If you happen to be in Poland’s sprawling Bialowieza Forest, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of its most storied residents: a herd of wild bison.
And you might even spot a strange, new addition to that herd. No, your eyes are not deceiving you. This isn’t forest magic.
That’s a cow.
And how did a farm animal end up joining a herd of fiercely independent — and very much endangered — beasts?
According to Poland's TVN24 news portal, the cow escaped from her pen at a nearby farm last fall. Back in November, the fugitive farm animal was spotted again, keeping the unlikeliest of company.
"It's not unusual to see bison near the Bialowieza Forest, but one animal caught my eye,” Adam Zbyryt, the bird expert who spotted the cow told TVN24 back then. “It was a completely different light-brown shade from the rest of the herd. Bison are chestnut or dark brown."
The cow fit the description of one that had gone missing from the farm: a reddish-grown Limousin cow.
Then winter set in — and most assumed the cow, who wasn’t naturally built for the elements like her hardy friends, would perish.
But earlier this week, Rafal Kowalczyk, director of the Mammal Research Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences, came upon an astonishing sight: the very same cow, still healthy and seemingly well-fed, and still making time with his wild friends.
Somehow, the runaway cow had managed to thrive over the winter, even as the bison herd hadn’t fully welcomed her into the fold.
Indeed, the images show a cow just at the fringe of the herd. Let's call her a persistent cow, who may owe her life to the bison.
"She is not very integrated with the group, as bison act like one organism and she stands out," Kowalczyk told the Polish news station. But wolves, he added, were likely discouraged from attacking her thanks to the daunting company she kept.
But the cow still faces an uncertain future, mostly because her very presence puts an already minuscule bison herd in danger. There are just 600 of these behemoths left in Bialowieza Forest, a UNESCO heritage site spanning some 350,000 acres between Poland and Belarus. For the bison, the primeval forest is their last stronghold in Europe, having been hunted to near-extinction over the last century.
If, as Kowalczyk points out, the bison do accept this insistent cow into their herd, it could lead to mating, which could contaminate the herd with hybrids.
Then there’s the real possibility of the cow dying a particularly painful death during childbirth, as a baby bison may be too much for her bovine birth canal.
It’s hard to blame the cow.
Who wouldn’t peer over the fence at these magnificent animals and not dream of running with them? Besides, by several accounts, she was earmarked for slaughter.
But it does leave a lingering question: What to do with this little dreamer?
Likely, she will have to return to the farm. Or, even better, a sanctuary might step in, thanks to the soaring popularity if this "rebel" cow.
But before then, this cow leaves us all with a little bovine inspiration: There's no dream too big, too far — or even too weird.