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This article was first published in SumpThink in April 2006

Three-day rescue for Cow 139

Bob Wellington

This is an extended version of an article which was sent to NZPA, and appeared on the front page of the Waikato Times, as well as many other newspapers.

A cow which fell down a steep shaft on Waitoru Farm was rescued after a six-hour operation involving a special lifting harness, heaps of rescue equipment, lots of grunt and a dedicated rescue team. Wellington Caving Group member Bob Wellington, of Paraparaumu, said a chance call from a farm manager on Sunday afternoon led to the three day-long rescue of Cow No 139 – including preparation time, planning and the actual rescue itself.

Bob was completing a cave rescue exercise nearby at Waitomo, when a phone call from his wife alerted him to a local farm manager who had heard a cow bellowing from the bottom of a 30-metre cave. Farm manager Colin Gray had been out on his Waitoru farm near Piopio when he found the cow. Alive but thin it was not known how long the cow had been there but Bob said when he visited the cave with fellow WCG caver Gavin Holden it was clear she was "in pretty good condition though obviously somewhat distressed".

Colin discussed with Bob and Gavin whether the Friesian black- and-white cow – about three years old – would be able to be rescued or whether it would have to be put down. "We're talking 400 kilos plus of cow, so it was a fairly big mass to move in that situation."

Bob and Gavin returned home that evening and on Monday Bob contacted fellow cave group member and farmer Mark Phillips, of Moonshine Valley, near Upper Hutt, and discussed whether a rescue of the cow was possible. Both decided it was worth a try, so quickly sorted out what equipment might be needed, gathered it up and headed to the Waitoru Farm on Monday evening, where Colin and another farm worker, Ron Young, were preparing to help with the rescue.

Mark’s farming knowledge and experience were invaluable, as he supplied a harness which he had used on his own farm for hoisting cows – “however it was untested for such a difficult rescue situation” – and his stock knowledge to keep the cow calm and safe during the rescue attempt.

At 8am on Tuesday morning the group comprising of Bob, Mark, Colin and Ron drove back to the cave entrance– located about 6 kilometres from the farm managers house at the rear of the property.

Colin had visited the cow in the interim to check on her but the decision had been made not to feed her because of the problems it may have caused during the rescue attempt. The cow had access to a nearby stream in the cave for water and daylight shone down from the Tomo entrance 30 metres above her, so she had remained safely in one area of the cave. [Later during the rescue she was feed a few cow nuts.]

The rescue group entered the cave and found the cow waiting patiently under the Tomo entrance. The cows condition and location were carefully discussed, before the group decided on the safest rescue approach possible in the circumstances. After Bob set up extra lighting the cow was herded into a corner of the muddy cave chamber by Mark, Colin and Ron and there fitted with a halter and lead rope. This allowed Ron to keep her calm whilst Mark, Bob and Colin returned to surface above the Tomo entrance and set up a large range of equipment to rescue the cow and to keep rescuers safe, both in and out of the cave.

A hauling system utilising wire cables, 3 winch units, ground anchors, snatchblock and strops took over a hour to set up in the rough terrain, as everything required considerable improvisation to maximise the best chance of a successful outcome.

Mark and Colin returned to the cave chamber with the lifting harness, fitting it to the cow while Ron continued to keep her calm.

A first attempt to walk the cow towards the Tomo entrance within the cave ended badly with the cow landing heavily in a muddy area up to her belly. Luckily no injury was sustained by either the cow or the rescuers, but it reinforced to the rescue group just how difficult and hazardous things could easily become.

The second attempt to haul her to the surface proved to be successful, but required an additional Z rig hauling system to be setup within the cave chamber diagonally across from the cow’s new position. Careful coordination was required of both the surface winch operated by Colin and the diagonal Z rig operated by Bob with help from Ron so that the cow would be slid safely up the steep muddy cave embankment towards the entrance.

Meanwhile Mark controlled and calmed the cow now restrained in the lifting harness, making sure she did not panic or struggle out of the harness and fall back down into the bottom of the cave again. The last 3 metres was a vertical section, with sharp rock projections around the cave entrance, this required carefully controlled movements by the whole rescue team and also the cow that by now was very aware of her chance of freedom.

Ron and Colin quickly operated the surface hand winch while Mark and Bob stayed with the cow preventing any entanglement of the harness or cow as she came out through the entrance. Quick adjustments of the surface hauling system got the cow safely clear from the entrance area, where she was restrained for a few moments while the lifting harness was removed. The cow stood up within seconds of her release and was grazing grass nearby within 5 minutes.

The rescue haul took over two hours to complete; including short breaks for the rescuers and rest periods to ease the cow's trauma. The cow seemed to have escaped the fall into the cave and subsequent rescue with only a few grazes, though needed to regain some of her general condition. "Two and half hours later she was back with the herd that she had been separated from." “We were elated with the rescue and really we had thought we would be hauling a carcass up so the stream would not be polluted."

The cow may have also been pregnant, as the herd she had been with had been due to be given pregnancy tests and if so would have been valued about $1100. "But we did it for the humanity not for her monetary value."

The tale was so "moo-tastic" Bob was even considering turning the story into a child's book after another remarkable cow story was successfully published. Woodville dairy farmer Kim Riley wrote Cow Power in 2004 about the cow that rescued Mrs Riley from the treacherous Manawatu floodwaters in February 2004.

Consideration has been given to the purchase of an updated stock lifting harness that could be available in the King Country District for stock rescue. A sponsor has come forward to fund this purchase, so a suitable location needs to be found in the district to store it and information provided to the farming community about its availability. The Te Kuiti Fire Station could be a good central location that would provide 365 days of the year access and also possible manpower and other equipment if needed.

NZSS may also be supportive of this idea and feel that the rescue trailer at Waitomo could also provide a suitable storage location.