In the midst of a treacherous ice storm, Farm Sanctuary got a call that stopped us in our tracks: Four shorthorn-breed calves were fighting for their lives on a Pennsylvania dairy farm about three hours away from our New York Shelter — and time was running out. Based on initial reports from Humane Officer Eric Duckett of The ANNA Shelter — a local organization on the case, with whom we had recently worked on another calf rescue — seven calves had already died inside the barn. The survivors remained tethered by their necks in the same dark, filthy space where their deceased herdmates lay.

One of the calves trapped inside the filthy barn.

The surviving calves were extremely malnourished, terrified, and covered in feces. Their skin was thickened and scaly with raw areas likely from vitamin deficiencies, mange, fungal infections, and when hair caked with dried feces rubbed off along with skin. The calves’ “owner,” a small farmer, was apparently unable to handle their care and appears to have simply left them to die beside the others. They had likely languished there for months. But everything changed when their situation came to the attention of local authorities.

The conditions inside the barn were shocking, and the calves were in desperate need of help.

“I got called in to assist the cruelty officer in Crawford County, [who] got the call about some cows that were dead in a barn,” Officer Duckett recalled after the rescue operation was complete. “When we walked into the barn, it was hard to see some of the animals — the owner didn’t have all the lights on in the barn, but [we could see] that there were more dead animals than there were live animals. Some of the cows were just standing in their own muck, and it was about two feet high. The first calf we saw could only lift her head about a foot off the ground” because of the way she was chained and the tall mound of feces she’d been forced to stand on.

The calves had been forced to live in their own feces, which coated large portions of their bodies. Here, two of them are shown shortly after their arrival at Cornell, where their road to recovery has now begun.

Sadly, scenarios like this have become more and more common. Some people, troubled by the realities of modern industrial agriculture, choose to operate or support smaller dairies as a “humane” alternative to factory farms. In many cases, however, conditions on these smaller farms are just as bad — if not worse — than what cows face within the dairy industry at large. Take Stanton, for example; in 2017, we saved the tiny calf from a small farm where nine other calves had drowned in mud and feces. The year prior, we rescued Liz and Cashew from a farmer who loved her cows but, faced with the harsh financial reality of the dairy industry, was forced to choose between their welfare and her business. She wanted to be a humane farmer, who didn’t separate babies from their mothers or send male calves to slaughter, but the cost of maintaining a growing herd was just too much. Thankfully, she chose the former — but many small farmers make the opposite choice. They cannot compete with “Big Dairy,” which — even with a 40 percent per capita decline in consumption of fluid milk products since 1975, according to the USDA — has the advantage of government subsidies and massive marketing budgets. While Big Dairy can afford to flood fields with milk, smaller farms find themselves drowning.

In the filthy barn they were rescued from, the calves were desperate, malnourished, coated in waste, and scarcely able to move.

This farmer, too, was apparently in over his head — failing to provide even the most basic care to the animals suffering on his property. Fortunately, these four surviving calves — three females and one male — now have happy lives ahead of them.

When our Emergency Rescue Team arrived on the scene, we immediately got to work soothing these frightened calves, freeing them from their chains, and carefully loading them onto the trailer that would shuttle them to safety.

“It’s like an ice-skating rink,” National Shelter Director Susie Coston observed as our team set to work. We had to move cautiously to ensure that everyone stayed safe. This was no easy feat, as the calves were extremely frightened and had clearly never been outside before. We also worried that their overgrown hooves and atrophied bodies could make walking difficult for them — especially in these icy conditions.

Overgrown, soft hooves on one of the rescued calves.

Thankfully, the loading process was mostly uneventful; the reaction of the last calf to be loaded, however, broke our hearts. We had temporarily left her in the barn as we loaded the others into our trailer one by one. Terrified that we were leaving her behind, she began to cry out in dismay. We reunited her with her friends as soon as we could, and for the rest of the ride, they all settled in smoothly.

However, the ride to Cornell University’s Nemo Farm Animal Hospital was far from uneventful. Due to the treacherous, icy road conditions, a journey that should have taken us three hours instead took more than six. By the time we got to Cornell, it was close to 6 a.m. And our work was just beginning — in many ways, the initial rescue is the easy part; what comes next is even more difficult, and critically important. These four calves will require months of medical treatment and plenty of care and compassion to help them heal, both physically and emotionally. This will be no easy task, but with your support, we can give them the individualized care they need to live the rich, fulfilling lives they deserve.

One of the newly rescued calves, now at Cornell for health testing and treatment.

Because these calves are in very poor condition, with uncertain diagnoses, they currently need to be on strict isolation. But since it would be traumatic to quarantine them individually, we’ve temporarily split them up into groups of two. Based on their initial examinations, all four appear to be severely malnourished; their bloated bellies indicate that they likely had some food, but not the right kind of food — likely straw, which is full of empty calories, instead of nutrient-rich hay. They are balding, caked in feces, and plagued with skin issues; the skinniest girl is also missing the tips of her ears, likely due to frostbite. At the time of their arrival at Cornell, they were very hungry and dehydrated; they began settling in quickly, however, and do not appear as frightened as we had thought they might be.

Skin issues are among the health problems the calves face.

“Deep down inside [they] want to love,” Susie reflects. “And they’re going to be able to. I wish I could explain to them how good this life’s going to be, because it’s going be great.”

These four will remain at Cornell as we await the results of their diagnostics testing and for preliminary treatment. Once they are well enough to travel, we’ll bring them home to our New York Shelter. Here, they will receive all the love and lifelong expert care they need to thrive. When they’re ready, they’ll join a herd full of fellow survivors of the animal agriculture industry. At Farm Sanctuary, they will serve as ambassadors for their species, as we work to create compassionate change for all farm animals.

Friends decompressing together at Cornell. Cattle are herd animals, and the friendship they share will help them move beyond trauma together.

Whether they live on small farms or factory farms, most cows in the dairy industry suffer relentlessly. While cows must be pregnant or nursing to produce milk, farmers take away their babies shortly after birth and sell their milk for human consumption instead. Because male calves, like one of our new friends, will never produce milk for profit, they are typically raised for veal or beef. The industry thrives on tearing animal families apart; our four newest residents, however, will be able to stay together for life.

You can help us be the rescuer, educator, and advocate farm animals need by donating to our Emergency Rescue Fund and embracing a plant-based diet on behalf of animals like these calves and the billions of farm animals who suffer due to human consumption of dairy and other animal products.