How an Australian cow therapy farm is helping people heal
By Sean Davey/Oculi
A new, socially-minded initiative in Far North Queensland is using cows to assist people to find employment, as well as to promote calmness and improvements in mental health.
In 2020, Lawrence Fox, 34, found himself burnt out from his job as a business strategist. Staying on a friend’s farm in Goldsborough, half an hour south of Cairns, Fox spent his mornings and afternoons in the company of the farm’s herd of cows.
‘I came to realise how unhappy I was, and how happy I became when I spent time with the cows.
‘I grew up with racehorses that are very aggressive and will bite your hand off. If you go near them they can kick you in the face. But the cows were really big, sweet animals that allowed me to hug them and lay down with them. That was a game changer.’
When Fox was told that the cows he had come to know and love were to be sold for beef, he didn’t hesitate, and offered to buy them instead.
‘It was only a matter of time before they were going to be killed. I decided to buy them, and that’s when I had to research what to do with them to stop them from being killed.’
His idea, Cow Cuddling Co., a cow therapy social enterprise, was born.
‘I wanted to make a point of employing people in need and people who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to work the kind of nine-to-five in an office setting, that’s a big part of the social enterprise model.
‘The main thing that we focus on, is employment opportunities for people living with mental illness, people who are neurodiverse, and people living with intellectual disabilities. As a member of the Queensland Social Enterprise Council we also donate a portion of our profits to a COUCH, a cancer wellness centre in Cairns.
‘The idea is that it is not only sustainable as a cow therapy business, but also a vehicle to educate people about broader social issues in the community like mental illness.’
Wanting to assign his cows a higher value than beef market prices, Fox, who is currently studying for his MBA at Central Queensland University, decided to pay one Ethereum token for each cow.
Purchasing the cows with cryptocurrency, Fox gave each of them a personal asset wealth that exceeded their traditional market value. The cows were now worth more alive than dead; after all, they were no longer just beef cattle, they were now therapists.
When his MBA course required the development of a viable business model for an assignment, Fox decided to use his cow therapy business as his university project.
‘We were allowed to use a business that we already owned or ran to work with, or we were allowed to make one up. I was initially going to make something up but in the end, this idea was crazier than anything I could have made up anyway.
‘A lot of the corporate planning, strategy work and marketing were necessary for the business. But they are also assignments that I can be graded on.’
Cow Cuddling Co. is now a non-registered provider to the NDIS, and already saved one life and impacted a lot more.
Donna Astill is Cow Cuddling Co.’s first employee. A self-described suffer of multiple and complex mental health issues, Astill attributes her new role as being life changing.
‘I have PTSD, borderline personality disorder, social anxiety, depression and rejection sensitivity disorder. I’m just a mixed bag.
‘I struggle in life with a lot of things, even just getting out of bed.
‘These cows saved my life.’
With Astill’s children now both 17, and close to leaving home, she developed the courage to visit a local employment agency that advocates for opportunities for people with health issues and disabilities. At the same time Astill was looking for work, Fox had just started the business and was looking for an employee.
Donna starts work at six in morning, herding cows in the rolling hills of Goldsborough Valley, tucked away at the foot of the Gillies Range.
‘Each cow has their own personality, they’re just amazing. If someone told me last year that cows could make this much of a change to someone with mental health issues, I’d say “don’t be silly, that’s ridiculous”, but I’m definitely an example of the benefits of cow therapy.
‘I’ve been here six months and I can definitely see the improvement in myself. My anxiety levels have decreased in every aspect of my life. I enjoy getting out of bed. I actually smile, (even) when I’m not even at work.
‘My kids notice a huge difference. The impact these cows have had on my life, there are no words. It has definitely saved my life.
‘Twelve months ago I wanted to drive my car into a tree. It’s been hard work trying to get to this point and without these beasts, I don’t think I would be in the position I am now.’
Fox is grateful that the cows have helped Donna get her life back on track. He is aware that the cows can help others too.
‘Currently people who visit the cows are paying out of their own pocket, so essentially it’s a tourism activity, but now we have four different NDIS providers who this year will initiate their plans to include our farm in their programs.
‘The NDIS side of it has been a long road but it’s critical to have this option. We have parents who bring their young children with autism spectrum disorder. Without this farm, they would have to travel Innisfail to do equine therapy with those children, which is over an hour away from Cairns by car.
‘We are in the early stages of proving that this model works, but I can already see that it’s helping people.’