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We first learned of the 4-year old Guernsey cow in need when an employee at a local farm contacted us pleading for our help in saving her favorite cow from going to auction/slaughter after the farm deemed her unprofitable due to chronic illness. We immediately contacted the farm and offered sanctuary but they declined stating that it was their policy that all animals had to be sold through auction for "highest profit". Heartbroken as we were, we could do no more. We thought the story would end here.
But, love found a way. That young woman and her mother so loved this cow, that they stepped far beyond their comfort zone, self-sacrificed their time and money, and put their hearts on the line to follow the cow to auction where they secured her, arranged transport, and escorted her to Lasa. They arrived in our driveway late one November night. We knew little about the cow at the time but could quickly see that she had a severely compromised udder and was highly stressed. She arrived with livestock stickers and a breeding mount marker affixed to her back; with an ear tag in her ear and eyes wide with fear and confusion.
That night, we tucked our new girl into her quarantine and let her get some rest. In the morning, we removed all industry markers and gave her her name, Riya Aurora. Riya's name means "river" in Spanish and was inspired by Bruce Lee's "Be Like Water" teaching on resilience which came to mind as we learned more of her story. Riya's tale is like all other dairy cows. She was purchased, forcibly impregnated, and had her first three calves taken from her shortly after their births so her milk could be used for sale and consumption in the human market. Riya suffered chronic, treatment-resistant mastitis for years which ultimately lead the farm to discard her at auction, but not before impregnating her once again in an attempt to raise profit by selling her as a "bred cow". We promised Riya we'd love and take care of her and her baby for all their lives. We had no idea that time would be so short.
Riya was still producing milk when she arrived and we confirmed present mastitis that we worked for months to subdue. Due to the extensive damage in her udder, this was a painstaking process for Riya as well as ourselves. Finally, we dried her off and eliminated all ongoing symptoms of infection. During this time, Riya came to trust us and the animal herd here at Lasa. She bonded with Jude, grazed with Avani, ran in the pasture, lazed in the woods, and drooled all over (and adorably sucked her tongue) when given grain. She was happy and she was loved. She was also growing!
We confirmed Riya's pregnancy around her 4 month mark (cattle gestation is very similar to that of humans) and though our vet warned us that we'd need to continue monitoring for possible mastitis, we were excited (and nervous)! Riya's next few months were content as we studied and prepared for her baby's birth. We set up a nursery pen, purchased a calf resuscitator and blankets, fresh bedding, and a web cam. Mom looks strong, we were told, and we felt optimistic despite Guernsey calves' reputation for being rather fragile. We watched the camera for hours at a time just waiting for a sign. And then, late last Sunday night labor started.
We ran out to the barn like a flash and caught baby's front hooves just starting to present. We assisted baby in proper positioning to allow an easier delivery and at 11:33pm, Sunday July 5th, Riya welcomed her beautiful daughter Skye Julian into the world. The four of us were thrilled and smitten and shared turns cleaning Skye, petting her, warming her. Riya was a perfect mother. She was attentive, gentle, soft, and in tune with her Skye. We were honored to have her permit us not only to be near but to fully interact with both her and the baby.
Something was off though. Skye couldn't nurse due to Riya's udders being damaged and hanging too low. We hand-milked to release the pressure and collect the colostrum Skye needed. Riya was inflamed so we added a milk supplement for Skye while we worked to reduce the inflammation and get healthy milk flowing. Still, Riya remained sweet and loving and would sometimes groom Skye while she drank from her bottle.
The following day, Riya appeared tired but had healthier milk output. Our vet told us this was normal (she did just give birth after all) and to keep monitoring her. She ate and rested with Skye, it was a peaceful day. It was our last peaceful day.
What we didn't know was that Riya's complicated mastitis never left. It had hidden dormant, most likely for years, and when she freshened (lactation started) the increased bloodflow to the infected area sent the infection surging throughout her body. She became septic and went down Wednesday morning with what appeared to be simple Milk Fever, a life threatening but treatment responsive condition caused by decreased calcium levels common after calving. We initiated immediate intensive treatment and symptoms of milk fever ceased. However, Riya was still down. Though no outward signs of mastitis were observed at this time, we began interventions on the assumption it was the culprit.
In collaboration with our veterinarian we added systemic and intra-mammary antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, IV treatments, supplements, probiotics, electrolytes, and began trying to work out a way to get Riya to a hospital despite her immobility while we monitored her around the clock to assure she remained in an upright position. We tried and we cried and we assured her and Skye that there's nothing we wouldn't do.
It wasn't long, however, before the light in Riya's eyes began to fade, she refused to eat, and her udder became overrun with infection. Just 48 hours after the first signs of illness, Riya stopped breathing. We hadn't even had the chance to get the results of her milk culture. The infection was too much for her heart to bear and the loss of her is almost too much for ours.
We dreamed of Riya and Skye grazing side by side for life. We dreamed of victoriously breaking the cycle of Riya having her babies taken from her. It's such a cruel twist of fate that though we were able to save her from auction and ongoing life on a dairy farm, in the end the farm still broke their bond, this time by taking Riya away from her baby.
It's a challenge to avoid blaming ourselves sometimes, the questions and guilty insecurities never leave. But the truth is simple. The farm did this to her. The dairy industry did this to her. She deserved love, compassion, respect, freedom, and family and what she got there was a life of infection, imprisonment, and broken bonds. The farm knew she was sick, they knew this could happen, but they chose profit.
It's Riya's face that will forever flash in my mind when I hear someone say they can't give up dairy. We hope sharing Riya and Skye's stories with you will help open some hearts, change some minds, and create a gentler world for us all. We are so eternally grateful to Riya for teaching us so much and for entrusting us with her perfect girl.
*2020 update: Sadly, Skye developed a chronic disease and we had to say goodbye to our baby girl. We were able to keep our promise to Riya, however. Because, although her time was cut short, Skye knew nothing but love, comfort, and family her entire life. To say knowing and loving them was an honor would be a drastically vast understatement.