These days, Bonnie the calf is hanging out with new bovine friends at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. But the flighty heifer spent most of the last year on the run, living with a herd of deer in the forest.
A 4-month-old Bonnie was with her mother and her Hereford herd on a farm in Holland, New York, last summer when the owners died, and the remaining family loaded up the livestock to sell at auction. In all the commotion, a frightened Bonnie got loose and galloped toward the nearby woods.
"She was just a baby. She took off and her mom probably lost her mind because mother cows are nuts over their babies," Farm Sanctuary National Shelter Director Susie Coston tells MNN. "It's very sad that happened, but at the same time it’s the thing that saved her."
Because it was August, the temperature was warm and there was plenty of grass and water to keep the scared calf alive. There were many stories about Bonnie the escapee, but one hunter saw her with some pretty unusual companions. He was waiting quietly for deer and she came thundering out of some trees, accompanying a herd.
"She came running out making so much noise because she's very, very clumsy," says Coston. "The guy was in such shock to see a cow."
The idea that a calf could team up with a herd of deer is admittedly hard to believe, Coston says.
"This is the first time I've seen wild animals take on a calf. They slept together and they hung out together. Clearly she was part of that herd," Coston says. "My guess: She was probably terrified and trying so hard to be with someone. They were probably like, fine, just stay. They definitely took her on like she was one of them. It's very cool."
Gradually there were sightings everywhere of Bonnie with her deer friends. That first hunter told his neighbor, Becky Bartels, and she realized there was no way a calf could survive the winter in the woods without some help.
Bartels set up a trail camera and started toting food, bedding and water out to the wayward calf. It took some time to gain Bonnie's trust, but eventually the calf would come to greet her — and she even started to bring her deer friends.
As the winter grew colder and the snow grew deeper, Bartels would lug supplies out on a sled to her new calf pal. Bonnie eventually let her get close enough for an occasional pat.
Although Bartels enjoyed the budding friendship, she knew it couldn't last. Though Bonnie had gained some local fame as the escapee calf, not everyone was thrilled with her celebrity. Some farmers threatened to shoot her if she wandered onto their property, saying they would have her for dinner if she was caught.
So Bartels reached out to the Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit that houses 720 farm animals, all rescued from stockyards, factory farms and slaughterhouses. Because Bonnie trusted Bartels, the group relied on her to help the calf feel safe during the rescue process. They constructed a corral around where she normally ate, gradually closing it in. It took three trips over the course of two weeks — and a little tranquilizer — to eventually bring Bonnie to safety.
Bonnie is now in a pen in a barn at the sanctuary, still wary of the people around her. She has made friends with a fellow escapee, an Angus cross named Alexander Beans. Alexander ran about 10 miles when police finally caught him mooing in people's windows. Alexander and Bonnie groom each other and sleep together.
Another maternal cow named Jackie likes to lick Bonnie and treats her like she's her calf. And another calf named Pecan moos at her, urging her to join the herd outside.
Soon, Bonnie will join the other cows, says Coston.
"I really want her to be calm before we let her out," she says. "There are deer all over the property that graze with our cows. I'm very curious to see if she goes to them and says, 'my people are here.'"
Here's a video that tells more about Bonnie's story and shows Bonnie and Alexander hanging out together in their new home:
You can learn more about Bonnie and other animals helped by the Farm Sanctuary — and support their work, if you choose — at the organization's website.