Michelle Robertson unlocked the gate to a 15-acre pasture at The Gentle Barn in Dittmer, Missouri, where the St. Louis Six now spend their days. A year after they made headlines for escaping from a slaughterhouse and romping through city streets in north St. Louis, the steers are free to roam.
“There’s lots of rolling hills for them to run up and down and play,’’ said Robertson, cheerfully. She manages the animal sanctuary in Jefferson County, about 40 miles from St. Louis. “There’s beautiful trees for them to scratch on. They’ve got a big, beautiful barn filled with fresh straw that they can sleep in — although they do like to sleep outside.”
There were no signs of the herd, so Robertson began calling them.
“Chico … Roo … Eddie … Houdini … ’’
Robertson’s voice bounced across the wooded pasture.
“Come on babies … Here they come …’’
The luckiest cows in Missouri rounded a fence line and paused to eye their visitors.
“Chico’s the red one facing us,’’ Robertson said. “He is the leader of the crew here. He led the escape through St. Louis. He was originally the one most nervous of humans, and he kept his brothers away from us in the beginning. But now he’s the most comfortable with humans. And people can come in and hug him and pet him, and he just loves humans.”
The herd is still called the St. Louis Six, but there are only five of them now. One steer, known as “Spirit,” was injured during the roundup and couldn’t be saved, Robertson said. A pond next to the pasture is named “Spirit Pond.”
“He passed in our arms surrounded by love,’’ she said. “So, even though he didn’t get to make it to his forever home with his brothers, he was a part of the escape. We planted a peach tree for him in front of their barnyard, and his memory is in everything that we do here.’’
“These are Missouri cows”
The Gentle Barn also operates sanctuaries in California and Tennessee. The nonprofit raised $400,000 to buy the 24-acre farm to house the renegade bovines who broke out of the Star Packing Company on Cote Brilliante Avenue last March 30. The steers became media sensations as they eluded police and animal control workers.
People who were rooting for the cattle raised thousands of dollars to spare their lives. The Gentle Barn stepped in after being contacted by David Backes, the former captain of the St. Louis Blues, who is active in animal-welfare initiatives. The steers spent several months on a farm near Columbia, Missouri, until the sanctuary opened last fall.
Technically, the St. Louis Five, or Six, are steers — immature bulls that were neutered — but Robertson just calls them “boy cows.” They’re about 2 years old now and weigh about 1,000 pounds, she said.
“Cows are genetically modified to get very big, very fast,’’ Robertson said. “A lot of people don’t know that animals going to the food industry are babies.’’
Visitors to the sanctuary will hear that message as they learn about the animals at the farm. The Gentle Barn asks guests to respect their animals by not bringing dairy, eggs, meat, seafood or poultry onto the property. The facility books private tours and school field trips during the week and opens to the public on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
About 40 people visited last Sunday, and the steers seemed to take their visitors in stride.
Chico, who likes his neck stroked, stood still for hugs. The steers didn't utter so much as a moo — until they heard the engine of a farm utility vehicle that was bringing their lunch.
They didn’t react to the sound of shotgun blasts that occasionally pierced the rural quiet as the farm's neighbors took some target practice.
As Robertson put it, “These are Missouri cows.”
“I wanted them to be free”
About 30 volunteers help out at The Gentle Barn, including Jason Garrison of O'Fallon, Missouri. His job was to deliver a bale of hay to the cows for lunch. Then, he picked up a shovel and began scooping up cow pies.
Keeping the pasture tidy is important because humans don’t want to live “where they go,” and neither should cows, Garrison said.
“It makes a better quality of life for them,’’ he said. “Gentle Barn believes all creatures are the same. We just look different.’’
Colleen Tilford of Webster Groves smiled as she watched the steers hanging out in their pasture. She and her family were celebrating her birthday at the farm. Tilford said she contributed to the St. Louis Six rescue fund.
“I have been a vegetarian for the last 20 years, and when I saw them escape, I was definitely rooting for them,’’ she said. “I wanted them to be free. I didn’t want them to go to the slaughterhouse and become somebody’s dinner. I wanted them to live on a nice farm like this and be pampered.”
The Gentle Barn also houses rescued goats, chickens, turkeys and pigs.
Avery Whiting, 16, of Chesterfield, held a chicken named Gertrude as she peered into a stall holding pigs Penny and Petunia. Avery and her family volunteer on Sundays.
“I just like hanging out with the animals a lot,’’ she said. “They’re so loving and have such different personalities. They’re just chill to hang out with.’’
Ellie Laks, who founded The Gentle Barn in California, said the organization’s mission is twofold: to rescue unadoptable animals and to provide animal therapy programs, particularly for at-risk children.
“Bringing in animals that are either too old, too sick, too lame, or too scared to be adoptable and rehabilitating them is only 50 percent of the work that we do,’’ Laks said. “The other half is bringing in people with stories of abuse and neglect to meet the animals.’’
The St. Louis Six were the spark to establish a Gentle Barn in Missouri, something Laks wanted to do because she grew up in St. Louis. She said the group is working to get the word out about Gentle Barn Missouri and its animal therapy programs.
The Gentle Barn will mark the anniversary of the St. Louis Six’s great escape with a birthday party on March 25.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard