Everywhere I go, people ask me less often about politics than about Layla. For readers who missed my earlier column about the abandoned Charolais calf I adopted at birth, Layla’s early weeks consisted of one life-threatening crisis after another.
All big brown eyes and spindly legs, she was too weak to suckle. I learned to force feed her through a plastic tube. She struggled hard against the insult; I felt she had a will to survive.
Experienced cattlemen warned me that saving her was likely impossible, although several went to great lengths to help. At two weeks, she suddenly went blind. Injections of the steroid dexamethasone restored her sight.
Raised among dogs, Layla appeared to think she was a basset hound, lying on the porch, peering in the window and mooing for her bottle. The two Great Pyrenees patiently let her nurse their ears. Centuries of breeding made them instinctively protect helpless calves.
For me, loving a baby cow was learned behavior.
Having failed to receive antibodies from mother’s milk, Layla suffered repeated bacterial infections. I learned to take her temperature, treat her with antibiotics, and dose her with Pepto-Bismol when her tender stomach rebelled. I pestered veterinarians and friends for advice.
By mid-September, Layla was in constant pain. Was I clinging to her out of perverse vanity? Making her suffer for a heart-warming story?
One afternoon I found Layla lying twisted in agony. She could barely stand. She refused her bottle. Outside, tropical storm Gustav swirled overhead; eight inches of rain fell that day.
I felt the end had come for my poor little girl. Had burial been possible, I might have put her down.
A true professional, my veterinarian admitted being at wit’s end. However, there was a vet in Damascus, Arkansas who treated only cows. Possibly Dr. Alvin Williams would have an idea.
Williams asked me to read him the ingredients on the bag of powdered replacement milk. When I came to “soy flour,” he said: “You can stop right there. She’s allergic to the soy. Her stomach’s too immature to digest vegetable protein. Basically, she’s starving.”
Williams advised me to buy raw, unpasteurized milk from a dairy farm. Layla’s pains abated overnight. Alas, something was still wrong. She’d clamber to her feet, drink her bottle, then lie down. She scarcely moved for days. I’d carry her from sun to shade, hoping she’d regain her strength. She barely acknowledged the dogs, who’d lick her face and ears, then go about their business.
One Saturday, we loaded Layla up and drove fifty miles to Damascus. The diagnosis was bad. Layla’s heart and lungs were sound, but she’d suffered brain damage secondary to the infections. Strong enough to walk, she’d forgotten how.
A hearty, straightforward fellow like most cattlemen, Dr. Williams gave us hope. He taught me to inject her with steroids and thiamine hydrochloride. Depending on the severity of the lesions, recovery might be possible. Basically, I’d have to rehab her like a stroke victim.
To make Layla walk, I had to drag her with a halter or shove her from behind. She needed to move her feet or fall on her face. Her innate cow stubbornness made her resist. Soon, light pressure on her rump would make her step forward. My wife would hold Layla’s bottle just out of reach while I moved her feet. Trembling like a little old man, she had to concentrate very hard.
The first time I saw her get up and move on her own made me very emotional. Surrounded by dogs, she’d select a spot on the lawn and graze lying down. Could she ever be a normal cow? Dr. Williams said progress would be gradual. Because most clients can’t devote much time to one sickly calf, the project fascinated him.
The dairy farm had a healthy Holstein with a single bad quarter on her udder, unsuitable for a milking machine, but fine for raising calves. Would I like to buy her? Along with a neighbor who’d had a black Angus calf orphaned by a lighting strike, I did.
Now Layla had a proper family. The Holstein immediately adopted the black Angus and the white Charolais as her own. At first she seemed puzzled by Layla’s failure to shadow her like a normal calf. However, sweet, patient Molly adjusted. When she lies down, she lies by Layla, conscientiously grooming and teaching her the rudiments of Cow 101.
At five months, Layla still grazes lying down. She remains confident that proper nourishment comes from a bottle. I’ve learned to milk her stepmother twice daily as she looks on, impatiently licking her lips.
For the time being then, Layla has two mommies.
Update: Alas, repeated infections proved too much for Layla’s overwhelmed immune system. She died on Christmas Eve 2008, having accomplished her mission: teaching me to love her kind.