As Emma lay by the side of the road for hours, then days, consumed by the pain in her back right leg, she may have thought help wasn’t going to come. Little did she know how many people would soon be fighting to give her a chance to survive.
A Call on the Road
It was Tuesday, April 7, and National Placement Coordinator Alicia Pell, accompanied by volunteer and former staff member Cameron O’Steen, was returning to our southern California location after assisting with a transport in the Las Vegas area. During a stop in Barstow, Alicia checked her voicemail and found a message from a Utah woman named Rachel Nyborg. Rachel said that a calf from her neighbor’s ranch had been hit by a car. These accidents are not uncommon when cattle are ranged and moved from one pasture to another on rented land that often has broken fencing. The accident had apparently occurred on Friday or Saturday. On Monday, Rachel found Emma still lying in pain, her mother by her side but unable to help.
When Rachel asked her neighbor about the calf, he actually said he was just going to leave her to die. This is business-as-usual for producers of meat, milk, or eggs, who value their animals only for the profits they can generate. In financial terms, a calf with a broken leg was not worth saving, or even humanely euthanizing.
Rachel asked the rancher if she could take Emma, and he consented. Unfortunately, Rachel could not take Emma’s mom. The cow cried after her daughter as she was taken away. A breeding cow on a beef ranch, she had surely endured such losses before and would again.
Rachel could find nowhere in-state to take in Emma, but expanding her search, she found Farm Sanctuary. We knew Emma needed help right away and were eager to do whatever we could, but there was a problem.
A Race Against Time
In order to bring Emma legally into California, where she could be treated by the vets at UC-Davis, we needed a health certificate from a vet and a state permit number. It was approximately 3 p.m. in Utah, and Rachel lived two hours from the nearest vet who could treat Emma. When Alicia told her what needed to be done, however, she set out with Emma to make the attempt.
She made it in time. At around 5 p.m., the vet called Alicia to inform her that the break in Emma’s leg was severe. He suggested euthanasia but didn’t object to Alicia taking her for a second opinion at UC-Davis and agreed to write up the health certificate and keep Emma overnight. At that point, Emma had not eaten at least since Monday afternoon — Rachel had attempted to feed her, but Emma had rejected the bottle, likely because she was in too much pain to drink. Alicia asked the vet to give Emma food and fluids, which he agreed to do.
A Rough Night
Alicia and Cameron arrived in town at 1 a.m. and met Rachel at the vet’s office at 8:30 a.m. As they proceeded to Emma’s pen, Rachel pleaded with Alicia not to let the vet assist in loading Emma because he had handled the calf roughly during drop-off the night before.
This was a vet who served producers — farmers and ranchers like the one who had left Emma to die after her accident. The ethos of medical professionals dedicated to animal agriculture is typically driven by the producer’s bottom line. In fact, this particular vet recounted to Alicia the tale of another calf brought in by a rancher just one day prior with a broken leg. Told that the leg couldn’t be repaired, the rancher said he would kill the calf for meat, but the vet advised him to wait — the calf would continue to grow, albeit more slowly than average, and thus yield more meat if slaughtered a year later.
Alicia discovered that Emma had spent the night in a concrete pen with one side completely open to the elements. Overnight temperatures had been below freezing. Though she had received at least one tube feeding, Emma had been given no painkillers for her severely broken leg. The vet reluctantly administered pain medication for the trip at Alicia’s request. Though the vet insisted on helping get Emma into the van, Alicia and Cameron took most of the calf’s body weight to ensure she was loaded gently. As soon as the bill was paid and the health certificate in hand, Alicia and Cameron set off with Emma for California.
A Life-Saving Loss
Several hours later, Emma arrived at UC-Davis and a warm welcome from her new veterinary team… who quickly fell head over heels for her.
Emma’s doctor determined that her leg was too badly injured to be fixed. The complications of attempting to repair it could prove fatal. But there was another option: amputate the bottom portion of the leg. Emma’s femur was intact, which opened the possibility of prosthesis. That would be her best chance of not only surviving but thriving.
The surgery took place a few days after Emma arrived. A dangerous infection had developed in the bones of Emma’s crushed leg during the days she had been without medical care, and quick intervention was necessary to keep it from spreading further.
A Long Road and a Lot of Help
We have cared for someone like Emma before. A three-legged cow named Sadie lived for years at our Northern California Shelter. She kept up with the herd and enjoyed running and playing her friends like any other cow. We could see a happy future like that for Emma, and prosthesis could improve her prospects even further by reducing the stress on her remaining legs.
There is still a lot of work ahead for Emma and those caring for her. Her veterinary team is fighting the infection that remains in her injured leg, and she will likely need an additional surgery. Only when the infection is eliminated will we be able to fit her for her first prosthetic leg. Since Emma is a growing calf, she will require a series of prostheses to accommodate her changing body.
In the meantime, Emma is already working with a physical therapist. With the help of a sling and other exercise techniques, she is learning to walk on three legs and is clearly more comfortable now that the damaged portion of her leg has been removed. Once she gets the prosthesis, she will learn to walk a third time. Additionally, she will have to be on a carefully moderated diet to keep from getting overweight, which would put additional strain on her legs.
It all seems like quite a big challenge for a little calf, but this Emma has a whole lot of heart. She is bright and in high spirits. Cattle raised out on the range for beef are typically frightened of humans, but having been through so much with her human friends already, Emma is trusting and friendly. Life with three legs? Bring it on. Emma is ready.