Hypatia was just a one-day-old calf when she arrived at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital with a severely shattered hind leg.
In most cases, a bovine calf with such a catastrophic injury would be euthanized, given the low probability of success, difficulty, time, and cost of treatment and recovery. But Hypatia’s owner, Mary Combs, was not willing to give up on Hypatia, one of a relatively small number of Heritage Milking Shorthorns remaining worldwide. While once common, the breed’s status is listed as threatened by the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting endangered livestock breeds from extinction.
“There’s only a few thousand of these in the U.S., and we really didn’t want to put her down unless that was the only option,” Combs said. “We just wanted to give her a chance.”
A chance was all Hypatia needed, and more than three years later, she is roaming her pasture in St. Maries, Idaho, and will likely be giving birth to her first calf this summer thanks to the commitment of Combs and months of round-the-clock attention and care by WSU’s Agricultural Animal service.
“Our expectation that she would survive was very low,” Combs said. “I think the veterinarians were all as amazed as we were that she didn’t just survive but she actually thrived.”
In August 2020, soon after her birth, Hypatia was discovered in a pasture separated by a fence from her mother, Daisy, who had been isolated from the herd in anticipation of calving.
“The only thing we can think of was Daisy calved next to the fence and the calf slipped under,” Combs said. “We reckon that her leg got broken by the bull in that field accidentally stepping on her because he was clumsy.”
Combs consulted with her local veterinarian and was advised that specialists at WSU were the best chance for the calf’s survival. Once in Pullman, veterinarians confirmed the severity of the injury and determined the break was too complicated for surgery to be an option. The decision was made to splint Hypatia’s leg and leave the young calf, along with her mother, in the care of WSU as she healed.
“As far as fractures go, that was a pretty nasty one,” said Dr. Alyssa Marre, who was an agricultural animal intern at the time and now leads the teaching hospital’s Agricultural Animal and Equine Mobile Veterinary Service. “In most bovines, I feel like that would be a death sentence.”
For the next three months, Hypatia received 24-hour care and attention, which involved frequent splint changes required to keep pace with her rapid growth. Her care team also worked to ensure she was able to properly nurse and move around, which was important to avoid muscle atrophy and promote healing in her leg.
“Daisey and Hypatia were quite famous here. Everybody knew them throughout the barn and was invested in how they were doing,” Marre said.
One of the top concerns was infection, which could occur if one of the splintered pieces of bone lost blood supply and began to rot. Fortunately, an infection never developed, and after more than 90 days at WSU, Hypatia and her mother were finally able to head home.
“The care Hypatia received at WSU was great,” Combs said. “When she arrived home, she had no limp whatsoever, and it would have been impossible by observation to detect anything had been wrong with that leg.”