For a crippled calf, whose back legs bend sharply underneath her, Willow is relatively lucky. A rancher found the newborn before the varmints did.
The longhorn is leading a happy life so far, frolicking with her sheep friends, unaware that she is handicapped and with a future that is increasingly uncertain as her body gains hundreds of pounds.
Willow was born with her kneecaps pushed to the outside of her back legs, leaving her unable to extend them like a normal calf.
Dr. Steve Parish, a veterinarian and professor of large animal internal medicine at Washington State University, said in his 40 years of veterinary practice, he’s seen this condition in one goat and several llamas and alpacas, but never in a calf.
“I think there would be a very guarded prognosis in helping the calf, particularly since both legs are involved,” he said. “This small calf will grow quite large and weight will be a major issue and a likely cause of failure.”
Veterinarians call this dislocation of these joints a lateral patella luxation, a condition seen most often in dogs.
Unable to stand and nurse, Willow was rejected by her mother at birth, on the first Sunday in March. She lay not in a nearby coulee on the remote Montana ranch where she certainly would have died, but fortunately on a hillside in view of the nearest cabin.
For two hours, Dr. Pat Lashley, a retired veterinarian, watched the tiny speck in the neighbor’s pasture, waiting for the mother cow to return. Finally, Lashley hiked out expecting to find a body, discovering instead a 40-pound calf.
“I wasn’t going to let the coyotes get her,” she said.
The longhorn belonged to a neighboring rancher who told Lashley to take her if she liked, saying he wanted nothing to do with nursing a deformed calf.
She then asked a nearby friend to lend a hand. Maggie Julson, a flight attendant who took up ranching 26 years ago, raises sheep on her land south of the Yellowstone River and the Crazy Mountains.
“Just getting her out of the field on a sled was interesting,” Lashley said. “The gate was locked, so we had to lift her up and pull her through the top barbed wires.”
As the women wrestled the calf home, they puzzled over what had happened during the troubled birth.
“If her tendons are contracted and she’s trying to be born like that, her knees will be banging on the bottom of the cow’s pelvis,” Lashley said. “She’ll be hanging upside down for awhile.”
Through the sleep-shy weeks of lambing season, the friends plotted how to find help before Willow grew too big.
Birth trauma also swelled the calf’s throat. That meant inserting a tube twice a day for a week so she could suck milk. One woman fed Willow with a bottle. The other massaged the contracted legs.
“The first week we could stretch out her back legs,” Lashley said.
In May, they put a lamb halter on the trusting 3-month-old calf and coaxed her into a horse trailer for a half-hour trip to Stillwater Veterinary Service in Absarokee. Large animal veterinarian Dr. William Routen also said he’d never seen this condition in cattle.
The radiographs showed that her back, hips and pelvis were normal, but not her kneecaps and, therefore, the muscles that move them.
“We just don’t see stifle contractions like this,” Routen said. “It’s a shame.”
He noted that the calf, for now, seemed pain-free with a good quality of life.
Willow doesn’t know how a calf is supposed to move, so she rather waddles along, tip-toeing on her back hooves. Like a bovine ballerina, she compensates—running, bucking, even leaping over a three-foot board—to keep up with the ewes heading out to pasture.
“She can go up and down hills. You couldn’t believe how steep they are,” Julson said. “She just zips up and zips down.”
In Absarokee, Routen took radiographs of Willow from the side and, to see her bones through some dense tissues, gently turned her onto her back.
Her eyes rolled back into her head, but Willow struggled little during the procedure, appearing to trust the women who feed her and were cradling her.
“But wasn’t she good?” Julson said after the 20-minute ordeal was over. “She was so calm. Not many animals like to be on their back.”
Besides her attitude, Willow could win a bovine beauty contest.
She sports a brown muzzle backed up onto a white face, her movie-star eyelashes highlighting kind brown eyes.
As human hands offer the twice-a-day bottle, Willow’s kin, the longhorns, live out of sight over the fence.
Willow wanted a surrogate mom, so she chose an older sheep, which wanted nothing to do with her at first By repeatedly sucking on her ears, Willow licked away the rejection, eventually winning the right to bed down with the ewe and her lamb.
Dogs with Willow’s condition, almost always in one leg, can have surgery to move the kneecap and straighten the tendons. They recover by wearing a splint and resting confined for an extended healing period. The good leg supports the healing leg.
Despite the odds, the two rescuers keep trying to help Willow, as long as she is happy.
“We take it a day at a time,” Julson said. “People don’t realize we’re the lucky ones. She’s fun. The pure joy of her, if you could see it.”
“She was born for a reason,” Lashley added.
One positive sign is that Willow is a longhorn, which means she’s not going to get that big for a cow, Lashley said. Her mom was 750 pounds.
“Longhorns are just more agile, but she’s not going to be the sweet little calf forever,” she said.
“Willow’s is a story of courage and acceptance, not knowing she’s handicapped,” Julson said.
But the two women are realists, saying they won’t let this calf suffer needlessly.
After the radiographs, the pair stopped by the Chrome Bar in Absarokee, pondering Willow’s future over sips of coffee and beer. What are the odds of finding surgery that’s probably never before been done on a cow?
“If you cut the tendons to release the contraction, then you lose all the support on the back legs,” said Routen, the local veterinarian. “You fix one problem and create another.”
Professor Parish at Washington State agreed.
“There is an extended period of convalescence,” he said. “Having both legs involved would make things extremely difficult.”
The two women may load up Willow and drive across a chunk of Montana and south through Wyoming to the veterinary hospital at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in search of cutting-edge medicine.
Although she hasn’t had a chance to examine the calf yet, Dr. Stacey Byers, a CSU associate professor of livestock medicine and surgery, used verbal case history to agree with Parish, her former professor, that fixing both back legs is a challenge.
“With this little calf, if the bones in her joints are not moving as they are supposed to, she’s probably starting to get arthritis,” Byers said.
Newer surgical techniques developed by repairing human knees are being used to help small animals, horses and camelids such as camels and llamas, she said. This type of surgery may be possible in Willow’s case.
“We need to evaluate her and see how her knees have changed as she has gotten older and bigger,” she said.
At this point, Lashley and Julson are not seeking donations to help Willow, but they started a blog, Willow’s Special Journey, to share the calf’s story. They also are pondering a trip with Willow to Colorado State.
“The Old West ways are fine with me, but we have a choice,” Julson said. “The Old West way is to knock them in the head if they aren’t perfect. We chose not to.
“In my heart, I’ll know when she isn’t enjoying life. You see it in their eyes.”
After starting her career in Minneapolis-St. Paul covering state politics, Jan Falstad has worked in print, radio, television and freelance journalism. Since relocating to Montana in 1985, the North Dakota native has covered news of all varieties, most recently as business editor and reporter for the Billings Gazette. Her stories, including three PBS television documentaries that she co-produced for “Frontline” and Bill Moyers, have won regional, national and international awards.