Dairy diaries: PAWS connects cows, cats, college students

Located in nearby Millbrook, the Shunpike Dairy Farm is a 20-minute drive from Vassar. Visitors have the opportunity to be in close contact with various adorable ranch animals. Duncan Aronson/The Miscellany News.

On a sunny Sunday, Oct. 7, the Pre-Veterinary and Animal Science Club (PAWS) made its first trip to Shunpike Dairy Farm. A cohort of PAWS and non-PAWS students petted adult cows, cats and calves, and left the farm satisfied—and with plenty of fresh cheese and raw milk in tow. On the drive back, participants reflected on their enjoyment and observations of their farm experiences.

You may be wondering how petting animals directly relates to being a veterinarian and, by extension, how the farm trip aligned with PAWS’ goals. The answer: The mission of the org is much broader than veterinarian preparation alone. Treasurer Ruth Demree ’19 shared, “We want to be a resource for veterinarian-track people—we are having a veterinarian alum come and talk in a few weeks. There is always that educational aspect. We also want to help people who think to themselves, ‘I don’t know what to do but I want to work with animals.’”

So the farm trip is an essential experience for people who love to interact with animals. When everyone initially congregated around the fenced-off pasture, the cows were standing idly on the opposite side. One by one, they noticed us and trotted over to say hello. They greatly impressed with their adorableness and demeanor. PAWS member Sam Dorf ’22 commented, “I thought it was really cute how the cows bit on to clothing and to shoes.” Demree added, “I really liked the cows—all the cows seemed very happy, sociable and gentle.”

Shortly after, the niece of the current owner greeted us and took us to the barn. On the way there, we met two of the many farm cats. Aside from capturing many hearts with their charm, they sparked conversation about how cats behave on a farm instead of in a house. Dorf noted, “It’s nice to see cats living in a farm environment … The farm seems to be exactly where they belong because they’re just so happy.”

Once we moved on from the cats and into the barn, we were able to get up close and personal with a black calf and a brown calf. The black calf still hadn’t gotten over its suckling stage and was prone to suckle anything it could. This led to a minor incident, which org member Tieren Costello ’19 described: “When we got into the barn, that guy who had his shirt halfway in the calf’s mouth was quite a spectacle. It was precious.”

We were told that the brown calf, on the other hand, was much calmer and had a soft spot for neck scratches. This was immediately put to the test. From the pleasure-filled tilt of the calf’s head, we confirmed this hypothesis. The delightful animals were a clear highlight of the event, but Costello was most touched by what the animals brought out in his fellow students: “My favorite part was meeting and seeing animal people getting really excited and passionate about animals. It’s some of the happiest you’ll ever see your peers.”

Pictured here is the hapless “guy who had his shirt halfway in the calf’s mouth,” Matt Usui ’22. The good news is that he ended up making friends with the cow through a gentle pat on its forehead. Duncan Aronson/The Miscellany News.

While lovely animals are a key component of Shunpike, the farm, passed down for four generations, is also an exemplar of well-thought-out and sustainable practices. Demree, with her academic focus on animal science and her years of farm experience as a volunteer and a field work intern, provided expert insight: “They are using rotational grazing, which maintains the grass, prevents parasites and maintains the soil quality. All the pastures looked healthy and the animals looked healthy.”

These practices seemed connected to a high level of personal investment and care, evident through the smallest details. All of the cows had names and plenty of room to roam. My interviewees also remarked on the farm’s bull and horse sharing the same space and being friends. This is unusual, Demree explained: “Farms only need one bull to have calves, and the bull is kept separate from the female cows. Instead of letting him be all lonely and sad [as per usual], they found him a friend.”

PAWS plans to arrange another trip to the farm in the near future, which will include providing attendees the opportunity to milk the cows by hand. They will be going out on more animal-related excursions, including a trip to the Trevor Zoo, in the interim. Dedicated veterinarian or animal enthusiast, you’re welcomed.

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