain his hobby farm. One of his projects was breeding a pair of polled Herefords every year and selling the calves as pets. He loved his cows and was determined that none would ever go to slaughter so he was very selective about where the babies went.
The woman had found out about our farm animal rescue, Locket’s Meadow, and asked if I would take their bull calf, Mikey. They had already decided to euthanize the cow and bull to be certain they never went into the slaughter pipeline; they loved their animals and knew that no matter what anyone says, there is no such thing as humane slaughter. Their animals would have a peaceful passing in their own yard. The plan had been to euthanize Mikey, as well, until they found out about Locket’s Meadow and our policy of letting every animal live out their natural lives on our sanctuary.
I told her I could take the calf, and if she wanted, I would also take his mama. We aren’t set up for a bull, however, and even if we castrated him he’d been intact for so long his habits would remain ingrained. The woman said they had agonized long and hard about it and they weren’t going to change their minds. We agreed to make arrangements, and as I hung up the phone, I began to cry.
I’ve been sensitive to animals’ conversations and emotions my entire life. The first thing I felt was that Mikey loved his mama with all his little heart and soul and that separating them would be devastating for him. I made a call to again pitch bringing them home together, but the family was firm in their intentions.
And so, my husband and I hooked up a trailer and drove two towns away to pick up baby Mikey. We pulled into a backyard where several Hereford’s stood within electric fencing. The calf was in the barn. He was very small, very handsome, and standing forlornly in a stall with his head held low. He clearly was not pleased to be alone, but he was silent. Only I heard him say, “Mama told me to be brave.”
I held back the tears while we loaded him onto the trailer with no trouble, then glanced back at Mikey’s parents who watched us drive away. “Take care of my baby boy,” was all I heard from his stoic mama. And Mikey . . . Mikey made one, long, low, plaintive moo as we left, and it was years before he uttered another sound.
Mikey moved into a paddock with Benny Coconut, a young Holstein who hadn’t worked out with the older steers. On Benny’s first day on the farm we’d put him in with steers, Norman and Bella Boy, and he panicked, a total bovine freak out that ended with him trying to jump the fence. We quickly removed him and tried him in with a group of male sheep and he settled down and got comfortable. When we added tiny Mikey to the mix, Benny welcomed him and took on the job of older brother, showing him the ropes and offering him his steadfast friendship.
Those of us who wallow in the deep, muddy trenches of animal rescue know more than is good for our mental health. We know that animals generally considered “food” are loving, feeling, sentient beings. We know they have deep relationships with family members and are heartbroken when separated from them. We know they carry that love in their hearts throughout their entire lives, and while we do our best to be their mamas and daddies, we know it’s not the same. Yes, they love us and we love them, but that bond . . . especially with their mamas . . . oh, how they miss them when they are separated. Some more than others . . .
Time passed and life in Benny and Mikey’s paddock was sweet and peaceful. Benny grew and grew, and he ended up a giant of a steer. Mikey, on the other hand, barely grew at all. He told me he didn’t want to get big so that when he finally saw his mama again she would still recognize him. I had no words to respond, all I could do was accept his intentions. Checkups with the vet produced no diagnosis and the consensus was he was a throwback of some kind. I knew better, but kept it between my husband, Mikey and me.
I never brought up the subject of his parents’ demise, and neither did he, but I always assumed he knew. I’m still not sure . . . and I still won’t ask . . .
When fully grown, Benny Coconut got to weigh around a ton. Mikey, who should have been at least 1,500 pounds, never got past 700 at his heaviest. They were Mutt and Jeff, huge and tiny, always side-by-side, often surrounded by a small flock of sheep. Both boys were as gentle as the sheep they grazed with, and I trusted them to be kind and careful.
One day, Benny Coconut’s eye began to run. Mikey did his best to take care of it, licking his eye and face until it was spotless. The problem went on for days, so I began to treat it as an eye infection. Despite my efforts it got progressively worse until one day I noticed a red growth on his lower eyelid. I took a picture and sent it to our large animal vet, Dr. Caitlin Macintosh, at Beckett and Associates.
Dr. Cait is wonderful. She knows I’m a sucker for my animals, and that I hurt when they hurt. But she also knows I need the truth, so she uttered the dreaded word, “cancer,” then added that it could be isolated to his third eyelid and if we removed that, he could be fine.
Oh. My. God.
We have a lot of animals. Like, when I say “a lot,” and most other people say “a lot,” there’s a difference of at least 100 animals, and ours tend to be much, much bigger. Like, nearly 40 horses, 8 steers, 9 pigs, countless sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds . . . so many animals. All of them our babies, all of them loved and beloved. Because we have so many, and lots of them are rescued from bad situations, we also lose more animals than other people do. You would think we’d get used to it, but each one hurts just as much as the last, and some more than others. There are always those animals who are our soul mates, and both Benny and Mikey fell into that category. I was fiercely protective; we would do whatever we had to do to save him.
