What I learned from a steer named Chico
At high noon on an early-spring day in 2017, six steers doomed to die escaped their slaughterhouse and stormed the streets of my city. The escape became a nuisance, then a scene, then a phenomenon. “Man, it was crazy!” one onlooker told the local alt-weekly. “I mean, it was fucking bulls running through the city of St. Louis!”
What seemed at first to be their daring getaway would later be downgraded to a liberatory amble: The steers had merely drifted out of the pen that held them at the Star Packing Company on Cote Brilliante Avenue. One wandered into a residential yard, others into a nearby auto shop’s parking lot, a few onto the grounds of a Catholic nursing home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Sister Gonzague Castro, then mother superior of the facility, remembers the call from the front desk: “There’s cows out the front yard,” a colleague urgently informed her. “They’re trying to get in.”
There before the reverend mother and God, the police (wielding rifles) and the butchers (wielding a cow trailer) managed to corral two of the steers. The third reared up and charged the nursing home’s metal-and-concrete fence, breaking through it and making a second escape. A locally famous photo in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows the animal’s neck craning high as his strong head splits the fence bars like twigs. Once again, he’d found freedom.
The brown cow had become a white Bronco: Television cameras and helicopters were on the scene to cover the “breaking moos.” People started rooting for the animal, calling him Chico—“He’s Chico, Chico Suave; he’s suave; he’s smooth!”—as he shrugged off the cops’ attempts to corral him. By evening, after five hours on the run, Chico found himself cornered on the premises of a food-and-beverage-coloring plant. Fate’s hoof had finally come down.
Chico’s new fans descended to support him, and to jeer his eventual capture. Kelly Manno, a local DJ and future TikTok star, pulled a dinosaur costume from her car and fashioned a makeshift protest sign, Don’t slaughter, send to rescue. The crowd chanted his name, “Free Chico! Free Chico!”
Chico and his herd did cheat death, but they weren’t freed either—not exactly. On an overcast day early this year, I drove an hour west from St. Louis to visit them. The animals are now working as bovine therapists at a nonprofit ashram of sorts called the Gentle Barn, located in the small, rural community of Dittmer, Missouri. There, Chico offers curative services in the form of cow hugs amid his brothers Bos: Johnny Cash, Houdini, Eddie, and Roo. (The sixth member of the group, Spirit, broke his ankle during the escape and was euthanized.)
I hoped these cows might help me. It would be fitting if they did.
For a while, about 10 years ago, I was a famous rancher of clickable cattle. These were the salad days of Facebook, when everyone relied upon the service and even loved doing so, partly because everyone else did too. The social network had recently become a “platform,” by which Mark Zuckerberg meant an unholy amalgam of computer software that allowed anyone to farm the attention and social connections of its members for communal chatter and private profit.
That profiteering soon took a form that caused me great personal distress. As a professional game designer, I couldn’t stand the rise of irritating social apps such as Pet Society and FarmVille: so-called games in which players were encouraged to flood Facebook with announcements and invitations to lure in even more attention. At the height of its popularity, 80 million people were playing FarmVille, or about one-fifth of Facebook’s total user base at the time.
My objections were moral as much as aesthetic. Social games forced players to turn friends into resources to feed a design based on compulsion rather than diversion. Almost exactly seven years before the St. Louis Six made their escape, I’d sat with tens of thousands of my colleagues at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, watching Zynga, the creator of FarmVille, collect a major award. This is stupid, I’d thought. These games are just … just cow clickers.
Cow Clicker, the real game for Facebook that I made based on that lark, was supposed to be even dumber than FarmVille. Players clicked on a cow, which mooed, and started a six-hour countdown until they could click it again. The game allowed them to invite friends to their pastures, buy various breeds of cows, and share their clicking antics on their News Feeds. Many people liked Cow Clicker because they hated FarmVille. But even more people liked it because they enjoyed clicking on a cow every six hours. In the end, hundreds of thousands of people were playing my game. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself clicked a cow (but only once). I had hoped to make a game that lampooned predatory attention harvesting. Instead, I seemed to have created yet another greedy time-suck—a fresh meadow for the same old crap. That kind of messed me up.
