When stressed-out humans need a warm, friendly creature to hug, Bonnie and Bella can offer 1,000 pounds of affection.
They’re not dogs, cats or even horses, but cows — part of the “cow cuddling” experience at Mountain Horse Farm in Asheville, North Carolina.
It’s received so much attention in recent months that people have been driving for hours for the chance to embrace, brush and talk to the sociable bovines, said owner Suzanne Vullers. She’s been “very surprised” by the big reaction.
Vullers doesn’t believe it’s necessarily therapy, but something people can do for their own well-being.
“People laugh, people cry. There’s a variety of emotions going on there,” Vullers told TODAY about watching guests interact with Bonnie and Bella.
“It’s reconnecting with nature, connecting with animals, finding some quiet time for yourself, maybe process some thoughts or figure things out in your life.”
Ellie Laks — who runs nonprofit The Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita, California, where she and her husband rehabilitate cows saved from slaughterhouses — also believes in the therapeutic benefits of cow cuddling.
"Whether they're suffering from depression or anxiety or loneliness, (people) come to The Gentle Barn," Laks told TODAY. "The cows fill them with hope and the connection. They're able to exhale for the first time in a long time, stop thinking and just connect and feel the unconditional love from these cows."
"The best way to hug the cow is put your arms around them, but more importantly, put your face on them and close your eyes and try to find their breathing and kind of connect your breathing with theirs," she added.
In recent years, researchers have learned more about bovine psychology.
“Cows are far more sophisticated and sensitive than the simple grazers they are perceived to be,” engaging in play, displaying emotions and having distinct personalities, a 2017 paper published in Animal Behavior and Cognition noted.
Vullers brought the idea of cow cuddling to her farm from her native Netherlands, where the experience is known as “koe knuffelen” and has been popular for years.
Bonnie and Bella have free choice about whether or not to interact with human guests, who pay $75 for a one-hour session with them. The animals are not tied down or confined to a small space and can walk away if they wish. The sessions are limited to once or twice a day, a handful of times a week.
Both bovines are crossbred from good-natured Angus cattle and shaggy, docile Scottish Highland cows. The combination means they naturally don’t grow horns and have a coat that keeps them warm during the area’s harsh winters. It also produces a beautiful animal.
“They look so cute,” Vullers said. “We saw them and we fell in love with them.”
She described their personalities as very similar to those of dogs.
“Cows like to be with you, they’re very curious, they know their names, they always want to come up and see what’s going on,” Vullers noted.
Cows have a higher body temperature than humans — about 101 degrees Fahrenheit — and their heart rate is slower, both qualities that help people relax, she said. The cows also like to lie down when they’re digesting their food, allowing people to stroke them and sit with them.
Every session is different: Some people like to sit quietly with Bonnie and Bella; others like to talk to them. Many hug them or snuggle with them. Cows love to be brushed and petted, so those are also favorite activities, Vullers said.
Warren Corson, a licensed professional counselor whose practice in Wolcott, Connecticut, includes a 50-acre therapeutic farm with chickens, rabbits and ducks, wasn’t surprised people are drawn to cow cuddling, calling the concept “awesome.”
“It will not replace traditional therapy and it’s not designed to. But a lot of people, we’ve lost connection to nature and there’s a need for touch,” said Corson, director of the Community Counseling Centers of Central Connecticut. “Cows are actually pretty empathic. They can be very intelligent. In my observations, cows are some of the most nurturing animals that we have."
He noted that his patients have more productive counseling sessions when they’re around animals. They get a tactile stimulation from petting the animal, which stimulates different parts of the brain and provides a sense of connection, Corson said.
At Mountain Horse Farm, Vullers is always present during a cow cuddling session to make sure everything goes safely and smoothly. She can read the cows’ body language, so she’ll notice if they’re getting upset or bothered by something and will ask people to make adjustments.
There’s one spot on their body they don’t like to be touched: the top of their head where their horns would be, she said.