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Aloof On the Hoof

Of all the cows, Gemini is the least likely to initiate contact with the humans in her life. She tolerates us well enough, and stands civilly for her twice-a-day milking. But when I reach to pet her, she rolls her eyes as if I must be joking. At best she suffers a light touch or two before backing away. Her eyes are not warm and liquid like Hannah's and Hilary's, but pinkish and edgy, as if she habitually underslept then got up on the wrong side of the pasture. She seems somehow alienated, as one of the few cows not born and raised on the farm. I purchased her in 1990, therewith establishing myself as a working partner with stock in an up-and-running dairy.

She was the first cow I'd ever owned, and I held high hopes for the big white-and-black Holstein. She has fulfilled them, so far as production goes. But she has never become the friendly family cow of my dreams - and her heifers seem cut from the same stiff cloth.

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Others in my now-small herd have made up for the disappointing lukewarmth of Gemini and her line. One or two would be "lap cows" if I could accommodate them, and none refuse a good ear scratch or head massage. Dairy farming is a hands-on job anyway, and as a longtime admirer of its primary producers, I exploit every opportunity to put my hands on my animals. If Gemini prefers to keep her distance, there are plenty of others willing to get close.

But she was my first cow, and I have long harbored a special feeling for her. I dwell on her strong points: She is big and well-proportioned, a handsome milker, and she rarely complains - even when we inevitably separate her from her days-old calves. She is not mean, even though she looks as if she could be, given an excuse. At heart she's a solid citizen, and she seems content with her lot, which by most dairy-cow standards is pretty good. She has a name, after all, and her ears are free of tags and computer chips; we don't need adjunct memory to manage our modest-sized herd. Gemini knows we mean well, and she knows whom to come to when she's in trouble.

A year-and-a-half ago I noticed her in the front pasture, pointedly looking in our direction as we roofed a new hay shed. As soon as I made eye contact, she eased herself down and made a feeble show of pushing. The rest of the herd was far to the back of the farm, a good half mile from us. Instead of giving birth to her calf secretively back there, as most of the cows like to do, she had walked up front to us. Which spelled trouble.

HER calf was completely turned around, but we were able to deliver it, pulling it out backward. The little heifer, sadly, was stillborn, but we had spared Gemini's life, and she thanked us - in her own way. She spent the rest of the afternoon near us, even after finally accepting that her little calf could not be licked back to life.

This week, Gemini was due again, and I kept a close watch on her. As her time neared, she transformed, dropping her distant airs, and following me about the barnlot like a big, worried pup.

She let me scratch her ears and feel with my hands the vigorous kicking along her bulging sides. When I walked away, she kept her pale eyes on me; when I came back to check on her, she met me more than halfway.

There are those who will swear that cows have no long-term memory, but this one gave a good imitation of recalling her past need for emergency midwifery. This time she wanted us with her. The other evening, she lay down and without further ado pushed out a huge and healthy bull calf, a strong little thing that was up and suckling before most newborns realize their long knobbly appendages are legs to stand on. Gemini looks mightily pleased. She didn't need help after all, but she makes no objection when I come up to pet her. And there's something new in her eyes. I couldn't call it warmth, but it's mighty close.

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