Wired ran a feature on the game, “The Curse of Cow Clicker,” for which I drove to a farm an hour outside of the city in order to pose for a photographer with giant cardboard cutouts of the cartoon cows from the game. I eventually disbanded Cow Clicker in a fit of pique that culminated in a bovine rapture: My cows disappeared forever. In their absence, some developers started using cow clicker as a generic term for meaningless clicking games of the type I’d meant to parody. Others evolved the idea into a popular, earnest, and lucrative genre of “idle games.” (Cookie Clicker and Clicker Heroes were follow-up hits.)
Cow Clicker remains one of my greatest professional legacies. That fact haunts me, and I allow it to. The cutout of the cow with which I posed still looks down at me from the wall as I click emails in my office at Washington University in St. Louis. “Aren’t you the Cow Clicker guy?” people sometimes ask. My brain fills with all the other things I’ve done, but ultimately I have to admit: Yes. I am the Cow Clicker guy.
It might seem overwrought to call my moo period traumatic, but surely milder matters have broken people. I struggled to satisfy players of a game I made to prove that such games were unsatisfying. I earned a good deal of renown but not much money. Then and now, Cow Clicker overshadowed the success of my other work, and of projects that received more critical acclaim. In my book, Play Anything, I did my best to recast the whole affair as a lesson in self-improvement. Later, writing at The Atlantic, I used it as an object lesson to explain how Cambridge Analytica–era Facebook data extraction worked. Every now and then I ponder—and then scuttle—some idea for a sequel or successor, and then regret my unwillingness to pursue it. Shouldn’t I have minted some cow NFTs? When will I finally get around to launching the Meadowverse?
All throughout, I left the game running in a ghostly form—even after the cowpocalypse, you could still click on the spot where a cow used to be. But eventually Facebook’s platform updates bested me, and the game, or its ruins, stopped working. When I peeked at the Cow Clicker page the other day, it was the first time I’d visited in years. The community hadn’t disappeared, at least not completely. During the first pandemic summer, a printer in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, posted “Miss you, babe” on the Cow Clicker wall. “What happened to cow clicker?” asked a high-school student from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a few months later. In February, just one day after Russian forces had invaded her country, a woman from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, wrote, “Cow clicker is not working.”
Those who haven’t had the mixed fortune of finding internet “success” may not understand the hollow feeling that it leaves behind—the sense of having gotten to a place you may never reach again, but which was a profoundly dumb place to be in the first place. If I did decide to bring back Cow Clicker, would it read like desperation? Would anyone be grateful, besides those straggler fans? And why can’t I escape this feeling of regret?
You can’t do cow therapy without cow trauma. That’s the first thing I heard from Ellie Laks, the founder of the Gentle Barn, when I visited her in Dittmer. Laks opened the facility in 2017 with the express purpose of taking in the St. Louis Six as rescues, after the animals were purchased with $17,000 in donations from a “Save Chico and Friends” campaign. “They came in absolutely terrified,” she told me. “And I had to put them through their own recovery, where they got to learn to forgive, learn to trust, learn to love again, and walk away from their pasts.” That healing, she said, is what allows them to heal others.
Outside a barn at the end of the property’s dirt drive, a social-media-thirsty vinyl photo backdrop reads, “I hugged a cow at #TheGentleBarn.” The service on offer is unique: Those in need can make an appointment to rub a pig or cuddle a turkey or, yes, hug a cow. They can do it in groups as a social event, or in private as “cow-hug therapy.” I was there for the latter—a private hug from Chico—as a journalist on assignment. Laks had waived the standard requirement of a $200 donation. I was skeptical that the hug would do much good.
A handful of brown cows lounged about inside the barn. Chico—whichever one he was—looked nothing like the proud, rampaging mutineer from the Post-Dispatch photo. None of the animals seemed suave or smooth. They were just big and slow and even stupid-looking. They were cows.
Laks pointed me to one in the center of the barn, munching on hay and minding his own business. “This is Chico,” she said cheerily, as if, with my hugging partner having been identified, the next steps would be obvious. I hesitated for a moment from a distance. It was easy enough to understand the premise of animal therapy—that playing with, or even just occupying the same space as, a dog or cat can reduce anxiety and alleviate depression. But you can pet a dog, and a cat can climb into your lap. This 2,000-pound steer didn’t seem to register my presence, and he was not about to snuggle up to me, at least not on purpose.
