Wednesday, January 28, 2015


     Bambi was different from the beginning, from before the beginning. Most of the calves are born at dawn in the middle of a field, sometimes in the frost or rain. By the time we see them later in the morning they are up walking around and nursing. They are usually fearful of us and their mothers reinforce this with aggressive and protective behaviors. When a female is born we try to get near her starting fairly early on. Most of the females will stay and breed and so it's good that they get comfortable with us so there's no drama when it's time for the vet or when animal control comes to take yearly blood samples. When a male is born though, his fate is more or less sealed. He'll be sent to slaughter before his second birthday so there's really no point in teaching him anything or getting attached; and that's how it was until Bambi.
Two day old Bambi
Many of you know Bambi's story. His mother, Camila, was a sturdy and seemingly healthy cow but days before Bambi was born she started limping. We brought her into the stable and away from the herd so we could keep an eye on her. The vet came and found a lump in her hip. It's very possible that she fell on the mountain and this caused the mass, but the vet said it was also very possible that it was some kind of tumor. Either way, there wasn't much we could do but keep her happy and well fed and hope she healed. Bambi was born a few days later, in a warm stall on a bed of straw, a prince from the very beginning. I had never had the chance to be so close to a newborn calf before, I had only watched them from afar or sat quietly in the field until they would com up and sniff me and then run off. Bambi was different though, his mother was sick and not particuarly protective, and while I would be careing for her I would pet him and play with him like a puppy. I wished so much that he had been a girl, and Filipe would gently remind me from time to time, ''It's too bad he wasn't a girl, huh?''
     About a week after Bambi (he wouldn't get that name until later) was born his mother, Camila, went down and wouldn't get up. We pushed her, we pulled her by the horns, we even tried whipping her, which was desperate on our part and we immediately felt ashamed. The vet brought us a contraption that locked onto her back hips and, using a winch, lifted her back end off the ground.
Filipe giving Camila a leg massage while up on the winch
The idea was that with half her body up she could push up in the front and stand on her own. Occasionally she did this, but most of the time she hung limp with her back end raised high enough for Bambi to nurse. Remarkably, she was able to withstand this terrible situation for quite a while. The vet said her digestion would shut down in a few days with her spending so much time lying down, but she pushed on, and even more remarkably, continued producing milk for several weeks. We spent several hours a day lifting her, giving her massages and medicines, and in between, wrestling and then resting in the hay with little Bambi. One morning we went out to feed them and Filipe said that she wasn't going last much longer. He called the truck to come and get her and an hour later she died.
Going outside for the first time
In the days and weeks that followed I devoted myself to Bambi. I would wake up at all hours to    warm his milk and bring him his bottle. I fed him cabbages from the garden and homemade oat treats. Filipe said he was costing us as much as a real baby and that was fine with me because he was my baby. 

     As Bambi got older we talked from time to time about the fact that he would have to leave at some point. We were very matter-of-fact about it. He was growing very slowly due to his difficult start, not having enough of his mother's rich milk, and so it always seemed a long way off and it was safe for me to say that when the time came I would be stoic and zen and practicing nonattachment and all that.
     Since Bambi was born two years ago, we have had the opportunity to hand raise two other calves for other reasons, but they aren't like Bambi. Maybe it was his temperament or maybe I was just more devoted to him and gave more with him early on, but as an almost full grown bull he was as gentle as an old horse. He could be rough with other young males and he made sure the females knew that he was ready when they were, but around people he always behaved himself and liked to sidle up for scratch on the neck.
Bambi and my mom- summer 2014
     As the time grew closer for him to leave Filipe and I started to talk about not sending him off. We made excuses, ''he's so gentle and that's such an important quality in a bull.'' ''He's small, but he's growing fast now, he'll probably be pretty big.'' We bargained with ourselves and eachother. And then we would steel ourselves again and remind the other that this is a business, that there really is no place for another bull, especially a runty one. And we went back and forth and back and forth. We both wanted to keep this special bull and we both knew we should send him away.
      The day finally came. Today, Wednesday. On Sunday Filipe called the truck that would take him and another calf to the slaughterhouse. When the guy asked how many animals would be going Filipe said, ''Two, maybe one, maybe two, we're not sure yet, actually.'' My heart jumped. I wanted to beg Filipe to keep him, but I knew if I did he would and I wasn't sure it was the right thing and not just the selfish thing to do. So I always told him to do what he thought was right when the time came. On
Me and Bambi on Monday
Monday I took some photos with Bambi but we didn't talk about it. On Tuesday we stood by their pasture for a long time just watching him graze, but we still didn't talk about it. Filipe was late getting home Tuesday night and I was in bed, I heard him come in but I went back to sleep, I didn't want to talk about it. It seemed like no time at all had passed when the cellphone alarm went off and even though I'm not a morning person I woke quickly, full of heartbreak. Filipe leaned over in the dark and gave me a hug and we stayed like that for a while until he whispered in my ear, ''Happy birthday.'' My heart lifted tentatively, ''What?''
''I have an early gift that isn't expensive but will probably be very costly. Would you like a Bambi for your birthday?'' I beamed in the darkness, the kind of big smile that you can almost hear.
''Thank you,'' I said quietly.
''Oh well, we already put so much money into him we might as well keep him.''
     So Bambi is back out in the field eating hay and enjoying life. As he gets bigger we'll have to figure out how to fit him into the system we have. In all likelihood we'll send off the current bull and Bambi will take his place. I've lost a lot of animals in my first four years farming, some by accident but others by design. Two or three years ago I would probably have insisted Bambi leave, to prove to myself and others that I'm tough, a true farmer. These days I realize that while I have to make sacrifices (we sent off two very sweet calves today, one that I had also hand raised) it's also important to be gentle with your heart and give yourself a break when you can.