Ellie Laks has been rescuing — and hugging — cows for over 25 years. 

Living at the sanctuary she founded in 1999, aptly called The Gentle Barn, Laks shares her home with nearly 200 animals – including many cows she saved from slaughterhouses. Each animal is an individual with a unique personality and story.

“After living in a barnyard for twenty five years, I had so many stories of the remarkable experiences I have witnessed,” Ellie Laks told Lady Freethinker. “I just had to share the wisdom, healing, and lessons that these cows and other animals have for us.” She did so with her new book — “Cow Hug Therapy: How the Animals at the Gentle Barn Taught Me About Life, Death, and Everything In Between.”

Ellie’s book features heartwarming stories about cows who found a second chance at life at The Gentle Barn… and who seem to have changed Ellie’s life as much as she changed theirs. 

The stories also explore cow motherhood — like Buttercup, the little Jersey cow who became an adoptive mother to a group of calves who eventually grew much bigger than her. Her adopted calves never stopped loving her, according to Laks.

“They treated her with respect and reverence for the rest of her life,” Laks said about Buttercup’s babies. “The family was inseparable and very affectionate with each other even when the babies were fully grown.”

The book also explores the therapeutic experience of spending time with cows. There are snapshots of children and adults, who have suffered tremendous loss, leaning against cows and appearing to melt in relief.

Cows are incredibly tranquil animals. Being in the company of a cow can be a uniquely peaceful and healing experience. When these gentle giants choose to spend time with you, their presence can feel “like a huge mom hug,” according to Laks.

Ellie Laks and Cow

Ellie Laks (Courtesy of The Gentle Barn)

“They are so grounded … that being in their energy helps us feel the same way,” Laks said. “Of course they are unconditionally loving and allow us to be ourselves by their side.” 

If you’ve never had the joy of meeting a cow, Ellie Laks invites you to visit the Gentle Barn — and if that’s not possible, you can follow the Gentle Barn online for sweet pictures of rescued farmed animals.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and some answers have been combined.

To learn more about The Gentle Barn, visit their website here or pick up a copy of “Cow Hug Therapy: How the Animals at the Gentle Barn Taught Me About Life, Death, and Everything In Between.”

Q + A with The Gentle Barn Founder Ellie Laks

person hugging cow in cow hug therapy

Courtesy of The Gentle Barn

Can you share something you’ve noticed about cow motherhood at your sanctuary?

We rescue many cows who are pregnant from the slaughterhouses who give birth at The Gentle Barn and they stay together for the rest of their lives, so we have witnessed many moms and babies over the years. Cows are very protective and nurturing. They bathe their babies each evening and put them to bed at night.

Our cows will nurse their babies for up to four or five years, even when the baby is taller than the mom. They stay bonded for their entire lives and are inseparable, even as seniors.

What can you tell us about cow relationships after bringing so many different rescued cows together?

I have had the honor of watching the rescued cows at The Gentle Barn form a family circle around a cow who is giving birth. They encircle the cow for hours until the baby is done being born, walking, and nursing. Then, the cows break the circle and form a single file line in front of the baby and each member takes a turn welcoming them.

I have seen the matriarch cow babysit and help raise other’s babies, discipline teenagers, groom her family members, lead daily meditations, and form the same family circle around someone who is passing away to say goodbye, and around anyone who is grieving.

Cows are fantastic moms to their babies, to each other, and to us when they envelop us in their fold.  

Do cow matriarchs seem to approach people differently than younger cows?

Yes, just like any of us, wisdom, humility, and a desire to help others comes with maturity and time. Just like any babies, calves and young cows enjoy playing by bonking heads, exploring, and time to themselves.

The mature cows are the ones who really want to pay their healing journey forward to help others. Our cows do not typically participate in Cow Hug Therapy sessions for hurting humans until they are at least five. Of course there are exceptions. 

person hugging cow in cow hug therapy

Courtesy of The Gentle Barn

Is there anything you’ve learned about the dairy and meat industry while rescuing cows that might be surprising?

Yes. I think the biggest kept secret is that cows must give birth in order to produce milk, just like any other mammal.

In order for people to drink cows’ breast milk, the cow must be impregnated, the baby taken from her and killed, and the milk stolen for humans to drink.

When I heard this twenty five years ago, it broke my heart and I went vegan on the spot. Also, tragically, the majority of cows are slaughtered pregnant, as they weigh more per pound and the farmer gets paid more. We can help end this egregious suffering when we adopt a plant-based diet. 

Cows are not the only animals you rescue: Can you tell us a little bit about the road trip you took with a turkey?

One of the best experiences of my life — the road trip with Adeline the turkey was epic!

She sat on the back seat, chirped along while we sang, shared snacks, looked out the window, and walked into each venue like a rock star, allowing each person to cuddle her and take pictures with her. We visited the Grand Canyon and the Civil Rights Museum with her and she drew huge crowds each time.

By the end of the trip, it was irrefutable that turkeys are as intelligent and affectionate as any dog, cat, or friend that we share our lives with.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I have always known that though we may look different, we are all the same. The Gentle Barn’s rescued animals have proven that over and over again. I want more than anything to share their stories and the lessons that they have for all of us about our own humanity and happiness.