“She’s missing. I’m not going to quit her.”
The long, loving search for Betsy, bovine escape artist
It was Father’s Day weekend last year when Betsy ran away from home. She lived with her family on the outskirts of Anchorage, right at the thin blurred line where the city meets the Alaska wilderness. On a Friday in June, at about 5 p.m., Betsy was seen heading into the woods. She’s been missing ever since. Betsy’s disappearance made the local paper and then hit national news. Search parties were organized. The Anchorage Police Department commissioned thermal-sensor drones to sweep part of the 4,000-acre park where she was last seen. The community came together to help look for her: Mountain bikers, skiers, and hikers who use the park kept an eye out for any sign of her whereabouts.
Betsy is not, as most people might assume by the fuss surrounding her, a human child. She is a cow. Specifically, she is a thousand-pound black-haired Scottish Highland cross. Her owner, Frank Koloski, has been looking for her for more than a year. The way Koloski tells it, he had gotten a batch of new yearling cows for the Father’s Day junior rodeo event last year. At this point, Betsy was one in a herd of eight, penned in the back of the arena waiting to participate in various events. Just before the rodeo was about to start, a kid accidentally left the gate unlatched. Betsy backed into it and immediately took off, while the rest of her herd stayed put. “I feel like she left me on my first date,” Koloski says.
Summer ended, the days got shorter, and snow began to fall. Koloski resigned himself to the possibility that Betsy had been killed by a hunter or a bear. He also had to resign himself to the fact that a few thousand dollars’ worth of cow had walked out the door.
Then, in mid-December, a mountain biker posted a picture in the Anchorage Fat Tire Facebook group of a ghostly black cow standing in the snow, captioned: “WTF? Anyone missing a cow?!? How on earth did a cow get onto the hillside trails?” Koloski immediately recognized Betsy and later posted his number in the Facebook group and in the local paper, asking people to call or text him if they spotted her. The community responded en masse: His phone started blowing up with tips and pictures from the police department, animal control, and well-meaning residents. Koloski has gotten somewhere between 30 to 40 calls from people who claim to have seen her.
Eric Parsons was one of the first bikers to run into Betsy, before any pictures of her had been snapped and she’d become a local phenomenon. He tells me that he was speeding down a trail in the middle of a dark winter day when he came within 4 feet of running into her. For a split second, he thought Betsy was a bear or a moose, until she reared up and mooed. “It was very much like, That is a cow. There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s not a bear. It’s not a moose. It’s a giant cow,” he tells me.
He rode home in disbelief and posted on Facebook, “I did not think I could hallucinate on a sub 2 hr ride. But did anyone else happen to see a black COW last night near the Campbell Creek science center?” Many people in the comments joked that he was in fact hallucinating. “But then other people started seeing the cow, too,” Parsons says. He began to bring his camera with him on rides.
Ryan Marlow, one of the people commissioned by the police to search for Betsy by drone, tells me that when he first got the call, he thought it was a joke. “I had never used a thermal camera to search for a cow,” Marlow says. “I didn’t know what a heat signature of a cow looked like, how to calibrate it. It was a best guess for all of our tech.” They ended up finding 30 skiers, ten dogs, and what they believed to be a moose, but no cow.
Betsy fits into a long history of escaped animals (some of which have also involved cows). In 2002, a cow escaped from a slaughterhouse in Cincinnati and was on the run for 11 days to the delight of the city’s residents. She was eventually renamed Cincinnati Freedom and awarded a key to the city, which she was too nervous to receive because she was a cow. As far back as 1935, The New York Times covered in great detail the escape of 150 rhesus monkeys from a zoo, writing that “the alleged leader was unanimously selected as having been an agile creature called Capone, who might have been suspected because of his name, but apparently wasn’t.”
In 2015, the whole country stopped what it was doing to watch live footage of two llamas on the loose in Arizona. As one newscaster perhaps best summed up the event: “Why are we doing this, you might ask? Well, because we have live pictures of llamas. What would you do? We got through the ISIS stuff, and there are other things, and we’ll make time for them. We’ll kill the commercials if we have to, and for now we watch llamas.”
