Diving deep into the mystery of the fistulated cow

Why would they let a cow have a giant hole in its side?

Senior French major Brandon Schatt sticks his hand in the cow.

Image Credit: Jasmine Cruz

April 27, 2015

Since the day my older brother moved into Centreville Hall his freshman year, there has been a mystery hanging over my head. There is a creature living on the campus that was as enigmatic and legendary to me as the Loch Ness Monster is to people all over the world. For seven years, I believed but never actually saw it. Its identity was told to me in passing, and it had gripped my imagination since. 

As we drove past the seemingly out-of-place farm nestled among high-rise dorms and the basketball arena, my brother casually mentioned that one of the residents of the farm was a cow with a hole in its side.

It didn’t make sense to me. Why would they let a cow have a giant hole in its side? However, my parents both corroborated my brother’s tale, which they had heard on a tour. They said the cow walked around and lived its normal life with a giant plug in its side so the animal sciences majors could learn about its digestion process. 

Though I could clearly smell the earthy scents of the farm as we moved my brother’s stuff into his room, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of a cow with a gaping hole in its flank living at the sleepy little farm just beyond his window. After seven years of pondering the mystery of the holey cow, it had grown to urban legend status for me.

I knew this year I had to settle this mystery once and for all and see the fabled cow for myself. This past weekend, when the farm opened up to the public as a part of Maryland Day, I knew I’d have my chance.

My interest in the cow has always been an unassuming quandary that nibbles at my ear every time the farm or animal and avian sciences department comes up in conversation. It’s been a while since I stopped craning my neck over the fence every time I walked past the farm, but I have asked my roommate, an animal sciences major, about the cow before.

A few days ago, she gave me a brief introduction. My own Nessie was actually named Chai, my roommate said, and Chai was, in her experience, a very sweet cow.

I was afraid that in the utter madness that was Maryland Day, I would miss the chance to make it to the farm. But after cutting through an unusually crowded campus, I made it to the entrance to the farm. The earthy smells were familiar; after several years of horseback riding, I actually found the scents of the animals quite comforting.

A sign posted near the entrance to the farm announced the special events for the day, including milking demonstrations. There was an event at 3 p.m. labeled “Fistulated cow.” It was only 2 p.m., so I hadn’t missed Chai.

As I was an outsider to the grounds, the farm felt like a labyrinth. It was definitely much bigger inside the fence than it had appeared from Regents Drive. I wandered in and out of the open barns, encountering numerous sheep and some smaller cows, but there was no sign of a rubber stopper in any of them.

Finally, after walking through a narrow alley between a fence and another building, I arrived at the farthest point back on the farm. The sheep were feeding on hay. Several smaller cows were scratching their itches with their hooves or getting drinks of water. One larger cow stood out in their midst.

It was Chai.

For all the wonder surrounding her, Chai seemed like a normal cow you might pass when driving by farms on a country road. She was very large; she loomed over the other animals, and though I couldn’t get too close to her, it seemed as though she would even tower over me.

Despite the number of people buzzing through the farm and gaping at her, Chai chewed contentedly. She was, of course, oblivious to the rubber plug that made her so fascinating to those gathered nearby. The hole seemed far smaller than I had expected; the whole rubber contraption seemed no bigger than a dinner plate, which was nothing on a cow of her size. It was just big enough to fit an arm in. It almost blended into her beige fur.

After gazing upon the wonder that was Chai, I finally approached the student guide and asked the question everyone had asked me when I shared my eagerness to meet the holey cow: Isn’t it bad for a cow to have a hole cut out of its side?

As the student explained it, the fistula is just like a piercing in the skin on cow’s side; when the hole was made, it was monitored to make sure it healed properly, but with the plug in place, there is no danger to the cow. Chai certainly didn’t seem to notice or mind. While I haven’t had enough experience with cows to judge their temperament, she certainly seemed pleasant enough to me.

I couldn’t stick around to stick my arm inside the fistula (though my roommate assured me it would be pleasantly warm on such a cool day), but I was pleased to have put the mystery to rest. Maybe in another seven years I’ll be able to find out what it’s like inside of the fistula, but I’ll admit that’s a mystery I’m happy to leave unsolved.