Remembering Willow

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

Willow was all about family. She belonged to a herd of 30 cattle, 26 of them pregnant cows bred for beef production, whom we rescued from a farm in Butler County, PA, in 2004. The farmer continued to breed his cows despite the fact he could not afford to adequately feed them through the winter. By the time the cows were rescued, they were dangerously thin.

In her teens at the time, Willow was among the older members of the herd. She had already endured years in production, bearing one calf each year. Most of her calves had been taken from her when they were still young, but some of the females had likely been integrated into the herd. Willow was especially close with four younger cows — possibly her daughters by blood.


Willow lived 10 years at our New York Shelter, reveling in the company of this family. Before their rescue, the cows had each other and nothing else. Now, they had sprawling green pastures; shady hideaways; a clean, warm barn; and the vigorous good health that comes with nutritious food, expert care, and lots of exercise. Willow and her daughters cherished their freedom; so much so that their shelter arrival precipitated a wave of fence renovations. The entire Butler County herd was notorious for destroying fences to reach their favorite things, which included fresh pasture and fruit from our many apple trees.


As Willow grew healthier and stronger, she saw her family grow, too. She and her daughters, Celeste, Twilight, Meg, and Ashley, all arrived pregnant and soon gave birth to a cohort of beautiful calves. These devoted sons and daughters always felt safest when their moms were near. Even when they had grown larger than their mothers, the youngsters would still dive beneath them to nurse when they were worried or afraid.

We knew we could count on Willow to care for several young orphans, including some of the male dairy calves we rescued from neglect and abandonment over the years. And Willow and the other moms have done their part to welcome these newcomers to the herd, extending to these youngsters the care and affection that they were not able to receive from their own mothers.


That said, Willow the caregiver was also known to cut loose, playing, running and head-butting with family and friends. She also had a reputation as one of our “announcers.” Whenever the herd began moving to a new pasture, Willow would loudly proclaim the development. She sounded like a foghorn and could be heard throughout the shelter.

Still, Willow was wary of humans her whole life, a common trait among beef cattle. Unlike most farm animals, beef cows in breeding herds tend to have little contact with humans. They are left to graze and gestate with little intervention, even in the form of basic healthcare. The rare occasions when they do encounter humans are almost invariably traumatic, whether it is during painful procedures like castration, dehorning, or branding, all performed without anesthetic, or during the devastating separation when a young cow or steer is taken away to be fattened for slaughter.

Understandably, survivors of such farms are not keen on human contact. Thus, we left Willow largely to her own devices, intervening only when necessary for her wellbeing. Such was the case when, in 2008, Willow was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in her eye.

Like many other members of her herd, she was light-skinned and light-eyed and, therefore, vulnerable to certain cancers from sun exposure. Willow fought her disease heartily for years, and we gave her the best care and treatment we could. But late last year, we discovered Willow’s cancer – despite having been surgically removed and treated, had returned and spread. That cancer, which originally had been visible and treatable, had metastasized and was now internal and untreatable.

We could tell something was wrong when she willingly let us approach her — something she had never done before. She knew she needed help. For two weeks, our vet came to the shelter every day to treat Willow, attempting to build up her strength and resolve issues that we ultimately discovered were only secondary to her underlying condition. To our grief, the cancer could neither be cured nor effectively treated, and a great deal of pain lay ahead. We wanted to spare her that. Willow was euthanized in the cattle barn, passing away gently in a private stall.


When we let the other cattle back into the barn, they all came to the gate of Willow’s stall to visit her body. They were distressed, especially those with whom she had been closest. Her friends and family crowded around her protectively, as though to preserve her lifelong aloofness toward humans, and the members of her herd uttered guttural calls, a gesture of mourning.

No one who witnessed that display could doubt that cows experience grief. Willow’s son, Blue, was the most visibly upset, throwing his head and charging at staff who attempted to move her body for burial. Even Queenie, an older cow with a reputation as a tough cookie, was clearly distraught and ran after the equipment we used to take away the body of her departed friend.

Willow’s death, like her life, was defined by her relationships; her importance to her family. Her survivors were deeply saddened, but it is love that will also help them heal. The family she led is strong. The bonds will endure. Though Willow is gone in body, her spirit lives on in the generations she nurtured.


52 thoughts on “Remembering Willow

  1. RIP Willow. Although I didn’t meet you, you sound like you touched many souls. And thank you to the staff at FARMSantuary

  2. I am so very sorry for the loss of Willow. Thank you for saving her and giving her and her family so much love. I enjoy reading your stories of all the animals you’ve saved. I love to see their happy pictures. Thank you so much for all you do! RIP sweet Willow.

  3. RIP Willow. You loved and cared, you were loved in return, you will be missed and remembered. Your life mattered!

  4. That was the most beautiful obituary I’ve ever read. Willow was certainly loved, and I’m so thankful to you for providing her with a safe and healthy environment. It sounds like her life was rich in happiness. My condolences to you and to all who knew her.

  5. Beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul. Thank you for saving her and giving her the life she deserved.

  6. There are no adequate words to describe the beauty that Willow embodied as a Matriarch of distinction. Yes, the herd will heal, and yes, it is because in a greater part the loving care she and her herd have received from everyone at at Farm Sanctuary. This is a lovely tribute for Willow…

  7. I am moved to tears by this piece which both celebrates and honors Willow. Thank you for the beautiful writing and the work you do.

  8. A beautiful for a beautiful creature. God bless you for giving Willow a wonderful home.

  9. Thank you for writing such a beautiful story about Willow. It brought tears to my eyes. If only more people could read stories like this, hopefully more people would make the connection to animals and food. I plan to share your story with family and friends.

