Like every dutiful mom, Emily Watkins was looking for a special kind of extracurricular activity for her kids. Never could she have imagined that a 4-H interest meeting at Ray Family Farms in Zebulon, NC would save her daughter’s life.
Seven-year-old Mazie was terribly shy but also very excited to go—they had passed the farm many times and admired it, especially for its unusual Belted Galloway cattle (“Oreo cows,” as Mazie called them). She was one of the youngest and smallest children at the meeting, so farm owner Chad Ray decided to pair her with a Blonnie: a calf that he had mistakenly taken away from her mom too early, stunting her growth. Mazie plunged right in and learned everything she could, spending every spare hour with Blonnie at Ray’s barn.
The two of them bonded quickly, and a hobby quickly became an obsession. Mazie spent the next eighteen months showing Blonnie, who at barely 3 feet tall and 200 lbs. was easily dwarfed by her competition. Still, at their first show in March 2015, Mazie placed first in showmanship (e.g., her knowledge, care, and ability to handle her animal) even if little Blonnie sniffed and kept licking the judge. (“It was so stinking cute,” Emily recalls.)
A Devastating Diagnosis
On the way home from that show, Maize suffered from a severe headache and vomited—an episode similar to those that had been going on for more than a year but were clearly escalating. She was already under continuous medical treatment, had undergone 12 surgeries for sinus and ear issues, and had a 98% hearing loss in one ear. But attendance was taken at the barn to be able to show so—no matter how sick—Mazie would fight her mom to attend.
In September 2015, she could no longer fight. With her health severely compromised, Mazie had a brain scan that revealed Chiari Malformation: a congenital, incurable condition in which the skull presses down on the brain, pushing it into the spinal canal. She would need brain surgery almost immediately to relieve the pressure, and Emily mustered up the courage to tell the news to children at the farm and to Chad Ray. Crestfallen, Ray gave Blonnie to his “Mazie Grazie”—a best friend for her, always and forever.
A Rocky Recovery
Surgery was rough and recovery, rougher. The only thing that would bring a smile to Mazie’s face during her hospital stay was her Face Time with Blonnie, arranged by Chad Ray. Once home, she would return to the hospital due to surgical complications. By February 2016, though, Mazie was able to return to the barn in her wheelchair to find Blonnie waiting for her, licking her up and down, blocking people from coming near her.
New medical problems emerged, including diagnoses of epilepsy and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. But Mazie persisted. As Emily notes, “If Mazie was having a rough day, all we had to do was go see Blonnie and all was right in the world again. It’s like she knew that Mazie needed her just like she needed Mazie.”
Just shy of her 10th birthday, Mazie still faces many medical challenges. Her physical therapist says that walking and working cattle have helped her out most, and days she is not at her best she will choose to walk Blonnie. This once “runty” cow may just be livestock to others, but Emily Watkins knows better: “She gave my girl a reason to fight, a reason to push thought pain that would bring most adults to our knees. She taught her courage and taught her the meaning of loving something unconditionally.”
A heroic life lesson, played in tandem by a girl in a hot-pink, glitter wheelchair and a little cow with a giant heart.