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Bandit Eyes

Bandit Eyes – the calf who lived in the bathroom

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
excerpt from COW TALES: More True Stories From an Idaho Ranch

Most farm and ranch kids grow up with baby animals starting life by the kitchen stove getting warm and dry. Calves in the kitchen were a fact of life our children grew up with. The first calf that lived in our house for more than a few hours arrived one cold December night when Michael was just a year old and not big enough to help dry her.

The mother of this calf was our smallest Angus heifer, named Annie. The birth was not planned. Our Hereford bull, Big John, had jumped the fence 9 months earlier and bred two heifers. One was a Holstein heifer named “Seven” because of the unique marking on her face (one of the bottle calves we’d brought with us from the dairy in Gooding when we moved to the ranch). We were not worried about her ability to deliver her calf. But Annie was small and we did worry about her, fearing the calf might be too large to be born without assistance.

Annie chose a very cold night to calve, so when she went into labor we put her in the barn. That was back in the days before we had a good calving barn; the only barn was the half fallen-down old milk barn, but it provided some shelter. There was a terrible wind blowing that night, and the temperature dropped to 8 below zero. Even though Annie was in the barn, the cold wind blew through cracks between the logs.

When we checked on her at 2 a.m. she was still in early labor and nothing was happening. When we checked her again at 4 a.m. she’d had the calf, unassisted, but she did not want to be a mother. Instead of licking the new baby to dry it, she had bunted it with her head and shoved it into a drafty corner. The little heifer was half frozen; ears and tail were frozen solid and the inside of her mouth was cold.

Bandit Eyes

There wasn’t time to argue with Annie about the subject of motherhood. The calf was freezing to death. We carried her to the house and gave her a warm “bath” in our shower to thaw her out, since at that time we didn’t have a bathtub. Our young son Michael thought it very funny that we were giving a calf a shower. We toweled the calf dry by the wood stove, but her ear tips and the end of her tail were too badly frozen to be restored to circulation even with warmth and massage. She eventually lost them.

While we dried her, I thawed some frozen colostrum (first milk) from our emergency supply in the freezer. We always saved some colostrum whenever Baby Doll calved and froze it for emergencies, since colostrum contains antibodies crucial to the health of a newborn calf. Calves that don’t get colostrum soon after birth are more likely to die from calfhood illness during the first weeks of life.

I poured the thawed colostrum into a pop bottle and tried to feed the calf with a lamb nipple. But Bandit Eyes (so named because of the black spot, like a mask, over each eye) was too weak and cold to suck. This was before the days of esophageal feeder tubes and we had not yet learned how to use a nasogastric tube to force-feed calves.

Finally we injected some dextrose under her skin – under the loose hide over her shoulder – where she could absorb it rapidly into her bloodstream. This gave her energy and within 20 minutes she seemed more interested in life, and was even trying to stand up. After that, she nursed my bottle. It was several hours, however, before she stopped shivering. She spent the rest of the morning on towels by the stove.

When we carried the calf back to her mother in the barn, Annie still didn’t want anything to do with her. Lynn haltered and tied up the snorty young cow and we tried to guide the calf to the udder, but Annie fought and kicked at us and the calf. We decided it would be a lot safer and easier to raise Bandit Eyes on the young Holstein heifer, who was also due to calve – bred at the same time when our amorous Hereford bull jumped the fence. She would have plenty of milk for two babies.

We brought Bandit Eyes back to the house, where she took up residence in our bathroom. This seemed the best place for her, since we didn’t want her making messes all over the house. During the first day she was fairly quiet, content to sleep on an old rug. But by evening she became energetic, jumping up enthusiastically to greet whoever came to feed her a bottle. She prowled around the bathroom after each feeding, in search of something else to suck on.

When she came wandering out of the bathroom and began nosing around in the kitchen, butting the cupboards and bumping into the table and chairs (much to the delight of our son Michael), we decided to barricade the bathroom door with chairs. The door at that time, in our old log house, did not shut properly and had no latch. We hoped the calf wouldn’t get out during the night.

The next morning we thought about taking her out to the barn to live with the milk cows’ calves, but the weather was still very cold. We were soft-hearted and decided to leave her in the house a little longer. Baby Michael was glad; he was fascinated by the calf and delightedly petted her like a big dog.

As the day progressed, however, Bandit Eyes became livelier, bucking around and crashing into everything. Anyone going into the bathroom for any reason was immediately attacked by a bunting, slobbering calf. In self-defense I started taking her bottle with me each time I had to go to the bathroom, to let her take out her frustrations on the empty nipple instead of on me. When Lynn tried to shave, she sucked on his pant legs and bunted him. He nicked himself with the razor each time she jostled him. That was the last straw. She had to go outside – soon.

During the last night she spent in the house, we could hear her banging around in the bathroom and we were afraid she might get through the stacked chairs in the doorway. We didn’t dare go look, since the sight of one of us made her all the more energetic, thinking we might be bringing her bottle. She had adopted us both as mama. When we went to the kitchen for breakfast that morning, she was so eager to see us she crawled right through the stack of chairs.

That day the weather warmed up, our young Holstein calved, and it was perfect timing to move Bandit Eyes out to the barn, to her new mother. Lynn carried her outside and I began the clean-up job in the bathroom. Our little house guest had been a chore, but also an enjoyment. Having a calf in the house is just one of the many aspects of this way of life we’d chosen – life on a ranch is always exciting and unpredictable. You never know from one day to the next what’s going to happen: the tractor stuck in a ditch, cows climbing through the fence into the garden, a doe and her fawn in the front yard, a bear in the apple tree, or a calf in the bathroom. Something is always coming along unexpected.

Yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. Ranch life has made us more flexible, more able to accept and cope with the unexpected. It also makes us grateful and appreciative of life’s blessings; we can’t always take them for granted. Even as I was cleaning up the mess Bandit Eyes made in our bathroom, I was smiling to myself and thinking about the cute, wobbly, trusting little calf that was lucky to be alive. I was thankful we’d been able to save her from freezing to death. The animals we raise are more than just dollars to pay the bills. They are all individuals, and each is precious for its own sake.

Bandit Eyes grew up to be a cow and eventually had calves of her own. She looked a little funny with her short ears and stubby tail, and was also a little spoiled because she was a pet. But she was special – the first of many calves that lived for a while in our house.