When Dr. Cait arrived to do the surgery, we separated the boys from each other, which hadn’t been done since Mikey arrived. We led Benny Coconut into a small paddock connected to the barn and left Mikey in the larger paddock on the opposite side of the fence so they could still see and be near each other. Benny mooed a few times for Mikey, and Mikey trotted nervously nearby.
Benny is such a good boy he needed no more than a sedative injected into his tail and Cait was able to quickly remove the growth and the third eyelid.
“I’ve never worked on such a nice steer before,” she said. “Is he always such a good boy?”
“Always,” I replied. “He’s an angel. So is his little brother.”
As the surgery ended, Mikey grew antsy. He’d stood next to Benny for much of the procedure, then took a few quick laps around the paddock before racing back, trying to get Benny’s attention. Benny was still lethargic, but Mikey took yet another lap, spun around and stopped in the middle of the paddock. Then, to my surprise, the tiny steer let out a single, low moo.
Moo number two.
Despite being drugged, Benny lifted his head and returned the greeting. Only then did Mikey settle down and calmly wait for life to get back to normal, which it did. Benny’s eye healed, and while it did, Mikey carefully kept it clean so the flies left it alone. There would be several more eye surgeries for Benny, who ended up having his eye removed, but Mikey was always nearby, and always helped with his recovery. Eventually we gave Mikey a collar with a bell so that if one day Benny Coconut completely lost his vision he would always know were Mikey was.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020.
David texted me during afternoon chores that Mikey had gone down in the mud and he needed my help. He had fallen near the barn door so it wasn’t a huge emergency, but I quickly finished what I was doing and headed over.
We have a very precise and well-orchestrated routine for chores. David starts on the “house” side of the farm where we have all of the farm animals like pigs, goats, sheep, steers, etc. I start on the “horse” side, our second driveway that has the horse barn, indoor arena and sheds. I soak the grain for the many older horses that lack teeth, add supplements and medications for all our special needs ponies and throw hay into the paddocks. We have about 38 equine-type animals in total, including burros and mules, almost all of them rescued from neglect, abuse, slaughter and other unhealthy situations. In the morning I turn them out, leading them up the hill to their paddocks, and in the afternoons I bring them back in. At the end of every day I have at least seven miles on my phone’s health feature. I am always grateful I’m a sturdy old woman from strong European peasant stock.
20 years of animal rescue has taught us a few things, including how to get a cow out of the mud and into the barn. We are familiar with straps and winches, we know how to slide a huge animal on sheets of plywood. David and I barely have to say a word to each other aside from counting, “One, two, three . . . pull!” Mikey had one front leg stuck in the mud, which was a lot better than the two front legs he’d gotten stuck the previous time . . . in the dark. That was a struggle and a half. Once we’d gotten him out we still had to get him all the way to the barn, sliding him along sheets of plywood, moving the back piece to the front and sliding him again. Hours of moving him, resting him, moving him. By the time we got to the barn door he stood up, went in and ate his lunch. All done and all better. This time he was about three yards from his destination . . . piece of cake, we thought.
And it was. We had him out of the mud and into a stall in a matter of 20 minutes, but once inside, Mikey wouldn’t stand up and was clearly in shock. OK . . . we covered him with blankets hot from the dryer and I got out my box of tricks. First, an injection of Dexamethasone, a steroid to perk him up. Then a hit of an injectable antibiotic. I texted with Dr. Cait and she told me to add 10 mls of Banamine, an anti-inflammatory and pain reducer. More hot blankets. Within a half hour he was much brighter and reacting to his surroundings, but we couldn’t get him to stand up. And worse, it seemed he didn’t have control of his back legs. But WHY??? He hadn’t landed in a way that should have affected them. We continued to shift his position every few hours to keep his blood circulating and I fed him warm mash often, as it was all he would eat.
And so began several days of texting with the vet and trying everything we could think of. As is always the case when an animal is sick, there’s no room for anything but chores and tending the ailing baby, back and forth all day, always late for the next task, always apologizing to horses for being late with dinner. Dr. Cait came and checked Mikey out in case he had a cracked pelvis or other structural issue. All looked good, but blood work later showed he was anemic. Weird . . .
Since he seemed structurally sound we decided to lift him to his feet in a sling. I posted on Facebook, the ultimate resource for animal rescues, that we needed a block and tackle, and Dr. Cait located a sling we could borrow. Within a matter of hours we had what we needed, as well as a volunteer who knew how to use the equipment. The sling was in place, the chains were attached and up Mikey went. We fully expected him to just . . . stand up . . . but he couldn’t seem to find his feet beneath him. His front legs weren’t bad, but no matter how many times I placed his back feet where they belonged, they slipped out of place. We gave up and decided to try again the next morning, but in my heart I knew something was desperately wrong. If Mikey could have stood up, he would have.
