'Do you want ... to cuddle a cow?'
Reporter gives Calf Cuddling at Hancock Shaker Village a try
An email from Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features, the Thursday before Memorial Day had as a subject line, "Do you want ... to cuddle a cow?"
Knowing Lindsey's penchant for assigning me "say, what?'' stories, I pondered the question before opening her email. The idea of getting up close and personal with a bovine had never crossed my mind. I have nothing against cows and enjoy seeing them dotting the Berkshire hillsides and meadows. Cuddle with them? Hmm, I've cuddled with many dogs (no cats, I'm allergic to them), my son when he was little, and my husband and a few boyfriends before I met him.
Cuddle a cow? No, I don't think so (which, by the way, was one of the quick replies Google suggested I send back to Lindsey).
I opened the email and found Lindsey had sent me a link to Hancock Shaker Village's newest program, Calf Cuddling. Whoa, stop the presses. A calf is quite different from a full-grown cow. I'd never thought about cuddling with a calf either, but what the heck? All babies and baby animals are cute. Hadn't I once tried to sneak a piglet out in my purse during an interview for the village's Baby Animals program?
I emailed Amanda Powers, director of communications at Hancock Shaker Village, and she arranged a play date for me.
The cuddling program came out of the village's goat yoga program, according to Powers, and offers another opportunity for human and animal connections. She added calves were chosen for the cuddling program due to their higher body temperature and lower heart rate than humans.
"It's calming. Hopefully, the person's heart rate will unison with the calf," said Allyson "Allie" Kowalczyk, the village's livestock manager. "It's another way to connect to the farm. It's more than just petting the animals, like with Baby Animals, it's more about caring for the animals like we do. It gives you a sense of stepping into the muck boots of farmers."
The cuddling program kicked off Sunday, May 19, but for some reason the people never showed. "Last weekend [Memorial Day], we had a great couple, who were super interactive. They asked lots of questions, which led to more questions about the farm," Kowalczyk said.
The morning of my calf cuddling date found me sitting on the side of my bed wondering: What does one wear when cuddling a calf? Jeans were a definite, but do calves drool, like to chew on dangling things or spit up like a human baby? Not knowing, I took the safe route and donned a comfortable sweatshirt and a pair of sneakers.
Powers met me in the parking lot and we set off for the barn annex, where my date was waiting for me. At the barn, Kowalczyk went to a pen to get my date — Bruiser, a 3- to 4-month-old Jersey or part-Jersey calf orphan, who was given to the village from an area farm. Kowalczyk led him on a long leash out of the barn and into the enclosed pasture, where he proceeded to kick up his heels and run around her in circles — completely ignoring me and mooing in protest if I got too close. Not to worry, it wasn't the first time a blind date was less than ecstatic to meet me.
Kowalczyk brought out her secret weapon, a large bottle with milk in it and Bruiser settled down to greedily drink his milk. I took over the feeding and we gazed into each other's eyes as he sucked on the bottle. Bruiser is chestnut-colored with one tiny vertical white strip near his tail and has large velvety brown eyes with lush long lashes. It was love at first sight for me. (The other calves in the program are Stanley, a 4- to 6-month old and a month-old heifer calf coming soon from another farm to her permanent home at the village.)
While we were in the pasture, Bruiser checked out his friends — goats peeking through an abutting wire enclosure, a chicken strutting a little way off and a pair of American turkeys, Benjamin and Franklin, who persisted in trying to sit on Kowalczyk's boot-clad feet. All I can say is, thank goodness their namesake lost his campaign to make the turkey the national bird over the bald eagle. They are homely! (Sorry, guys ...)
In the Calf Cuddling sessions (limited to only one one-hour session per week and two people per session), people have the opportunity to bottle-feed the calf, brush the calf and walk and/or play with the calf. Bruiser and I decided to simply stick with a lot of ear rubs, nose rubs and scratches along his sides and back, much like I do my yellow Labrador retriever at home. (Did you know cows shed fur like dogs?) And, like my Lab, Bruiser relaxed and leaned trustingly into my legs. My heart melted.
All too soon, it was time for Bruiser to go back into the barn, which he did reluctantly, mooing in protest at losing his freedom.
Kowalczyk has been on the job for "only two or three weeks." She graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton and earned a degree from Morrisville (N.Y.) State College in agriculture and business management. "The best part of my job is educating the community," she said.
Her favorite animal? Sorry Bruiser, she may like you, but chickens are her favorite, especially those in the village's Hatched program, in which eggs are brought to area schools, and returned after they hatch.
"They are really connected to me," she said. "Like, 'Here comes Allie, it's time for our feed!'" She added she liked collecting eggs at the village. "There are so many varieties of chickens and the eggs come in so many sizes and colors."
Like most farmers, Kowalczyk holds off on giving animals names, saying she only names goats and cows — and a chicken, Broken Foot.
"His foot isn't really broken," she said, "it's just not normal."
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