Flying With Penelope

Here is a story from April 2019 about the day I got Penelope. I learned some things then that were very useful when I acquired 100 wild yaks in 2021 – but that is a story for another day.

I shouted “No! No!” But there was no one around to hear me. I was weightless, moving through the air in slow motion. So many thoughts went through my mind. I had time to retrace the actions that led me to be flying 10 feet or so off the ground, and to wonder at the sheer strength of the yak cow who had tossed me up so effortlessly with so much force. That airy flight seemed  like an eternity. Yet I knew gravity would soon have its impact. I wondered what to do when I hit the ground, and if the old cow would come back to horn me while I was down. 

The speed of her charge was impressive, considering her age and the deep mud she moved through. While I was sitting between her horns on my way up into the air, I noted that they were a perfect seat width. Thankfully they curved backwards, preventing puncture wounds. Even while I was airborne, I knew it was my fault. 

I had purchased a gorgeous herd from Turkey Hill Yaks in Cody, Wyoming. Mike and Cathy were retiring, and I was honored to continue their legacy by adding these cows and genetics to my breeding program. It was a long, beautiful drive back to Oregon. I would be getting home at 3pm, well before dark, with time to get these lovely new cows situated and check on the herd in the pasture. 

But as I drove up the last stretch of driveway, I slid on a snowy embankment and the trailer went partially off the road. It took me over an hour to pull the truck and trailer out with the tractor. I finally backed up to the unloading area. To complicate things, I hadn’t gotten enough rock before winter. After days of pouring rain, there was deep black mud in the unrocked area where I had to unload the trailer. Where the yak had been in Wyoming, it was dry, tan, frozen ground.  I watched them sniffing the air, confused, shocked at their new environment. They looked disapprovingly at the ground and shrank away from the open door. 

I was so exhausted from the trip that I was shaking. My mind was operating at half capacity at best. I just wanted to lie down and rest. Instead, I surprised myself by yelling at my new yak, trying to get them out of the trailer. I rarely do so, especially when they did nothing wrong. Normally my interactions with them are enjoyable in varying degrees of convincing, praising, coaxing, luring with treats, jokingly scolding, cooing at them, and making a high-pitched sound to herd them from overland. But this day, I was so tired. They just stood there staring at me like I was a crazy person (accurate) and wouldn’t jump out. I wanted them to go into the pen before sunset. I was set on the idea. And it cost me.

Mustering some mental clarity, I redirected my attention to survey my existing herd in the pasture below. With fumbling steps I found that two cows had just given birth. Heart racing and body shaking, I went to see what was happening. One was tending to her baby. She licked it fervently, with the adoring intensity that I always love to watch. First nursing commenced. I took a sigh of relief. But my heart sank when I saw another baby, hobbling around with newborn steps and wobbly legs, sadly looking for her mother. She was covered in the transparent birth sac, which was beginning to dry onto her little body. Her mother was a first-time mom, and she didn’t take her baby. It was also the first time this had ever happened on my farm. Still shaking, I took the baby inside and dried her. I mixed dry colostrum, the only thing I had on hand. Less than ideal but she needed something. As the sky darkened, I went back to the truck to get a headlamp. I saw that the girls in the trailer had finally unloaded themselves and gone into the pen, except for one old cow who had turned around and was about to head back to the trailer. The cow I later named Penelope.

I saw the look in her eyes. She was serious, and I didn’t take her seriously. I walked toward her, loudly telling her to go into the pen with the others. She leaned forward, staring at me with smoldering impatience. I now know that leaning forward is your first warning, often without a second. What you do in those next moments is critical. In that situation, I did the wrong thing. I turned around, plodding back to the truck to get the headlamp. Before I knew what was happening, she came up behind me at full speed and picked me up between the horns. 

So to return to the moment when gravity arrived after my slow motion flight – I heard a crunch when I landed. Stunned, I yelled at myself “Get up! Get up. Get up!” (If you recall, there was no one else around.) The cow stood watching me as I peeled myself from the deep mud. I could see the look on her face, a mixture of uncertainty and something like “what a crazy broad.” Slicked with black mud, my left hand dangling oddly, I forced myself to focus and hobbled away. My hip and knee were throbbing but my hand was obviously in need of more attention. I  submerged my arm in a stock tank of icy water while I thought about what to do next.  I had to get to the hospital, and get help to care for the newborn calf. Only a few people knew how to get to the property. The road was steep and in bad shape. The rest of the night was long but that’s another story. A friend came and took the calf, nursing it to health with more colostrum and fresh milk from a local dairy. I made it to the hospital and had the bone reset. Then I began on the slow road to recovery. 

If Penelope had been a different type of yak, she could have done much worse and come back to attack me while I was down. To me, this signifies the importance of having tame, level-headed yak. It was my fault for not treating her fairly while I was exhausted and stuck on an idea about unloading. She stood up for herself and that was all. No additional aggression. These are big horned animals and there is a huge difference in having a tame herd, which to me means yak that don’t let their fear or aggression override common sense, yak that are not governed by a need to overreact. This quality could mean the difference between life and death. Or a severe injury versus one that is treatable. 

Yak are really smart. After my injury, they could sense my weakness. It changed how they saw me. My confidence was shattered. I felt fragile and vulnerable, because I was. They knew it and each animal had a different way of interacting with that vulnerability. Some seemed confused. They generally respect my presence, space, and position in the herd. But after I was injured, they questioned it. A few would “step” to me, a few quick paces towards me, confronting me. My fear shone through the facade I attempted to muster and they knew I was bluffing. As I started healing, I took to  carrying a long flexible whip that I could use with one hand. It kept a few flighty animals from being dominant with me. But it was more for my confidence than anything. 

It was a difficult experience on many levels, yet I’ll always be thankful to Penelope for everything  I learned when she sent me up into space

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