Eric Howlett DVM’18 grew up in the sprawling Texas suburbs of Houston and freely admits to never touching a cow until he visited a University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) open house for incoming students.
“Maxine was my first,” he says fondly, referring to the school’s Holstein teaching cow. Later, during his large animal rotation as a student, he met Lois, the second of the school’s teaching cows. “Those girls spoiled me. They were not intimidating at all,” he recalls.
Lois, named after Lois Lane of Superman fame, and Maxine were treasured among School of Veterinary Medicine students in their role as teaching cows, helping students learn bovine physical examination skills. They also served as a source of whole blood, plasma, and rumen fluid donations for cow patients of UW Veterinary Care.
Lois was six years old when she came to the SVM in 2013, joining Maxine who had been there since she was four. (Lois is currently estimated to be about 13 years old and Maxine approximately 14). Both were aging gals when Howlett, as a fourth-year veterinary medical student, was assigned daily care and feeding of the pair. Standing in their stalls one day, looking gently in on them, he wondered what would come of them in their old age?
Later in the semester, Howlett asked Ruthanne Chun DVM’91, the school’s associate dean for clinical affairs and UW Veterinary Care director, “Do they have a retirement plan?” After learning from Chun that nothing had been formally planned for the cows’ retirement, Howlett made an offer. “Well, I have a farm and pasture — they can come live with us,” he recalls telling her.
Howlett, who came to the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program after completing a PhD and working in research, had recently moved to a hobby farm outside of Madison with his wife Bethany. “The place was a dairy farm in the 50s,” he says. “The most recent owners had it set up for cow, calf, and goat operations. It was perfect. All we needed to do was add animals.”
In July 2019, after a party at the school bidding the cows farewell, a trailer pulled up to Howlett’s driveway. With this special delivery, Maxine and Lois’s retirement officially began. (A new pair of teaching cows have since joined the school.)
“Every day Maxine and Lois get a bale of hay in the a.m. and another bale at night. Plus, a scoop of grain when I get home from work. Maxine bellows if I forget. Oh, and bananas too. I buy the brown ones at the store just for them,” laughs Howlett, now a veterinarian at the Mazomanie Animal Hospital not far from his farm.
The pair enjoy a free-roaming life, having access to the entire property. They divide their time between pastures, driveways, barns, and drinks at the pond.
Even though the property is fenced, Maxine is an escape artist — finding every gap in the fence. Luckily Lois tattles on her with a long, strong bellow. When Eric or Bethany hear bellowing, they know Maxine has broken out again. But most often, the pair is seen wandering the woody hillsides. “The old girls love to wander up there and settle in — watching over the farm. A habit they must have perfected after spending years in the vet school stalls, watching the busy students go by,” he says.
One unique detail about having former donor and teaching cows is that both of the animals still have a porthole, called a fistula, in their side. While at the hospital, this covered opening allowed for access to the cows’ stomach to retrieve rumen fluid donations, which helped re-establish the gut microbiome of ailing patients. (Throughout their tenure, Maxine and Lois donated to hospital patients a combined 1,400 gallons of ruminant fluid and 1,200 liters of blood.) Under Howlett’s care, he is making good use of the fistulas — now to deliver pain medication. “As older cows, they get arthritic, just like we do. I give them meloxicam for pain. Their fistula ports work well for this. I pour the medicine right into their stomach,” he says.
It’s been nearly two years since their arrival and everyone seems to have settled into a bucolic routine. Lois and Maxine share their pen with a herd of goats. When the temperatures dip, they all snuggle up together. Other members of the crew include Abe, a Great Pyrenees mix, and Lupini, a Catahoula Leopard Dog-heeler mix, along with flocks of chickens, guineafowls, and a few barnyard cats.
“When I go out to the pasture with a beer or coffee in hand, I count on Maxine wanting to drink it,” Howlett says with a smile. “It’s all those little things that add up … our golden girls living their best lives. I’m just happy to see them so happy.”