In the months following Betsy’s disappearance, as the story of her escape continued to spread, her reputation rose to folk-heroine levels. She has a Facebook group, where hundreds consistently follow up on her whereabouts. One man, Tom Hewitt, published an ode to Betsy in the Anchorage Daily News, writing, “You haven’t seen the inside of four walls since just after the summer solstice; I can’t even see the sky from the room where I’m writing this.” I ask Hewitt what he saw in Betsy. “I moved here to Anchorage relatively recently from Fairbanks, which is a smaller city,” he says. “It took me a while to find my feet here. I just wasn’t feeling quite at home. Something about this cow — that was also striking out on her own in the middle of the wilderness, making a life on her own — really resonated with me, and I think a lot of other people, too.”
Koloski tells me that one woman in Mississippi called him in the middle of the night just to say that she had read about Betsy and was following her story. She wanted to tell him something funny she realized: that his last name sounds like “cow, lost, ski.”
If you had to come up with a name for a cow, Betsy would probably be one of the first to spring to mind. It’s bovine classique: the Jessica of human girl names in the 1990s. Which is why I was surprised to find out that one of the most famous cows in Alaska — and maybe the nation, maybe even the world, depending on whom you ask — was named basic, generic Betsy.
When I meet the other cows at Koloski’s ranch, whose names seem to drip with personality — Blue Bayou, Bubba Gump — the dichotomy of Betsy’s moniker is made even clearer. I ask Koloski how she ended up with it, and he tells me he had been put on the spot to come up with her name during a news interview. He regrets the decision. If he could do it over again, he would have named her Lucille, so he could sing country songs to her. The Waylon Jennings one is his favorite: “Well, I woke up this morning / Lucille was not in sight / Asked my friends about her, but all their lips were tight / Lucille.”
Koloski usually purchases his bulls by evaluating their weight and breeding quality. But when it comes to the yearling cows like Betsy, which are used specifically for junior rodeo events because they are smaller, Koloski rounds them up from a ranch and returns them after the season ends (he won’t disclose the location of the ranch because its owner wants to “stay out of the limelight”). Koloski essentially gets whatever he can catch. There’s no methodology beyond that. By the end of the season, he swears that Betsy would have known who her herd was and where her food was coming from. She would never have wanted to run away.
It’s clear that Betsy’s well-being out in the wilderness weighs on Koloski’s sense of rodeo responsibility. “I just think that the reputation of anybody losing a cow or an animal, it’s painful no matter how you look at it,” he tells me. He motions toward the massive bulls that are pawing the ground in front of us and says that sometimes he’ll “kick it back” and lie on Blue Bayou’s belly. He cherishes those moments. “To show your own emotion toward an animal that is so majestic and outweighs you by so much — and that animal is being so vulnerable to allow you to do that. That trust right there, phew, it’s awesome.”
Koloski has been around cows all his life — he competed in bull riding since childhood and moved from Florida to Alaska in 1995, continuing to participate in local rodeos and eventually establishing Rodeo Alaska in 2010. While he has actual (human) children, he says that he also sees his cows as family: “They’re all like my kids.” Koloski says that when the time comes to part with his yearlings, he’ll miss them. “It’s going to stink. I have a family and all, but they’re part of the family, too. They’re providers. They’re an intricate part of what I do for a living.”
A few days after touring his pens, I went to Koloski’s July Fourth junior rodeo in Wasilla during the week of a record-shattering heat wave. Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time, and Koloski was busy driving a water truck around the arena to offset the dry conditions.
Betsy was a well-known entity at the rodeo. Many of the same people who were present were also there when she escaped last year. “I’ve been around cows pretty much most of my life, and she is the only cow I know that doesn’t want to be in a herd,” Elise O’Loughlin, a rodeo attendee, tells me. “They’ll take off, but they always come back.” The rodeo opened with an exuberant announcer introducing the crowd to “two beautiful ladies” (the flag and Miss Rodeo Alaska) and encouraging audience members to “make a new friend.” The event that Betsy would have participated in, steer riding, which is supposedly an easier version of bull riding for children, came at the end of the night.
As the event was about to begin, I wandered into the back of the arena, which had been constructed into a maze of pens and gates that somehow ended up directing each of the cows into its own tight chute. The narrow passageways were a far cry from the ranch that Betsy had come from and the thousands of acres she roams now.
