This spring will be different for Gary Bombard.
For years, melting snow and warming temperatures have beckoned the co-owner of Sam Mazza’s Farm Market out to the barn where his goats and sheep give birth each year.
But for the first time in over a decade, he’ll be without the watchful eye of Zak, his beloved 15-year-old Scottish Highlander steer who died earlier this month due to complications from arthritis.
“Zak would stand at that gate and watch, and he wouldn’t leave until those babies were up and walking around,” Bombard said. “Then he would go about his business.”
When the playful but shy 4-month-old steer arrived at the Mazza’s Colchester farm market nearly two decades ago, he took some time to grow into the calm and witty disposition for which he came to be known.
Bombard and his wife, Laurie Mazza-Bombard, remember a young, skittish Zak, plopped down far from the fence, where people gathered during their annual strawberry festival years ago.
Unaccustomed to the hundreds of people milling around, he was nervous, Bombard said. But Zak’s uneasiness didn’t last. Soon, he welcomed the throngs of visitors who fed him carrots, apples and grain.
Though he was small for his age, Zak was known for being clever. He had a nose for food and would sometimes let himself out of his pen in search of it.
“In his prime, I couldn’t leave the gate unlocked for two minutes. If I turned my back, he’d be in the grain barn with me trying to get to the grain,” Bombard chuckled.
Zak also had a soft spot for the kids who visited, many of whom would stand on their tip-toes, reach their arms up to the fence and giggle as Zak’s gigantic tongue slurped a treat from their palm.
While some children had to be coaxed toward Zak at first, Bombard remembers how his cow was never impatient.
“He had gentle eyes, and he was always calm. So when people came around, they felt at ease with him,” he said.
After Zak’s death, a post on the market’s Facebook page relaying the news garnered an outpouring of memories, pictures and condolences from hundreds.
Parents reminisced about bringing their now-grown children to visit Zak, while others shared their young kids’ heart-breaking reactions to the news of his death.
A neighbor even had a leather-bound scrapbook made for the Bombards with pictures of Zak and some of the many children who made his acquaintance throughout his life.
“Some parents come here so regularly that the children grew up with Zak,” Bombard-Mazza said.
But community members weren’t the only ones attached to the gentle giant.
A feisty Shetland pony named Annie, who arrived on the farm shortly after Zak, shared an inseparable bond with him. They were often seen standing side-by-side at the fence, leaning against one another to share body warmth.
Zak would sometimes stick one of his horns into Annie’s pen so she could scratch her back on it, though the interaction always eluded Bombard’s camera, despite his many attempts to capture the intimate moments.
“It’s like they had this secret talk between them,” his wife said.
In the days after Zak’s death, the couple said Annie was visibly upset, lonely and acting uncharacteristically reserved. To help her feel closer to Zak, Bombard moved her into Zak’s old pen.
“And now she won’t leave,” Bombard-Mazza said. “She has an area where she’s safe there, but she doesn’t want to go back in her stall.”
Several people have also stopped by to see Annie, many bringing her treats and some just stopping to talk.
“She’s been getting back to her regular self,” Bombard said.
The Bombards are fairly certain Annie won’t remain friendless for long, though. Come springtime, the couple is planning to add new members to the farm market’s family – two miniature Highlanders.
“It won’t be Zak, but it will be another friend,” Bombard said.
Even with the planned addition, the couple said Zak will always leave a void that can’t be filled by any other animal.
“Fifteen years, and every day he would be there for me. And now he’s not,” Bombard said. “On dairy farms, beef cattle farms – that’s the way of life. But he was my friend.”