A Cow Tale

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

I like cows. That’s not a very shocking statement coming from a veterinarian. As a matter of fact, it would probably be difficult to name an animal that I do not like or admire on some level. However, cows have a special place in my heart. My boyhood was spent growing up on a dairy farm in south-western Ontario, so my respect and admiration for the bovine species began early in life.

I am not alone, of course, in my passion. DNA genetic studies released just this year suggest that all cattle are descended from as few as 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East some 10,500 years ago. Cows have had many admirers, for a very long time.

After graduation from veterinary school, though, my life in veterinary medicine has not been much involved with this species. Cows are just not on the list of animals from which people, in an urban area, select a pet. Therefore, I have made up for my lack of seeing them in my work place by looking carefully for them when we travel. Anyone who has travelled with me knows that this also means, if at all possible, stopping to photograph them.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to do this around the world. I have photographed herds of Holsteins in the beautiful English countryside, on farmlands in Victoria in Australia and in paddocks on immense farming operations near Cape Town in South Africa. I have seen milking Ayrshires in the fields where the breed originated and rugged Highland cattle on the heather covered hills of Glencoe, while travelling in Scotland. I have pictures of Kerry cattle, one of the native Irish breeds, grazing in the lush green pastures of their homeland. I have captured images of Charolais, emerging from the mist, on fields in Normandy and fighting bulls on sun baked breeding farms in Andalusia in Spain. I have photos of Hereford cattle, taken from horseback, riding on a ranch in the Pampas of Argentina and others of the same bovine breed, in Chilean Patagonia. I have admired herds of Brahman thriving in the heat of Nicaragua and Panama and an ox ploughing a field near Cuzco in Peru.

In Nepal, I have shared streets and sidewalks with cattle in Kathmandu and Pokhara and I have shared suspension bridges with yaks and dzo ( a yak and domestic cattle hybrid) on the trail to Mt. Everest. One of the most fascinating bovine breeds, for me, are water buffalo. They are common in the agricultural regions of southern Nepal and, of course, throughout Asia.  I have favourite photographs of one grazing along a rice paddy in Thailand, another with a young boy riding on a buffalo’s back near Hanoi, in Vietnam. If ever one needed evidence that this breed really deserves the water in their name, I have a photo to prove it. It shows a full grown male buffalo, in Cambodia, rolling around in total ecstasy in a small pond in front of its owner’s very modest home. Even as mechanization changes agriculture in this part of the world, water buffalo play a vitally important role to small land owners. I have photographs taken in Nepal, Vietnam and China of owners who spend large parts of the day silently shepherding and carefully watching their very valuable resources grazing meagre pasturelands nearby.

Despite my lifelong interest in this species, they continue to surprise me, as I learn more about them and see them in new places. On a recent trip to Italy I saw herds of water buffalo housed in western style accommodations near Rome and learned they have a long history in that country. There is debate as to when they first arrived in Italy. Whether brought by Goths in the medieval period or Normans introduced them from Sicily around 1000 AD, there is no clear answer.  Although small in numbers compared to those in many east Asian countries, they contribute significantly to the Italian agricultural economy. Perhaps they are most well-known for the buffalo mozzarella they produce. In Italy, the price of buffalo milk is much higher than for other bovine milk. Mozzarella cheese consumption is increasing in Italy and around the world. This increase is due a number of reasons not the least of which is the spread of Italian cooking style using mozzarella in pizza, caprese and other dishes.

The ancient Egyptians believed the gentle mother of the earth was a cow. I am happy to report that based on my travel sightings, cows continue to be appreciated around the world. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca