Circle of Love

Circle of Love

By Maria Sears

Before my husband and I purchased a small ranch in Idaho that included fifty head of Herefords, I never really knew much about cows. I used to think that they were large, not particularly bright creatures who spent peaceful uncomplicated lives grazing in the green fields or napping in the sunshine. But once we started living on the ranch, I started to pay closer attention and learned to appreciate them on a deeper level.

I soon began to recognize the cows by their different markings, personalities and habits. I gave them all names, and they became my "pets" - in a wild sort of way. Two of my favorites were Freckles and her calf, Spunky.

Freckles first came to my attention early one spring. The cattle had spent the winter months on our lower pasture along the river, but when the cows started calving, we decided to move them to one of the upper pastures near the house. The move was uneventful, except that we discovered that one cow was missing. It was Freckles. We weren't alarmed because we assumed that she had probably given birth and was hiding in a thick patch of willows near the water. The birthing process is a private matter for most cows, and when labor begins they are quite clever at finding a hiding place away from the rest of the herd.

As we got near the bottom of the hill, Freckles came running out of the willows and headed across the field. A look of fury flashed in her eyes, as if to scold us for intruding. Her belly was considerably smaller since the last time I had seen her and her udder was swollen with milk. These were both signs that she had calved. My husband went after Freckles to coax her back, and I headed toward the willows to find her baby.

The calf was so still I almost tripped over her. Nestled in a soft hollow of sprig grass was the most beautiful little creature I had ever seen. The calf was a dark russet color with a white spot on her tail. She was curled up like a fawn and looked up at me with enormous brown eyes. I slowly knelt down and spoke softly as I reached out to stroke her velvety coat. She quivered under my touch, but she didn't move. She wouldn't even raise her head. She couldn't have been more than twenty-four hours old, but she had already learned how to stay put and be quiet.

My husband managed to guide Freckles back toward the willows and when she saw me, she bellowed for her baby. In a flash, the little calf understood the command, bolted from her nest and ran bawling toward her mother. We stood back to watch as they came together. The calf reached for the comfort of warm milk while her mother licked her reassuringly.

Once they had calmed down, we walked them up the hill to join the herd. With her head held high and her tail bobbing like a pump handle, the calf pranced behind her mother. We laughed and christened her Spunky - a fitting name, as she turned out to be our liveliest and most mischievous calf that spring.

As we got closer, the other cows started calling to Freckles. They bellowed back and forth, again and again, as if to guide her back to their new location, and they were all waiting by the fence when we arrived. As soon as we closed the gate behind them and moved away, they surrounded Freckles, and with nodding heads and soft lowing sounds they gently greeted her and inspected Spunky. Apparently satisfied, they slowly drifted apart and began to graze. A sense of peace and harmony was restored to their community.

I was puzzled the first few times I saw a single cow surrounded by several little calves, until I learned that cattle herds establish unique baby-sitting co-ops. Once again, I was amazed at their ability to communicate. How did they decide who would be the baby-sitter? And how did the mothers tell the babies not to move while they wandered away, sometimes for several hours?

One day, I glanced out my kitchen window and was astounded to see Red Man, our huge twenty-five-hundred-pound bull, lying in the pasture with a group of calves. The cows had somehow persuaded him to baby-sit that day. At least fifteen tiny calves surrounded Red Man, all of them content to lie lazily in the sun, except for Spunky, who had obviously grown tired of naptime. She slowly stood up. Her rump came up first, followed by a long stretch extended to the tip of her tail. Then she shook her head, flicked and seemed about to go romping across the field when Red Man lifted his massive head and gave her a disapproving glare. I watched entranced. Would the tiny calf defy the giant Red Man? Not that day. Spunky gazed at the bull for a long moment and then her legs seemed to melt back into the ground, once again the docile baby waiting for her mother to return.

One night, we woke up to the terrifying sounds of a pack of coyotes on the hunt. Barking and howling, they raced down the hill behind our ranch and into the pasture where the cattle had settled for the night. Young calves were their favorite prey. The cattle stampeded in their panic to escape from the pack. My husband grabbed the shotgun and ran outdoors. A few shots fired into the air were enough to scare the coyotes, and we stood there listening to them yip and howl as they disappeared into the night. The heard had been badly frightened and their restless bawling went on for hours. But other than that, all was well.

Or so we thought. At daybreak we went out to check. All of the animals were unharmed - except for one. We found a dead calf near some rocks, apparently killed in the stampede. My heart nearly stopped beating when I saw the white spot on its forehead, but it wasn't Spunky. It was a younger calf with similar markings. We carried the little body close to the gate and covered it with a tarp until we could bury it.

A while later, I heard a cow bawling. I looked around and saw the mother of the dead calf nudging it with her nose. Then I watched as Freckles and eleven other cows slowly walked over and formed a circle around them. One by one they began to bawl with the mother. The low, mournful tones of their lamentation drifted across the land as the morning sun rose.

As I watched them, I, too, became a member of their circle; I was one with them in their grief for the little life that had been, and was no more.

The cows stayed in that circle of love for over an hour. Finally, the mother backed away, turned and walked to a far corner of the pasture. Only then did the others end their vigil and move quietly away.

I stood rapt and motionless in the now-silent pasture, feeling the depth of their compassion in my own heart. Filled with awe and admiration for these animals, I turned back towards the house - that rare and tender scene firmly etched in my mind.


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