Even before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall in southeast Texas, Mike Stura figured he should make the 1,670-mile drive from New Jersey.
He is, after all, good with his hands. He can operate all kinds of heavy equipment and drive any kind of truck.
And, as founder of Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue, he’s good with his heart.
After all, this is the same man who famously rushed to the rescue of a steer who had escaped a New York City slaughterhouse earlier this year — and drove hundreds of miles to bring the animal back to his New Jersey sanctuary.
Still, he had no idea how hard Texas would strain both his hands and his heart.
"I had no concept of who I’m going to help," he tells Mother Nature Network. "It may be that I come across a Chihuahua treading water the first minute I’m there — and that ends up being my project. Help him and get him back where he belongs."
And sure enough, as Stura approached the troubled region, he was met with a menagerie of misery. Stura was immediately recruited to help move horses to higher ground and join search parties for others in distress.
Can you lend a hand?
At one point, he found himself parked at a gas station near Beaumont, Texas, listening to local radio reports, when destiny knocked, literally, on the side of his truck.
It was a local rancher. Many of his animals were dead and still more were missing. Could Stura lend a hand?
The first victim the rancher led back to to the truck was a weak, exhausted, thin bull scarcely able to put one hoof in front of the other. As the men tried to guide him into the trailer, the bull flopped down on his side, his eyes rolling to the back of his head.
The bull seemed to have no fight left in him. The rancher went back into the floodlands to look for more cattle.
That left Stura to cradle a dying bull, struggling to ease the animal into a more comfortable position.
"I’m petting him and talking to him," he says. "I gave him some fresh water."
By the time the rancher returned, the bull seemed like he might be able to give the trailer another try.
But as the men led him with a rope harness, there was a misstep. The bull was suddenly in a gully beside the road — a gully filled with about six feet of water.
"As soon as he realizes he's in the water again, he just gives up," Stura recalls, "He doesn't kick. Nothing He starts to bob on his side a bit. Then he starts to go under."
The rancher, too, seemed to quit, telling Stura he had enough, and slumping down alongside the road.
While the bull sunk into the mire, becoming little more than nostrils above the surface, Stura rallied the rancher, along with another passerby. They pulled — "One, two, three … we do that four or five times" — finally heaving the hapless bull from the gully.
Things are looking brighter
That evening, they saved 11 more animals. But it was the bull that forged the most potent connection with Stura. So Stura broached a sensitive question with the rancher: Could he possibly take the bull back to his sanctuary in New Jersey?
"He looked at me as if I was speaking a whole different language," Stura recalls. "It wasn't that he thought I was an idiot or anything like that. He just couldn't compute the words that I was saying."
Ranchers, after all, see cattle differently from people who run animal sanctuaries.
But this rancher was straightforward, honest and grateful. He reckoned that even sick and thin, the bull was worth round $1,500. He also reckoned there was an undeniable connection between the animal and his rescuer.
"He just looks at me and goes, 'Man, I saw that you love him. You can have him'," Stura says.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather. He’s a cattle rancher. For him to say that, it's unbelievable."
In that long dark night near Beaumont, Texas, it may have even seemed a little magical.
Which may be one of the reasons why Stura, after driving his new friend back to New Jersey, decided to name him Babe, after the magical blue ox of American folklore that stood by Paul Bunyan’s side.
"He's home now," Stura says. "He's recovering. He's getting stronger."
And at Stura’s 232-acre sanctuary, with dry ground always under his feet, the rest of Babe's life promises to be even more epic.
Thanks to a partnership between two very different-minded men forged one dark Texas night.