The only way to get to Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 56-mile chain of undeveloped barrier islands in North Carolina's Outer Banks, is by boat. It's not uncommon for visitors to spot bottlenose dolphins, or even the occasional seal. But last month, park officials stumbled across some unexpected new inhabitants: a trio of bedraggled-looking cows making themselves at home on the sandy shores.
Though only the cows know for sure exactly how they ended up on an island located several miles offshore, B.G. Horvat, the park's spokesman, has a theory. He told the Charlotte Observer they probably swam at least four miles to get there after Hurricane Dorian crashed into North Carolina's coast in September, sweeping them out to sea.
"Who knows exactly, but the cows certainly have a gripping story to share," he said.
Horvat told the paper that the bovine interlopers appear to belong to a herd of feral "sea cows" that previously roamed Cedar Island, a laid-back fishing community connected to the mainland by a causeway. On Sept. 6, Hurricane Dorian blasted the island with Category 1 force winds and rain, creating what locals described as a "mini tsunami." The low-lying marshlands were soon inundated with an estimated eight feet of water.
Dozens of wild horses drowned. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Woody Hancock, who manages the herd, told the Carteret County News-Times that he believed many of the community's beloved wild cattle were dead, too. Roughly 20 cows had freely roamed on private land on the island, and they were all gone.
Nearly a month later, though, park staff spotted a lone cow grazing at Cape Lookout, where the horses' bodies had been washing up. Two weeks later, they spotted two more.
Horvat and Hancock believe the cows managed to survive by swimming across the raging waters of Core Sound, propelled by the storm surge, the Observer reported. They got lucky when they washed up at Cape Lookout: Pushed any farther out to sea, they would have found themselves adrift in the open ocean, and almost certainly would have drowned amid the heaving swells.
For locals digging out from the storm's devastation, the cows' unlikely survival was a welcome surprise. "They all 3 look healthy and well," wrote the administrator of a Facebook page dedicated to the wild horses of Cedar Island, who added that one of the cows had been nicknamed "Doriene" after the storm. "It is so amazing how strong and resilient these animals have been," the administrator added.
While it might be hard to picture the lumbering beasts taking to the sea, cows actually are fairly decent swimmers when they need to be. It's not unusual for them to paddle their way to higher ground during a hurricane - in fact, a swimming cow plays a crucial role in the plot of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
When the novel's protagonist, Janie, is swept into the roiling waters of Lake Okeechobee during a hurricane, her husband, Tea Cake, spots a cow swimming by with a snarling, possibly rabid dog on its back and tells Janie to grab onto the cow's tail for safety. But the dog attacks Janie and then bites him, which marks the beginning of their marriage's unraveling.
A somewhat more uplifting tale came out of the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in 2018. Volunteers looking for abandoned animals in rural North Carolina came across a cow who had escaped her flooded barn, but was having a hard time staying afloat in deep storm surge. The rescuers managed to yoke the animal's head to their small metal motorboat, dragging her to safety with some help from a jet skier who lent them a tow when the motor gave up.
After what was surely a traumatic experience, the cow, nicknamed Ricky, settled into her new cushy life at a New Jersey animal sanctuary alongside another cow who had been rescued from Hurricane Harvey.
It's unclear what will happen to the cows who were swept out to sea this fall. Though they seem to be enjoying their new island lifestyle, sunning themselves and munching on wild grasses, some residents have raised concerns that they will become a target for hunters. Horvat told the Observer that the National Park Service is looking into the matter, but the most likely outcome is that the cows will be sedated and lifted onto a boat. Then they'll return to their old stomping ground on Cedar Island, at least until the next big storm comes.
This article was written by Antonia Noori Farza, a reporter for The Washington Post.