One cow got confused and slammed into one of the gates, coming out the other side with a bloody nose. The cows were shuffled from pen to pen throughout the night, forever moving from one cage to another.
Alaska is not known for its cows — there are only two states in the country, Delaware and Rhode Island, that have fewer cattle, and they are both significantly smaller. Milan Shipka, a professor of animal science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, tells me that this has mainly to do with the lack of market and infrastructure for the industry. He also notes that any feed that isn’t grown in Alaska, like corn, needs to be imported, which can be expensive. “Our cattle industry is small. We have about as much reindeer production as we do cattle,” Shipka says. Which means that seeing a cow, even on a farm, is rare; seeing one in the wilderness is unheard of.
Koloski and I are walking around Hillside Park when he crouches under the spruce trees and grabs a fistful of the grassy foliage growing underneath. He’s speculating how Betsy has been on the loose for more than a year now, surviving a full Alaskan winter. “This doesn’t get covered like you would think from the snowfall,” he says. “This is all brown foliage.” The reason Koloski believes that Betsy has been spotted, and frequently, during winter is that the snow tends to push most animals down to lower land to find uncovered grasses. He gestures to the woods around us, saying, “There’s plenty here.” He points out Campbell Creek rushing past us, frigid and crisp, telling me that it doesn’t freeze over in the winter, so Betsy also has water.
Koloski is less concerned that Betsy will succumb to cold or starvation. The real threat to their reunion is Betsy herself. Her running speed is faster than a human’s, but slower than a bear’s. And without the specialized knowledge about how to round up and rope a cow, the general population of Alaska — which consists of few ranchers, unlike cattle-heavy states like Montana or Wyoming — has little chance. Even those in the rodeo circuit acknowledge it would be difficult to rope Betsy if she was in the woods. “There’s no way you’re going to swing a rope. You’re going to hit a tree,” says Trevor Davis, who runs the music at the rodeo. “If it were on a straightaway plane, sure, we could throw horses on her and just rope her down.”
Charlie Willis, who owns a roping arena in Wasilla and sells tack and apparel from a trailer outside the rodeo, puts it to me this way: “They’ll never catch her. Unless she just happens to wander into someone’s garage and they shut the door.”
If Koloski didn’t have much of an opinion about Betsy before she ran away, he certainly does now. He tells me that he thinks she is starting to enjoy the attention. “If she has a personality, she probably thinks she’s the s---,” Koloski says fondly. One of the first times he got a tip about Betsy was from people who saw her while working on the ski slopes at Hilltop. When Koloski arrived, it was dark out, so he did what any normal person would: He began to moo. “And by gosh, she called back,” Koloski says. He walked around looking for her, with the two of them mooing back and forth at each other in the dark. But Koloski never caught a glimpse of her.
The only time Koloski has seen Betsy since she escaped was when his friend, a police officer, called him at 2 a.m. He jumped out of bed and drove his truck down to the corner of Elmore and Martin Luther King, where Betsy had been spotted. Right as Koloski turned onto the road, he saw Betsy disappear into the woods.
His police officer friend called with an update: Betsy had moved onto East Tudor Road a block away. Koloski ran there, but all that was left were footprints in the snow leading up to a government building. “I’m standing there looking, and I could tell her breath was fresh right on the door,” Koloski says. “I took my finger and wiped her breath smudge. I was like, You gotta be kidding me.”
Koloski feels he owes a lot to the community for turning out to help him; it’s part of the reason why he hasn’t given up looking for her. If he were to get Betsy back, he’s already planned to throw a barbecue for the Fat Tire bike group and the rest of the public. “I would foot the bill on that in a minute,” Koloski says. He would corral Betsy and have her attend the party, too.
As we trudge around the wooded paradise that Betsy now inhabits, I keep my eye out for her, as if I’ll have more luck in ten minutes than Koloski has had over the past year. I ask him if he’ll ever stop looking for Betsy. “She’s missing. I’m not going to quit her,” Koloski says. “Somebody calls me, just like I have been, countless hours, days, nights, when I get the call to go and look for her. I never would stop doing that.”
A man passes us on the trail, walking what seems like a dozen dogs. Koloski asks, “If y’all see Betsy, let me know.” It’s unclear whether he’s talking to the man, the dogs, or some higher power — but no one answers.