The woman knelt down, gently placed her hand on the face of Buddha, the “therapy cow” at the Gentle Barn, a farm sanctuary in Santa Clarita, Ca., and then burst into tears. “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Buddha,” I heard the woman murmur as I quietly left the barn to give her some private time. Buddha has been living at the Gentle Barn for almost all of her 13 years, and is probably the most-hugged, most-brushed cow in the world. It is not unusual for visitors to have an emotional response when meeting Buddha. There is just something very special about this miniature cow who patiently sits, accepting and responsive to all of those who want to meet her.
Every Sunday, for a small donation, the public is invited to visit the Gentle Barn, www.gentlebarn.com, where over 160 animals that have been rescued from abusive backgrounds are now lucky enough to be living. During the week, the Gentle Barn is host to at-risk and special-needs children, who are able to meet and hear the stories of the rescued and rehabilitated animals. Gentle Barn founder, Ellie Laks, believes the animals provide inspiration and healing for the children. “We provide a place for people and animals to remember that they matter,” says Ellie.
Sunday visitors will find Buddha in the barn along with her cow friends–Vegan who was born blind on a beef ranch and brought to the Gentle Barn by the sympathetic rancher’s wife; Faith who was rescued from a veal crate and is also blind due to an untreated case of conjunctivitis, Grace who arrived with a broken back after a large bull mounted her at the agricultural school where she was used for breeding, and beautiful Buttercup who is a gentle loving soul with a maternal instinct for all of the newly arrived baby calves. Buddha, herself, was the Gentle Barn’s first cow twelve years ago, rescued from a miniature cow breeding program in Washington State. When she was unable to conceive, she was scheduled to be slaughtered. Fate intervened when Ellie just happened to call the facility while researching miniature cows. Ultimately, that miniature cow was brought to the Gentle Barn and, because of her spirit and healing presence, was given the name Buddha.
Armed with brushes, provided by the Gentle Barn, multitudes of excited children enter the barn. Buddha is very popular. The children stretch their small arms to brush or pet her forehead, large shoulders, or long back. Parents lift cameras, urging their little ones to look up and smile, and even the adults surround her, uttering words of adoration, tenderly caressing her face or reaching out to wrap their arms around her neck in an embrace. Everyone wants their picture taken with her–testimony to the day they visited Buddha who has been hugged by so many, including celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia, Mark Wahlberg, and Hilary Swank.
I am one of Buddha’s adoring fans and have also been her massage therapist for the past few summer months. During this time, I have become completely smitten with her and am, admittedly, excited to see her. I enter the barn, calling out, “Hi Buddha!” and then watch closely to see if she might recognize me. If she sways her large head in my direction, I ask Jennifer, the volunteer barn manager who knows everything about the cows, “Do you think she knows who I am?” I sound like a schoolchild but can’t seem to help myself. Jennifer, as calm and patient as Buddha, assures me. She knows that I am not the first person to have become so besotted with Buddha.
“Buddha, are you ready for your massage?” I ask as I touch her forehead, and squat down beside her. I assess her expression, the brightness of her eyes, and begin my massage as I always do, my hands on either side of her upper spine moving down her neck to her shoulders. I repeat this several times and then gently squeeze her thick neck muscle and run my thumbs along the muscles. Buddha likes having her neck massaged, and sometimes will rest her head on the ground, or in my lap and close her eyes as I knead away. I massage Buddha, amidst the many visitors, encouraging the tentative to come forward and pet her or moving aside for photo-taking. Sometimes we are alone for a short period, and this is a good time for me to focus entirely on her. I use the flat of my hand in a compression movement over her thick shoulder muscle, reaching under her shoulder to massage the muscles hidden from view. All of these massage techniques promote blood circulation which, in turn, feeds more nutrients and oxygen to the tissue. Buddha has arthritis and has difficulty getting up and down and walking. Her knees are swollen and her legs are stiff–side effects of the genetic modification she was subject to at the miniature cow breeding facility. It has left her with legs too short to support her body.
Around her swollen knees, my thumbs press some acupressure points, and then I lightly massage my way down her leg to her hoof. The Gentle Barn treats Buddha’s arthritis with an anti-inflammatory, pain medication, nutritional supplements, ultrasound, energetic healing and weekly chiropractor visits. Plus my weekly massages. I stand up and place my palms on either side of her spine and very carefully and lightly press down, running down the length of her back to her tail. I do this, while constantly checking Buddha’s face. Her eyes tell me what I need to know. When her lashes droop, I know she’s relaxing, when she swings her head around and looks at me wide-eyed, I quickly back off. “I don’t need to do that, Buddha. Don’t worry,” I say.
In 2010, Buddha was the inspiration for the Hug A Cow Campaign which encourages visitors to get their picture taken while hugging a cow and was started by the Gentle Barn to “celebrate the healing touch of the animals,” says Ellie. “The Hug A Cow Campaign offers a unique way to promote kindness and compassion. Each hug will have a lasting impact on the person and the cow.”
On one visit, I was witness to a young girl, perhaps around 10 years old, who had wrapped her arms around Buddha’s neck and was lying against her, face pressed into Buddha’s shoulder, staying there for about 15 minutes. Buddha relaxed also, stretching her neck out along the ground and closing her eyes. “She’s so lovable,” the young girl said, announcing that she was becoming a vegetarian starting that day.
I am almost finished with my massage. After some acupressure work around Buddha’s sacrum, I bring myself up to her neck again. I will end the massage by placing a cold pack in various spots where there seems to be soreness or swelling. Buddha usually likes this and after a few moments of acclimating to the coldness, she might close her eyes and rest. After spending about an hour or more with her, the massage is at an end. I give her a hug good-bye, feeling a little reluctant to go but there are several arthritic goats who also need some massage attention.
My mood is always elevated after a massage therapy session with Buddha and I know that, although I am the one giving the massage, she is the one giving the therapy.