On being afraid for Sadie

We've all met them. They have woven their story into our own. Their light becomes a beacon of our own, a shining we want to be near. Sometimes they reciprocate, attracted to our own flicker. Sometimes they tolerate us, bumping against our circle but not interested in entering. I've heard some call them their "heart" companions, these precious beings who force their way into some portion of our hearts. Their presence is weighty, a mass with feelings that sometimes spill out unpredictably.

Such is the case with Sadie.

I have not felt such a strong attachment to an animal at the sanctuary. Do not get me wrong, I love them all. Some I adore in different ways - for their stoicism, their playfullness, their joy, even their anger. I'm never indifferent to any sanctuary denizen - there are just some animals who I want to protect, nurture and be around more than others.

Sadie is special. People don't always see it when they meet her. She is a middle-aged Holstein cow, maybe 10 or 11 years old. Her life has never been easy. Never. Born on a dairy farm, she never knew her mom and she was denied the basics of motherhood - nursing her own young - for years. Her tail had been docked, leaving her defenseless against flies. My best guess is she gave birth to 3-5 calves. Maybe a few are still alive, living on a farm somewhere until they too are sent to auction. When Sadie ended headed for slaughter, she was purchased by a veterinary school and used as a training tool. A tool. Such a nasty word but it encompasses how she was viewed - a device to teach students rectal exams and finding veins. Her identification was an ear tag, nothing more.

She suffered from mastitis, a painful infection that engorged her udder with pus. It hurt, yet she trudged on, enduring the weeks of poking and prodding by students. In a cruel irony, she was never treated by the vet hospital, her mastitis was permitted to continue before she ended up at the sanctuary (and we had to take her back to that same hospital for mastitis treatment). At the age of 7, Sadie broke her left rear stifle when she slipped in the chute at the veterinary clinic, leaving her with a permanent, disfigured left rear leg.

Things did not look up when she arrived at Animal Place. We could not tell her that the daily, highly invasive mastitis treatment was meant to heal. She got into her routine of entering a make-shift chute, eating some fresh fruit, and having pus scooped from her udder. It had to hurt, such an uncomfortable indignity. I fed her apples every day. I promised her to be a source of good things - no touching, not a lot of talking, just apple after delicious apple. Our relationship was strictly one-sided - I adored her, loved her beautiful face, her stilted gait, her dedication to the crushing of red and green apples. She did not feel the same way about me - I provided her apples, that was good, but I was not her friend, not a bovine, not someone she could trust.

It hurt, this rejection. But stopping was never an option. If all she ever let me do was feed her apples, that would be fine. Just being near her calm, gentle presence was enough of a gift.

And then one day, her world once again spiraled out of control. She was pregnant. No one at the vet hospital had caught her near full-term pregnancy. We do not deal with births frequently and had no clue what ailed her. Her baby, a boy, died. She groomed him when his limp body fell to the ground. Oh how I cried for her, her loss, her missed chance to be a real mother. All this for a glass of milk. It seemed so unfair.

I kept my promise. Sadie only received good things. When she wanted to be left alone, I honored that. When she wanted a brushing, I reveled in grooming her. When she tolerated me massaging her sore leg, I'd push our boundaries and try to scratch her neck or touch her face. Back off, she'd sometimes say. But other times, she'd stand still, lower her head, and let me scratch in upward strokes her neck - the bovine way to groom a friend (they do it with their prickly tongues, I use my hand). For the rest of the day, I wore a goofy grin, so pleased with the progress.

This took years, folks. Years. And it isn't like we'll ever be best friends forever (still my great dream, of course). She loves cows, the real ones with four legs and alfalfa-smelling breath, the ones who know her moods in an instant. She likes me when she likes me and ignores me when she wants to be left alone.

She started losing weight a couple weeks ago. Her limp became more pronounced and she was knuckling over - her injured hoof would flip forward onto her ankle instead of back onto the bottom of her foot. She did not want to be touched. Even being brushed annoyed her. Something was wrong. Her blood tests returned normal, leaving us wondering what could be affecting her. We isolated her and offered food. Oh how she ate! Flake after flake of hay, bucket after bucket of produce. Perhaps she was being bullied away from the food or couldn't reach the best food in a quick amount of time, because of her leg. We're still not sure what the reason is for her decline.