That night I had a dream in which we had found an extra bedroom in our house and we had to shift everyone around. When I woke up I thought about how nice it would be to have that extra space, but then . . . I realized it wasn’t about a bedroom at all . . . it was about an extra stall. I got dressed, ran to the barn in the dark and gave Mikey his Banamine injection, his antibiotic shot and shifted his position. While he was a small steer, it still took a lot of effort to move him by myself (thank you again to my German/Dutch/Slovak heritage and my enormous shoulders.)
“Come on, Mikey,” I whispered into his impossibly soft ear. “You’ve got to be OK! We don’t need the extra stall, we need you!”
He wrapped his head around me in a gentle hug. And then he refused his breakfast.
A few hours later we assembled Mikey’s lift team. He seemed weaker every minute, and I had already decided we were only going to make one more try. It was clear there was something else terribly wrong. In fact, we only got Mikey half-way up when I halted the operation . . . his rear legs hung limply and he clearly had no control at all. A decision had to be made, and as always, it would be mine.
I curled up in the straw next to my boy, where I’d spent the bulk of every spare minute of the past few days, and we had a quiet conversation. It was time, Mikey said, for him to go back to his first mama.
“But she will always be there waiting for you,” I replied. “Why not stay here longer? What about Benny Coconut!?”
“You will always be waiting here for me, as well,” he replied. “I’m lucky to have two mamas. And you will take care of Benny just fine.”
I texted Dr. Cait and told her Mikey was ready to move on. She said given his age, the most logical explanation was bovine leukosis, which can cause tumors to grow on his spine. The issue might not have been the mud; it may be that’s just where he landed when a tumor reached critical mass. We would never know. Dr. Cait would be on the farm in an hour, but I asked her for a little more time so some of Mikey’s friends could come visit him first. I texted a few people, then curled up again next to him in the straw.
David brought Benny Coconut into the next stall he and Mikey could see each other. We always make sure our animals’ best friends know what’s happening so they can mourn, as well. A beloved companion disappearing with no explanation is beyond unfair. Friends filed in for Mikey snuggles, hugs, kisses and tears, then filed out again as the veterinarian arrived.
As far as endings go, it was like all the others. Mama and Daddy hovering over our beloved baby, whispering in his ear that he is loved and special and perfect and we wouldn’t have traded one second of our time with him for all the money in the world. Only one thing was different; when Dr. Cait gave Mikey his first shot of sedative, as it began to kick in and his head began to sway, I saw a moment of panic in his eyes. He gathered himself, held his head high, looked in Benny Coconut’s direction and bellowed out one last moo.
Moo number three.
Benny instantly answered with a matching moo, and then Mikey relaxed and rested his head on the straw. He had said his goodbye to his best friend. Mama number one was waiting for her little boy to return to her, and he was anxious to greet her. Mama number two, of course, fell apart and stayed curled in a ball next to her sweet boy for a long time. All goodbyes are painful, but some are downright unbearable.
Please don’t leave this story feeling sad or disheartened. It’s not my intent. Mikey’s life is all about love. He loved Benny Coconut, his friends, his family, his mamas, all the other steers on the farm . . . everyone. No matter what the circumstances, Mikey always chose to be kind. Had his first family not allowed him to come to Locket’s Meadow it would have been 10 years all the poorer for every one of us who ever experienced the gift of meeting him. To spend time with Mikey caused many to begin questioning all preconceived notions of farm animals and their purpose. How do you contain all “meat” animals in a neat little cubicle of non-sentient, soulless beings when you look into the eyes of an animal who is clearly deeply acquainted with God and all things spiritual? The inconvenient truth is, you shouldn’t.
Mikey’s faithful friendship and loyalty was unshakable, and he cherished every day of his life, even while missing his original family. He understood how to appreciate every moment, and he taught us so much. For all living beings, sadness is a part of the life experience and it’s how we choose to live with it and move forward that defines us. Every rescued animal on our farm has come to us from a place of pain, terror, sadness . . . most overcome it. Some remain sad no matter how hard we try. It doesn’t matter as all living beings have our tests here on this planet. As their human parents, our job is to support their lives and the spiritual choices our “babies” make. We don’t judge, nor do they.
One thing I know for sure is that all of us, humans and animals alike, contribute to the fabric of the Universes. Every choice we make, whether it is to be cruel or kind, affects all the energy in existence. Mikey’s only impact was positive and I only wish I could say the same for mine.
He may have been just a steer to some, but Mikey’s life made a difference, and I will be forever grateful to have been his second mama. If I remember nothing else, as I grow older and more feeble-minded, I will always and forever remember his love.