By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director
The first time I saw Alexander was at a central New York stockyard, on a bitterly cold day just before Christmas 2010. There were 300 newborn dairy calves on sale that day. Confused, terrified babies wailed for their mothers, and adult cows called back, all separated and unable to comfort each other. I was hoping for the chance to save a calf who had collapsed on the loading dock before even making it to the auction floor, but I was told I had to wait for the sale to end in case he stood up and could be auctioned off with the others. During the calf sale, the auctioneer offered me a second calf who was so small that no one would bid on him. Then there was another calf, a big guy, who received no bids because he was wobbling, falling down, and rolling his fetlocks. He was offered to me as well. That was Alexander.
I had expected to rescue only one calf, but at the end of the day I had three sick babies in the back of the shelter’s CRV. Exhausted, the boys slept as I rushed them to Cornell University Hospital for Animals.
When we arrived, the hospital staff ran blood work. Lawrence, the calf who had collapsed on the loading dock, was in renal failure. Blitzen, the tiny one, had pneumonia. Alexander, nicknamed Goliath by the staff because he was so large, was septic. His umbilicus had not been properly cleaned, and he had not received enough, or any, of the immunity-boosting colostrum his mother’s milk would have provided. Together, these circumstances resulted in an infection that spread to his left stifle, which is the joint that connects the femur, patella, and tibia.
Though Alexander was started on treatment immediately, he contracted severe septic arthritis. He had to stay at the hospital for 48 days, undergoing multiple surgeries. He left with a guarded prognosis: though he was healthy at the time of discharge, his vets believed that his legs would break down as he grew.
And Alexander grew. During his almost five years on the farm, he became a giant, both in body and in presence. In his prime, he weighed over 2,500 pounds, but it was his personality that made the biggest impression.
Tall and awkward, Alexander was something of a loner in the cattle herd. Though he was good friends with Lawrence, he liked his human friends most of all, preferring their company to that of his fellow bovines. At the sound of his name, he would come running.
As a male calf born in the dairy industry, Alexander had been considered a byproduct. Like all other mammals, cows must be impregnated to lactate, and dairies therefore produce not only milk but also a steady stream of calves. Female calves are typically kept to be raised as replacements for their mothers, but males are brought to auction and sold to be slaughtered for veal or to be raised for cheap beef. Taken away almost the moment he was born, Alexander never got to know his mother. In her stead, we became his adoptive mothers. He thrived on the love of his caregivers and adored his shelter family.
Alexander’s enthusiasm for his human friends was sometimes daunting during his terrible twos, when he was well over 1,500 pounds but still thought he could play with us like a calf. When you entered a pasture where he was, his head would pop up immediately, and he would literally bounce off the ground in excitement to see you. He kept the interns on their toes during feed-moving excursions, chasing them around the truck intent on a friendly head-butt. One afternoon he, Sonny, Orlando, and a few other young Holsteins got so excited when they saw me in our project truck that they ran up to stick their heads in the windows, knocking off the mirrors, and butting the doors. It wasn’t great for the truck, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t control the situation. They were just beautiful, happy, carefree calves in their minds, and it was so incredible and joyful that nothing else mattered at that moment.
Alexander wasn’t all rowdiness, though. He was sweet, too. He loved to lay his head on your lap and fall asleep as you stroked his face. He was loyal and loving to his friends. I can’t remember ever walking into the pasture during Alexander’s lifetime without being greeted by this huge, happy bovine. He loved newcomers and took Michael under his wing when he was a calf, as well as really loving Sonny, Orlando, and Conrad, who were all younger than he was.
Though he had arrived with that troubling prognosis, Alexander ran and played like any other steer for nearly his entire time with us, showing no sign of serious leg issues. He loved life and enjoyed it fully right up until the end.
His decline began this past winter, when we noted that his back right leg was turning out. Once again, like he did as a baby, he was rolling his fetlock. The vets who came out to check on him felt that he had just injured himself and put him on pen rest, but the condition worsened in the spring. Because of his size, over 6’5” at the shoulder, taking him to Cornell in a trailer was a concern; the giant steers do not do well on even short trailer rides, and with bad legs the journey is far worse. That was our last option, however, to keep his condition from progressing further.
Though he was evaluated by specialists and even outfitted with shoes to help guide his leg back into alignment, his condition continued to decline over the summer. He was still happy at first. He spent time in our special-needs herd and made a new friend in young Valentino. By the end of the summer, however, it was obvious that he was deteriorating rapidly. We brought him back to Cornell, where he had spent those first weeks of his new life, to see a neurologist. After more tests and attempts at alignment, Alexander was diagnosed with progressive neurogenic disease, likely congenital and definitely untreatable.
By this point, there was no effective way to manage his pain. We knew the kind thing now was to prevent him from suffering. Five years after I brought Alexander home to sanctuary, we gathered to help him on one final journey. A group of six caregivers drove to the hospital to be with Alexander as his vet administered euthanasia. He passed away gently, surrounded by people who loved him.
Each time we rescue one of these magnificent beings, we have to think about the billions of animals each year who are never seen, who are never noticed, who do not have the chance to experience love even from their own families. Each calf, chicken, pig, or sheep we rescue is an individual, as are the far too many still suffering behind closed doors, who are treated merely as products and never recognized as the incredible creatures they are.
Alexander was one of the lucky few to make it out, and we were blessed to have him even for a short time. The thought of the shelter without Alexander is nearly unbearable. He was such a huge part of this place, a friend who made his presence felt every day. He was majestic, fun-loving, silly, beautiful, and kind. I have so many memories of him, from his first days in the world to his very last moment, and I know everyone who met him cherishes Alexander memories of their own. He will live forever in our hearts.