But it has me afraid. Sadie has known nothing but heartache and suffering. She was exploited for years, and we desperately want the years of freedom and sanctuary to be longer, to be what she remembers most. This is the downside of opening up your heart to another living being, one who's life is generally far shorter than your own. It hurts to see them suffering, aches to be incapable of providing them relief. All we can do is make life comfortable and as enjoyable as possible. We'll get to the bottom of this - we have to.

Yesterday, Sadie was isolated in a pasture so she could receive ad lib food. She had been staring mournfully out at the other cattle. For hours, she stood and stared, as if willing her body to transplant itself from the pasture to the barnyard where her friends lay in straw. I watched her and felt that little Sadie-spot in my heart cry, so hurt at her emotional suffering. I headed out to the pasture where she stood, without any offering of food. We had set up straw pile for her bed and put out some hay which she had been ignoring for the better part of the day. Her shade where she stood was diminishing, being replaced by sun and heat. She needed to be in the shade, laying in a bed of straw, nibbling on hay.

I called to her. Sadie! Lo and behold, she turned her head and gazed back. Turning her body, her back legs shifting uncomfortably, she stared at me. I melted a little - perfect, perfect, perfect cow. Telling her she was a perfect, perfect, perfect cow, I willed her over to me, to the hay and straw. Until it is replaced by another, no moment left me speechless, so full of unparalleled joy as when Sadie stared me in the eyes and walked to me. She's never done this, chosen to come, it's always the other way around. But yesterday she did. For whatever reason, whatever thought propelled her closer to a human - well, I thank that thought. She sniffed me over, then dug into the hay. After every bite, she'd lift her head and drool on me, sticking her nose right in front of my face, breathing in my scent, exhaling hers. Conjuring up every ounce of self-restraint, I did not hug her. Hardest thing I've done in awhile.

So I'm afraid for Sadie. Afraid of the unknown thing that ails her. Afraid she won't have a set of great years. Afraid I won't be with her when she dies*, afraid she won't have her cattle friends with her when she dies. Afraid of many things that are silly and useless but plague me nonetheless. All those fears, I'm working at pushing them aside, balling them up, kicking them to the curb. Sadie is here. She is in the now, doing her best to forget the past. SHE KISSED ME WITH HER NOSE. A good thing, I think.

*Which she isn't going to do, by the way. She's living another 30,000 bazillion years.


Sheila said...

Ooo...Marji... your love for Sadie does come through so strong in this post, how can she not feel it in person.

herbstsonne said...


David Levering said...

You are a good person, above most. Thank you for this perspective.

gina said...

Sadie will respond to your love and care. Got to be... your love is powerful!

Susan said...

Your love for Sadie is so pure, so strong, so health-giving and life-affirming.

Try very hard not to be a host to fear, which is a discourager (and can be felt by sensitive animals) instead of an encourager and lightener.

Tender, unselfed love such as you have demonstrated is the true medicine every time, whether Sadie stays here a few years or a bazillion.

And, Marji, if you sense deep down inside that she needs to be with her cow friends for comfort and support, I know you won't let fear stop you from doing whatever her heart requires.

Patient waiting, with no ulterior motive, is a beautiful trait, and Sadie is obviously responding to that kind of love from you.

The Voracious Vegan said...

What an amazing post, thank you for writing. I will be thinking about Sadie, I hope she gets better soon.

invisiblevoices said...

Could it be something as simple as arthritis?

This was a beautiful and heart wrenching account of your relationship with Sadie. I think it is one of the hardest things for us, as people who see these animals as individuals who have their own likes and dislikes, to know that as much as we might want to shower them with our love, that sometimes the best way to express it is to not impose ourselves on them.

I hope Sadie has a recovery. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned to not give up on them.

Marji said...

Thanks, everyone.

Sadie is out with the rest of the cattle. We've upped her pain meds to see if the problem is an exacerbation of her chronic arthritis/lameness or something more acute like a foot abscess. We're hoping it's the arthritis - Sadie does not do well going to the vet, so we would hate to have to treat a foot abscess...