Laks sensed my uncertainty and encouraged me to go with it. With smaller animals like house pets, she told me, you’re the one in charge. Even in horse therapy, the human actor takes a dominant position over the animal, cast as the caregiver that grooms or feeds it. “Real healing doesn’t start when we’re in charge, but when we’re more vulnerable,” Laks said.
I had doubts. I’ve never been much of an animal person in general, and all my cow time to that point had been pretend. I had doubts about the sanctity of Chico’s rescue too. He’d been spared from slaughter, only to be returned to human service. And though the animals that stormed the Catholic nursing home ended up as heroes, the Little Sisters of the Poor themselves were being forced by circumstance to shut their home and pull out of the city after 150 years of ministrations. Chico was relocated, but Sister Castro’s human wards, the home’s poor and elderly residents, were soon forgotten. Now, as I planned out my approach for the hug, these thoughts went through my mind. Chico’s size also gave me pause. If only he could be clicked instead!
Laks urged me not to worry. “Cows are just naturally very, very, very nurturing and demonstrative with each other,” she said, “and so they’re happy to extend that to us as well.” Because Chico had been the leader of the St. Louis Six, she said, he was the most traumatized by the experience, and that made him the most therapeutic—it gave him “strength and wisdom.” She suggested that I partake of these qualities by approaching his shoulder from the side, then putting my arms around his body. But most important would be to rest my face on Chico’s hide and match my breathing to his. “You find their heartbeat and slow yours down to match. That’s where the magic is,” she said.
I did as I was told, extending my right arm over Chico’s back, but I didn’t know what to do with my left. I couldn’t reach it all the way around him, so I let it hang down awkwardly, like a middle schooler’s at a dance. With my human face planted against Chico’s body, I struggled to feel any heartbeat, let alone match it. (Later, when I shared a photo of the moment with my Atlantic colleagues, they seemed unimpressed, accusing me of having half-hugged Chico.) I was just beginning to feel like I was making progress when Johnny Cash edged into our personal space. Irritated, Chico sidled toward me and stepped on my foot.
Ow is just cow without the c, and I vocalized that sentiment a few times as I figured out how to extract my toes from under the mammal’s mass. “Are you okay?” Laks asked, and I managed an aspirational “yes.” I was supposed to let the animal take control, so perhaps I should have seen this coming: Chico clicked me.
At hundreds of dollars per hour, a visit to the Gentle Barn costs about as much as a quite fancy human therapist. According to the organization’s 990 filings, the operation brings in more than $3 million a year across its three locations in California, Missouri, and Tennessee, almost half of which pays for human salaries. “I am dependent on cows,” Laks said during my visit to Dittmer. “They’ve been supporting me for 22 years.”
I had to admit it: I’d felt supported by Chico too. Even cut short, our hug had been … sustaining. His body was warm and soft and substantial; and his indifference to me—as he trampled my foot (which was fine after I iced it, thanks for asking)—made me feel as though my problems might be just as small as I was. Laks isn’t wrong that hugging a cow requires a new mindset, and I can imagine it leading to a breakthrough.
Judith Finkelstein, a 30-year-old consultant for nonprofits, visited the Gentle Barn in California last spring. “I was open to trying anything,” she told me by phone. Finkelstein’s infant son, Aiden, had died of SIDS earlier that year. “I tried a therapist, a psychiatrist, EMDR therapy, gardening, long walks, acupuncture, sound healing. If someone said, ‘You would feel better by jumping off a cliff and landing in a bowl of Jell-O,’ I’d have tried it.” Hers was not the sort of anguish that could be cured, Finkelstein said, but cow hugging helped. “It was calm. The animals don’t ask you how you’re doing. They don’t ask you how you’re feeling. They don’t remind you to eat. They just sit with you.”
Finkelstein’s reason for going to the Gentle Barn made me feel embarrassed of my own. Of course Cow Clicker didn’t matter; how had I convinced myself otherwise? But then I thought about the mindless, simple calm that Finkelstein said she’d found at the Gentle Barn, which had helped to ease her endless pain. Perhaps my game had been a source of something similar, in some tiny way. Maybe clicking cows was somewhat therapeutic, for some of those who played it—and for some of those who miss it still.
