It’s not easy to save a cow. Saving 65 of them is even harder.

It’s 6:45 a.m. on a recent Saturday. Syndi Leinaala Texeira was awake most of the previous night, planning and making phone calls.

Now, she’s driving up the Hamakua Coast with two volunteers and this reporter, heading for a rendezvous with other volunteers and two trucks with livestock trailers at the Big Island Dairy.

Texeira and the others are part of the Hawaii Lava Flow Animal Rescue Network, a group of animal lovers who originally got together last year to save pets and livestock from the lava flows in Lower Puna. The lava event is over, but the group has found a new cause: rescuing dairy cows.

Ann Goody and her dog with one of the three sick calves that she’s caring for at Three Ring Ranch. Regina DoDaro Romero Serrano

Big Island Dairy closed following a lawsuit prompted by sewage overflows from its lagoons that repeatedly ran down through the village of Ookala, makai of the dairy. The dairy has stopped milking operations and is running on a skeleton crew. It must find new homes for all its animals by the end of April, or send them to slaughter. Many of its 2,800 cows have already been shipped off or been purchased by local ranchers or residents but about 1,000 cows remain.

HLFARN and its supporters have vowed to find “forever homes” where as many cows and calves as possible can live out their lives dairy-free. In January, the group set up a gofundme site for the effort, began lining up private landowners who could adopt the animals (a minimum of two cows per adopter, since cows are herd animals), and negotiated a discount price with the dairy for the animals.

In mid-January, HLFARN brought out its first rescuees: 61 calves that had been separated from their mothers and would require bottle-feeding until they could be weaned.

Today’s rescue will be cows with calves.

While Texeira drives, Banka Schneider and Rob Cole sit in back with cell phones and huge spreadsheet printouts listing people who’ve volunteered to adopt cows and calves, how much acreage each person has, how many animals they want, and their addresses and contact information.

But despite all that organization, the group is doing a lot of improvising this morning. They’d found out the night before that more cows were available than they’d planned for, so Schneider and Cole are scrambling to find people who can take more animals on short notice.

Cows and their calves in separate pens at Big Island Dairy. Alan McNarie/Civil Beat

When they reach the dairy, two new twists knock their whole plan awry. The dairy’s workers have separated cows and calves into different pens. Now, instead of heading directly to their new homes, the animals will need to go to a staging area where moms and offspring can be reunited. And some of the calves are sick — one died overnight — and will need quarantine facilities and medical care.

The group’s leader, Alessandra Rupar-Weber, gets on the phone and finds solutions. Dawn and Michael McCool, who own a ranch in Waimea, volunteer a paddock for the staging area. Ann Moody at Three Ring Ranch, an exotic animal refuge in Kona, will care for the ailing calves.

The first truck backs up to the loading gates. Dairy employees maneuver the first batch of cows into position. Some cows are still bawling to their calves, which stand forlornly in an adjacent pen.

The loading goes smoothly at first, but the last cow balks — perhaps because the trailer is already crowded, or perhaps because the next-to-the-last cow has spewed a load of diarrhea on the last cow’s head. A dairy employee finally persuades her with an electric cattle prod.

Guided by a smart phone attached to her dash, Texeira leads the stock truck over 35 miles of winding mountain road to the ranch.

As they unload, Michael McCool notes that many of the cows are gaunt, and some have diarrhea — perhaps from the stress of moving. But just to be sure, he rides out to check the fence dividing the new arrivals from his own cattle.

The rescuers had hoped to deliver the first cows to their new homes before noon, then break for lunch. But that schedule’s now impossible. Most of the volunteers at the McCool ranch stay put, helping to unload the cows as they arrive, and sharing whatever they have for a meager lunch: fruit, slices of bread, some mints. The cows, who’d spent most of their adult lives in the dairy’s two large milking sheds, eat better: they quickly spread out, munching the paddock’s grass, though a couple stay close by, calling for their absent calves.

Syndi Texeira will average two hours of sleep a night until the last cow and calf are finally delivered, two days later.

But for the animals’ adopters, the journey has just begun.

When Danielle and Andrew Spitz acquired two calves from the first rescue in January, their farm already had rescue sheep, dogs, cats, chickens and a goat. Some of those animals have “special needs,” including a blind chicken and a sheep that wears a booty over its damaged hoof.

Andrew holds two degrees in animal science. That helped one of their two new calves that arrived badly dehydrated and nearly died. Andrew resuscitated her with the aid of a bottle of mineral water.

A mother and her calf get reacquainted. Courtesy: HLFARN

Now, says Danielle, “They’re blossoming as individuals … Thelma is very sweet and demure. She nuzzles your face and licks you. Then there’s Louise, who’s kind of Dennis the Menace in a bovine form.”

Rebecca Clancy and Mike McGrath have added four of the calves to their menagerie of rescue animals. The calves, Rebecca says, are bringing her rural community together. Neighbors she’d never met answered her call to help unload the newcomers, and some of the neighborhood boys now assist with the bottle-feeding.

The veteran adopters are helping less experienced ones via a private online support group.

HLFARN is raising money for another rescue in about three weeks.

“These poor cattle are collateral damage … innocent bystanders that are suffering because of all the other stuff that is going on,” observes Dawn McCool.

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