  10. Thank you for sharing Willow’s life. It’s clear she had a good life from the moment she was rescued until her last.

  11. So glad for someone to help…our world is cruel, especially to those who cannot defend themselves…Thank you for caring for Gods’ animal angels.

  12. Pliable willow released from the weight of life. I wish peace to you and your herd. I wish peace to all of us and hope one day we will truly live together in it.

  13. Willow, may you be roaming pain-free and with great joy in the rolling pastures of heaven. Your sweet, strong spirit will be missed.

  14. R.I.P., dear Willow. What a beautiful eulogy. I wish every person can truly understand how cows and other animals are closer to humans than we can ever imagine.
    Thank you for your kindness, compassion, and respect to these wonderful animals. And saving the ones you can.

  15. The story of Willows’ life touched me deeply & I am ever so grateful that Farm Sanctuary gave her a happy life. I’ve learned so much since becoming a member & my first visit to the farm. It was the beginning of living a vegan life & only regret the years that I unknowingly took away from all the beautiful lives that you all have tenderly cared for…..Your sanctuary has become a part of my journey & purpose. Thank you for showing me the way & for those who will follow……

  16. Thank you for sharing such a well written and wonderfully, loving story. I cried, and I also smiled, knowing that there are such good people out there caring for these precious animals.

    Bless each and everyone of you who takes the time to help an animal.

    Thank you.


  17. Dear, sweet Willow. You were a loving and strong mother to all in your herd. I rejoice that you spent your last years in the fields and barns of Farm Sanctuary, surrounded by loving and respectful humans. Be at peace.

  18. What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful being. I didn’t have the honor of meeting Willow as I have not yet been to the New York shelter. I do know that there are no more caring hearts and hands than those of the volunteers and staff at Farm Sanctuary. Willow was one of the lucky ones to have had so many safe, loving years after her terrible start in life.

  19. Sweet Willow, you made my eyes leaky. I can only imagine your herd’s grief. It is because of the wonderful people who sheltered you that I’ve begun to understand your plight and have now adopted a vegan lifestyle. Many sweet grazings in heaven. You are a creature of God and that is where you have returned.

  20. What a beautiful tribute. Sending my love and strength to her herd members as they mourn her loss. Thank you so much for all you did to make her life peaceful and free.

  21. Mankind thinks these beautiful animal don’t have feelings.
    But, if all people, everyone, could and would read this precios story that is so
    adeptly written maybe their hearts would be changed. I think it is said,
    that in India, they do not kill their cattle because their belief is
    they would be killing a loved one that cam r back in the form of
    a breed of cattle????? I don’t know if this is correct. But reading this story about this
    about this adorable, precious heifer, Willow, made the cow more humanized.
    I could see a short story made into a childrens book or movie even for adults.
    In my opinion, more and better human intetest stories are needed.

    Just my opionion…for what it’s worth.

  22. This story about Willow made me so sad and happy at the same time. Thank you for your love and compassion. I will never forget this story about love and family.

  23. What a beautiful tribute to Willow, and so moving to read how her cow family grieved for her. May everyone, human and animal, who loved Willow find peace and strength.

  24. Thank you for telling Willow’s story, and for the wonderful work you do on behalf of animals.

  25. And that’s why I’m a vegan. The family dynamics sound so similar to those of elephants. Willow, you beautiful matriarch, you and your family were allowed to enjoy each other’s company. As with elephants, it’s all about family. RIP, sweetness.

  26. Smooth sailing beautiful Willow, into the realm of Peace and Love forever. You were so blessed your last years to have been in the sanctuary of those who care enough about you and all animals. Thank you for caring for the others younger than you, knowing they will miss you but are better off for having had you in their young lives. You are safe now Sweet Willow and so are those you left behind at the Sanctuary. Saving your picture and will try to do a painting of you honoring your freedom your last years. Thank you Farm Sanctuary. I am certain that God is smiling on you and your operations every day.

  27. I grew up on a dairy farm~ and I can testify that cows are not only smart, but they grow attachments to others, not just cows but other animals too, like certain cats or the farm dog. Within the cows at a farm, there is a high archy~ and they all take care of one another in a specific order.

    Breaks my heart to see mistreated and abused~ any type of animal. My husband and I both agree some thing needs to be done w/ these people that are slowly killing their own animals from lack of food and care. The human that is at fault needs to be held accountable and never allowed ownership of an animal ever again.

    Thank you for sharing this article~ blessings to Willow and all her friends. I also wanted to mention the photos are stunning~ makes me homesick! 🙂

  28. Thank you so very much for writing this. All being should depart the earth in this way.

  29. Thank you, FS. Such a loving tribute to such a loving mom and soul. Wish this was front page news so everyone could read it. Thank you, dear Willow, for touching so many hearts.

  30. The work that Farm Sanctuary are doing it’s very important. This beautiful story describes psychological and sociological traits of cows, one of the super peaceful animals on the world that man has decided to make perpetual slaves to satisfy his stupid and monstruoso taste. Beautiful Willow thanks very much to teached us what is the love.

  31. The work you are doing it’s very important. This beautiful story describes psychological and sociological traits of cows, one of the super peaceful animals on the world that man has decided to make perpetual slaves to satisfy his stupid and monstruoso taste. Beautiful Willow thanks very much to teached us what is the love.

  32. Thank you for caring for Willow with integrity, care and kindness. It is a wonderful thing you do for these magnificent animals.

  33. Thank you Willow. Thank you for teaching me about your relationships and your feelings. May you be free from pain, sadness, and hunger.

  34. I’m so sorry that Willow is gone but happy for the wonderful life she had at Farm Sanctuary. If only time could stand still . . . But I believe her spirit is in another place of peace and joy and will one day welcome home those she loved on this earth.