RIVERSIDE — Duke the baby goat had trouble walking when he was born on Christmas Eve.
He has cerebellar hypoplasia, which means his cerebellum is not fully developed. That impacts his motor skills and development, so he can’t stand on his own.
When Shawna Riche heard about the little goat, she knew she could help. On her farm outside Riverside, she’s taken in several rescue goats, not to mention dogs, cats and one Instagram-famous cow known as Betsy the Puppy Cow.
“My happy place is just being able to be outside and sit here with the goats,” she said.
Betsy was Riche’s first farm animal rescue, two years ago. Riche’s neighbor, a cattle farmer, died suddenly when Betsy was a baby. She had been injured during her birth, and Riche had to prop her up against a fence — even then she weighed well over 100 pounds — to bottle feed her, because she couldn’t stand on her own.
“I just got into it because a baby needed help. I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Riche said.
She had volunteered as a vet tech at a low income veterinary clinic in the Quad Cities, where she grew up, and that hooked her on helping animals. Still, she didn’t have experience with farm animals until taking in Betsy.
“I brought Betsy home the day after Jim (the neighbor) died,” she said. “And that was the first time I had ever touched a cow.”
These days, Betsy, who just turned 2, walks on her own and has the run of the farm. She can be mischievous, Riche said — she knows how to open latched doors and gets into places she shouldn’t. She plays fetch and comes up to the kitchen door to beg for treats.
“She grew up around the dogs, and she thinks she’s a dog,” Riche said.
That’s how Betsy got her name, PuppyCow. After The Dodo, a website that makes and promotes animal videos, featured her, she gained more than 23,000 followers on Instagram, where her handle is @Puppycow.
“It’s crazy to have a cow that’s famous,” Riche said with a laugh.
After taking in Betsy, the other animals started finding their way to Riche, slowly at first, and now she has 14 goats living on her farm, three of which she is boarding for another farm. She also has three indoor cats, three dogs and a few barn cats.
PuppyCow is also the name of the newly formed nonprofit Riche has set up. Her goal is to make her rescue efforts official and help offset the costs of food and veterinarian bills, which have been extensive. She filed for 501(c)3 status in December, but approval was delayed because of the government shutdown. It arrived at the end of February, and now PuppyCow Farm Goat Rescue is officially up and running.
She has a website, puppycowfarm.com, where people can make donations, and supporters can follow the farm on Facebook as well. She hopes to have public events this summer, such as goat yoga and movie nights where people can cuddle with the goats.
She also hopes, in time, to expand her capacity in order to take in more animals, and to find adoptive homes for some of the goats. She plans to be very selective about those homes to be sure they don’t end up being slaughtered for meat.
She said she’s not vegan and understands the role of raising animals for that purpose, but her goats feel less like farm animals than family.
“Goats have such personalities. They’re almost better, funnier than dogs,” she said. “Goats are herd animals. They form lifelong friendships, really unique friendships.”
Another goat rescue farm, Ruby Slipper Goat Rescue in Kansas, called her about Duke. They didn’t have capacity to take him in, but Riche did. She found a cart on Amazon to help him move around, and bottle feeds him three times a day.
Other goats on the farm have had traumatic pasts, including Burrly, an Angora goat whose coat was dramatically overgrown and matted when she got him, and Miss, who was listed for sale on Craigslist with an injured leg. Her leg had been splinted with two pieces of wood, with exposed bone underneath, and one of her horns had been broken off.
Though she now lets Riche hand-feed her treats, she’s still skittish and scared of most humans. The other goats in Riche’s small herd are generally friendly, and many run up to investigate visitors. Several are fainting goats and are prone to falling over if they get too excited or are startled.
Riche’s daughter Kalie Nebel, 13, helps care for the animals. They’ve started taking one of the goats, Barney, to visit local nursing homes as a therapy goat, and Shawna is looking into getting him officially certified. She hopes Duke can be a therapy goat in the future.
“I just let him love on them all,” she said of Barney. “So many people don’t have visitors. I figured doing stuff like that could make a world of difference in their day.”
Duke isn’t the only animal with special needs Riche cares for. A kitten, Saki, has megaesophagus, meaning she has trouble swallowing and has to eat slowly or risk choking.
Saki and Duke have a special bond. The first night they brought Duke home, Saki curled up with him, the two baby animals snuggling and comforting each other.
“Just being able to help him is the best feeling, because otherwise he’d be put down,” Riche said. “But he’s special. There’s no reason for him to have to die because he’s not perfect. Just because people have scars — or aren’t people — doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be loved the same way.”
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