When Self-Care Just Isn't Enough, It's Time to Hug a Cow (No, Seriously)
Series logline: A stressed-out working mom tries every wellness fad from hot yoga to colonics in search of happiness, only to leave her suburban existence for a life of therapeutic cow hugging on a farm. Working title: Moo Better Things.
That’s what I’m thinking as I drive up to the Gentle Barn, a farm about 45 minutes outside Los Angeles (there are satellite locations in Tennessee and Missouri). I’d been tipped off to this animal rescue operation devoted to sheltering animals saved from factory farms, where for a $200 donation, guests can spend an hour getting the kind of rarified “me time” not offered by a Four Seasons resort spa: Cow hugging. That is some messed-up Cali cliché, you might be thinking. Me? I figured it couldn’t be any stranger than the injections, pasted-on hair and torn muscles I’ve endured in the pyrrhic struggle to feel better about myself, so why not? I pulled into the gated compound and waited to meet my cow-hugging guide.
I gazed at a pen of indifferent Herefords and Holsteins and wondered what these dumb animals had to offer me. Our family cared for a few cows on our rural property when I was a tween, so I have just enough knowledge of farm animals to render me obnoxiously know-it-all, as you can tell by my throwing around terms like Hereford (the brown-and-white ones) and Holsteins (the black-and-white ones). Farm founder and head cow hugger Ellie Laks (she pioneered the practice here in Los Angeles) began explaining the process to me in calm tones, telling me how the cows were going to allow me to hug their necks and drape myself over them. In turn, Ellie explained, this would help me deal with whatever life issues I was struggling with. She went on to say she would follow my lead to chat or be silent, this was my time, and that I should put down my phone for the hour. I immediately panicked: I have deadlines, I want to post on Instagram, this is ridic.
Ellie frowned a bit as I walked away mid-sentence to stash my phone, sullen like my own troubled teen son, who has just completed his first half of a hail-Mary year at a therapeutic ranch school. The apple doesn’t fall…
Ellie led me to a Holstein named Madonna. Holsteins stand about five feet high at the shoulder, making them appear freakishly large, since they’ve been bred to be giant in order to pump out more milk at factory farms. Selfishly, I was happy that Ellie didn’t go into more of the injustices of our contemporary food supply cruelty (which I discovered on the Gentle Barn site later). Like my host said, this really was my time to interact with these huge furry beasts in a spirit of positivity, not a spirit of how dare you eat a hamburger. Ellie spoke to the cows in calm, friendly tones, petting them and throwing her arms around their necks, rubbing her face right up in their neck and shoulder fur.
Reality check: Apparently, this is not just the sui generis self-soothing tech developed by this farm founder, who says she’s been at it for 23 years “starting with my very first rescued cow, Buddha, who hugged me with her neck and showed me how healing and life-saving cows are.” According to the BBC, in the Netherlands the practice known as “koe knuffelen” (aka cow embracing) started as a way for Dutch people to get closer to nature and country life. “The calming effects of curling up with a pet or emotional support animal, it seems, are accentuated when cuddling with larger mammals,” as a BBC news report puts it. And while to my knowledge, there have been no brain EEGs showing a dopamine flood while someone’s bovine a mano, a study at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has shown that cows relax when we pet them.
Back at the ranch, there I was in a dusty ring, looking a cow named Madonna in the eyes, trying to push every farmer’s daughter joke I’d ever heard out of my mind, when I just decided to let all my internal eye-roll emojis go, and I leaned in for a hug. Madonna smelled like the hot California dust and hay, and she felt strong. I stroked her shoulder while I closed my eyes and leaned hard into her neck; she shifted her weight and seemed to absorb my anxious energy into her stolid heft. I could hear her heart beat, and that dull thump was so soothing. I heard it in all the cows who I would nuzzle over the next hour, that I would walk over to and hug, like I was at a cow cocktail party. At one point later, as I lay atop the shoulder of the herd matriarch, Holy Cow, listening to that internal thud, I thought inexplicably of the roar of the ocean, and the life force in all of us, and basically a lot of major shit that I don’t get to explore during a lunch hour on an average Tuesday stuck on the 405.
Ellie told me how in the decades she’s been doing this, she’s hosted all ages, ethnicities and genders. “We have served those in foster agencies, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, recovering from illnesses or surgeries, at the end stages of their lives and many who are suffering the loss of a loved one,” she told me. “We have also been refuge for those dealing with depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicidal ideation.” At one point, I awoke from what felt like an oxytocin-induced reverie with one cow, and I looked over and saw Ellie resting alongside another of the herd, her eyes closed. She was smiling.
I thought of my teen son, who had made great therapeutic strides during his ranch stay, after a troubled time following the death of his father. “I don’t know about cows, but when I’m with the horses, they take me outside of myself in a healthy way,” he told me later. I definitely felt that with the cows at Gentle Barn. Spending time with them felt calming in a way that was more sustaining than my beloved exercise-induced endorphin highs, sugar-enabled laughter or Netflix-supported escapism. As I drove away from Gentle Barn, I had the sense of not wanting to wash my hands, which felt in some way holy with their layer of oily cow-coat dirt. Sure, you can look at cow hugging as the new goat yoga and leave it at that. Or you can try it out and feel your bones reverberating in the afterglow of a giant, gentle heartbeat.