Despite mine and his mother's best intentions, the little fellow was off to a rocky start...
The white was so white. The black on the ears and legs was so black. The American white park calf was new to the world and stood teetering on his new, too big, boney legs. He was newly dried by his mother. His hair stood in whorled cowlicks where his mother had cleaned and dried him with her rough tongue. It was clear to see how the word cowlick came to be, a perfect bunch of examples laid down by his mother on his fresh, soft coat. The cow's licking gave him a spiky but still soft appearance. There was not a stain of any kind on his brand new fur.
His eyes were so black and the white lashes were low and flashing. They were trying to help his new eyes adjust to the bright, first day of his life. The legs were finding their balance. There was teetering and concentration with each early step as his balance point was reestablished.
This was clearly a brand new start. The cow had removed herself to a quiet and secluded part of the pasture to have him. Now as I came upon the scene, they were just getting acquainted with each other. By the look of things, I was coming upon this scene within its first 3 or 4 hours. The calf, a big one for a newborn, had successfully been dropped, the coat cleaned and dried. The calf had gotten to his feet and was managing to stay standing. Now he was looking for his mother's milk.
His sucking reflex was firing and he was teetering up to his mother's chest bone and trying to suck on her fur. The cow was trying to help him locate her udder by taking a few steps forward each time he tried to suck on the fur between her front legs. The calf was not understanding and wobbled forward each time his mother did.
The cow was serine and patient with her calf. The problem was... they were running out of room in the direction they were headed with their bump-and-suck-and-step-forward routine. A single low electric wire, that divided the pasture, was getting closer and closer to the mother cow's side.
One more step and they were alongside the fence. The mother was now right along side the wire and the calf was under it. The wire rested on the calf's back.
I thought that he would react to the shock and fall down. Instead he seemed too new, naive, young to react at all. He just stood there on his wobbly legs. Each time the electric pulse came I could see it convulse his body. Other than the reaction of the muscle tissue to the electric current there was no reaction from him at all. It was like he had no knowledge or idea that this was bad for his body or not supposed to happen to him...after all, he'd just experienced the shock of being born. How was he supposed to know what experiences would be coming next?
The mother cow also had no knowledge that anything was wrong. There was no indication or call from her calf that anything was amiss. She was placid and serene, patient and waiting for her calf to catch on to nursing.
I felt the calf's shocks, each one, through empathy. It was awful. Hard to watch. Stupid cow! How could she not see that her baby was in danger? Convulsing away under the wire. “Come on you stupid cow, wake up and see the problem!” “Come on!” “Please!”
But no. There was no call for alarm from her baby. Things were fine. Just going a little slowly perhaps.
What could I do? I was behind 4 strands of electric wire, had a dog with me. There was a forest of poison ivy along the fence line. Besides the only thing the cow would likely find alarming would be the sudden arrival of me, a stranger, grabbing at her newborn baby.
I decided to call the farm that owned the cattle when I got back to my car. I figured the calf would tire soon and fall down and then he would be low to the ground and free of the electric shocks. He'd likely sleep and then make another attempt at getting to his feet to nurse his mother.
There was time for this story to still end well, but the farmer was needed to make sure that the calf ended up where he needed to be, on the right side of the fence and attached to his mother's udder. If he didn't get a good first milk soon it could be dangerous for his survival.
I wondered at the calf's naïveté. Was it normal? I wondered at being that new. I had assumed that all higher animals came into the world with more reflex or instinct for survival. I guess I didn't really ever give a lot of thought to those very first hours of being an individual. Everything being so new. A fleeting time, that seems to preexist reflexes. The difficulty involved in that very first hunt for food, the hunt for mother's milk.
Could this be right? Can it be that a calf is that vulnerable and pathetic in its first hours of life? I did not recollect this kind of extreme vulnerability in any of the calves that had been born on our family farm during my childhood. It is possible, but I read also that there is such a thing as silly calf syndrome or poor sucking reflex syndrome in which some otherwise healthy newborn calves lack a good strong reflex to locate and suck on the mother cow's udder. Was this calf a silly one or just so very new to the world?