If holding a cow is comforting, then maybe just beholding one can offer comforts too. Think about it: When driving through the countryside, a passenger who sees a cow in a field is almost obliged to make a delighted note of the fact. “Cow!” she’ll say. And everyone else will nod in satisfaction. Yes, cow. Cow Clicker didn’t do much, but it sure did offer people the opportunity to look at pictures of cows and to touch them with a mouse or fingertip—and it sure did make them feel good.
The realization that cow clicking might be a form of cow hugging brought me back to the moment when I sent my game to digital slaughter. What started as a pang of guilt became a drumbeat. Should I bring back the cows? I Googled meadowverse and discovered that it already exists as a play-to-earn NFT-based role-playing game. Scorched earth. Should I try to write a grant to assess the mental-health benefits of cow clicking? From the start I’d hoped my game would mitigate the harms of social media, and then I feared it was rehashing them instead. Now I felt as though I’d missed the point.
Near the end of my visit to the Gentle Barn, I asked Laks about cow codependence: Has anyone ever become addicted to cow hugging? I wasn’t really thinking about Chico, but about my own cows. “I don’t know how anyone survives without a cow,” she replied. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I head to the cows, and they just make it better.”
Wired’s story about “The Curse of Cow Clicker” ends with a mic-drop moment. Reflecting on what it’s like to click on the place where a cow, now raptured, used to stand, one of my most active clickers, a Canadian stay-at-home dad named Adam Scriven, whom I’d gotten to know during the game’s run, told the magazine, “But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows.” Boom. Really makes you think.
Except for the fact that they weren’t clicking nothing; they were clicking the pictures of cows that I had drawn. Cute ones that evoked a received, if idealized, notion of cowship, and of the same properties of stately languor and gentle determination—strength and wisdom, even—that are celebrated at the Gentle Barn. “What’s up with the no cows thing,” reads one post on the Cow Clicker Facebook page. “You think it’s cool?” Another former player wonders if he might find similar comfort elsewhere: “Are there any ‘games’ like cow clicker that we can move to? This might help encourage people to move on and stop clicking on the empty space.” Still others express simple confusion about what the game promised compared with what it delivered: “where is my cow?”
After some searching, I reconnected with Scriven. He looks older now, grayer, but so do I. Scriven says that he’s still in touch with some of his Cow Clicker friends from back in the day, but his crew never managed to reclaim the singular bond they had when they interacted only via News Feed cow clicks. “The ending of the game made me sad,” he said. I told him that I felt the same.
In its heyday, Cow Clicker allowed Scriven to socialize with people without talking. His Cow Clicker friends came from all walks of life, and nobody cared (or even knew) about their differences. It was only later, after the game ended and Trumpism began, that Scriven realized the extent to which politics divided them. “I’m a member of the punch-Nazis-in-the-face left,” he told me. Many of his online friends were not. He started getting in a lot of fights on Facebook, the kind that play out in comment threads a mile long and foul language some people construe as threatening. Last summer, after a series of abuse reports against him led to a run of 30-day bans, Scriven found that his account had been deleted. Facebook had deplatformed him. He’s since made a new profile, and he told me that some of his first friend requests went out to old Cow Clicker companions. Perhaps he meant to use the site, this time, in a different, calmer way.
It occurred to me that there’s special value in these hushed relationships, the ones that don’t require give-and-take. Facebook claims to foster social networks, but it really aims for something different: A network of exchange. It optimizes for engagement; it nudges us to interact, constantly, and as performatively as possible. In the world of social media, connections must be used to be worthwhile. Scriven’s success at cow clicking, and his failure at Facebooking, emphasize the difference. Linking up but not engaging—that’s the ticket. That’s the lesson of the cow hug—and of the cow click, too.
I told Scriven about my Gentle Barn experience, and how I’d found it therapeutic. Maybe he would like it, too. “Hugging anything is gonna be therapeutic,” he replied. Of course, he was getting things exactly backwards: To hug for the sake of hugging is as frantic and misguided as punching strangers in the face. What matters is that the hug creates a stillness of connection, a bridge that goes unused. That’s what drew Finkelstein back to the Gentle Barn over the months following her initial visit. She told me she’d been working as a volunteer, but when I asked her what specifically she did, she didn’t really know. She sat with the animals; she painted watercolors. It was a place where no one asked questions. “I think my job was just to be a human.”