The miracle of Wilbur

19 November 2018 | Columns

Yanna Smith

There was no way I knew how much 10 January 2017 would change my life. That was the day I rescued a calf, born four days earlier, from the roadside while his mother had collapsed a few steps away from him, already being eaten by maggots while the life drained out of her. We took both of them home and the cow, whose name was Jewel, died on our plot, under a tree, with water and food in her tummy. The calf was promptly named Wilbur by my son who had just watched Charlotte's Web. I swore that day that the violence into which Wilbur was born, would be wiped away by the miracle of love.

That was not to be.

Wilbur died a mere eight months after his rescue, while I was helplessly holding his head in my hands. My calf had ingested a poisonous plant, for days on end, and the vet, with all her treatments and stomach pumps, could not save him.

My heartbreak was immense. I did not want to believe that an innocent, born from such violence against his species, would not live to be a ripe old age, showered by my hugs and kisses, and of course, his favourite treat, green beans.

In the time I had Wilbur to care for, I discovered an intelligent, quirky, gentle and playful being, who would run with the dogs and wait just until the right moment when I had my back turned to him and was bending down to pick up a Prosopis pod to spoil him with, and then he would head butt me.

After his death, I turned my attention to a brown Bonsmara calf named Henry, son of Dolly. And of course, our white Brahman heifer Tinkerbell. Along with a friend, we purchased Henry from his owner but Henry was no Wilbur. He was fearful of people, no doubt caused by his mother's distrust of us, along with that of her cohort Tinkerbell.

They had been purchased bone thin… to be fattened for slaughter.

I persevered. It took me three months before I could lay my lips on Henry's and although Dolly would only allow a quick rub when spoilt with pods, Tinkerbell learned to hug. And did she learn to hug.

In the eight months of Wilbur's short but beautiful life and then, in the few months we were still on the plot following his death… I got to know cattle.

When Wilbur arrived, as a newborn, Dolly had a two-month-old calf. She refused to leave the fencing of Wilbur's enclosure and became quite irate when we went near him – until she saw we did him no harm. On the night my Wilbur died, all three of them came up to his fence and called and called.

I have seen how love can transform cattle. And I know what it feels like when a heifer or a young ox, or a cow, loves you.

I have seen their chins, which by the way look exactly like butt cheeks, and the way they move when they eat. I have been nuzzled, shoved, kissed and ran too by animals with the strength to kill you, but do not. I have seen how, after a month's absence, they are happy to see you… really happy.

I have known love in its most holy and blessed form because I have been loved by cattle.

For someone who worked with lions for more than a decade, this was new to me. And while so many regard cattle as livestock but their pet dogs as precious, or those who say they will hunt a kudu but not a leopard, I have known there is no difference.

Each animal has its own rights and they are the same. The right to live, in peace, and not be harmed.

I can no longer stomach the taste of beef. And I smile when I see cattle anywhere at all.

They are blessed. And holy. And sentient. And capable of love. And loyalty.

That is the miracle of my Wilbur. That was why he came.

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