The Gentle Barn cofounders help give baby calf second chance at life

Gentle Barn founder, Ellie Laks, left, and co-founder Jay Weiner feed raw organic milk to rescued five-week old calf, John Lewis in an enclosure they set up in their living room at the Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita on Friday, August 28, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Typically, families have pet dogs or cats and, occasionally, a snake or tarantula in their homes, but Ellie Laks and Jay Weiner, founders of The Gentle Barn, have a 5-week-old calf enjoying the perks of living with mom and dad.

His name is John Lewis Thunderheart and he’s best friends with their Australian shepherd Sky. The pair play together and run around the barn every day — a reality nearly missed if it wasn’t for Laks and Weiner’s prompt efforts in saving the calf’s life. 

“We’ve done several rescues, been doing it for years, but this is one of the most amazing things that we’ve ever done,” said Laks. A month ago, they received a call from a Los Angeles slaughterhouse about an orphaned calf who needed urgent care. 

Best Buddies. Australian shepherd Sky, left, plays with rescued five-week old calf, John Lewis at the Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita on Friday, August 28, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Farmers are panicking because slaughterhouses are closing because of COVID; so, there’s an influx of immature cows going to the slaughter. Farmers get more money if cows weigh more when they’re pregnant,” she added. “It’s the norm for them to go pregnant but you can’t time their pregnancy and some of them give birth in the slaughterhouse. Jay got the call about a mom that gave birth but the mom was having health problems and they wouldn’t release her so we just got the baby.” 

But John Lewis wasn’t in top shape, either, said Laks. 

“There’s a lot of stress that the animals undergo and slaughterhouses aren’t kept clean, and a lot of babies get sick,” she said, adding that the calf was coughing and had a runny nose. Upon arriving at The Gentle Barn, a veterinarian stopped by and determined that John Lewis had a very severe case of pneumonia, with high fever and raspy, loud breathing. 

“We knew we were in big trouble. We attempted to heal him at our healing center but it was 106 degrees,” said Laks. “Even after we bought those industrial-sized warehouse coolers, we couldn’t get the temperature low enough; we knew we were going to lose him.” 

That’s when Laks and Weiner looked at each other and knew they had to take him to an air-conditioned place immediately: their own living room. 

They quickly set up an enclosure that was well padded for the animal to comfortably rest. Even then, John Lewis had trouble breathing and was in desperate need of oxygen. With help from a member of the community and Weiner’s swift response, John Lewis soon had his own, homemade oxygen tank. With the addition of superfoods and rest time, the calf was ready to meet the rest of his Gentle Barn family. 

“Every second counted, and so he’s been with us for a month now,” said Laks. “By the third week he could breathe a little easier and now he’s outside running and playing with my dog. They play like puppies. At 6 a.m. we take walks and meet other cows and he comes back inside the house when the heat starts.” 

Laks said she would like John Lewis to have a different and special life, perhaps taking him to the beach and going hiking. 

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