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The Yaks of Sierra Valley

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Believe it or not, a herd of about 40 yaks resides in the Sierra Valley — in Calpine, California, to be exact. If you are wondering how these cute little shag devils ended up right outside of Truckee, look no further than the Bering Strait — whoops, I mean Jenna and Greg Gatto’s place. Choosing not to raise cattle, the Gattos searched far and wide to fill the bovine void, finally settling on the Central Asian fuzzy cow (also known as Bos grunniens, the grunting ox, aka yak). Yaks do not moo; they grunt. This sound is similar to the one I made when getting head-butted — actually, playfully slammed — in the chest by one at the Gattos’ farm.

The Gattos started with one yak from Idaho, and now have 35 of the little monsters. If you don’t know what a yak is, let me tell you. A yak is a smallish, shaggy, domesticated ox with a docile attitude and a knack for living at altitude (a high altitude, like, 17,000 feet, which is probably higher than Granite Peak). That might not be the Merriam Webster definition, and I might be wrong on most of my facts, but I think I’m close enough to give you a picture.

Speaking of getting pictures and also circling back to the head-butting, I lied. I did not get headbutted. BUT. I did get the shot. When I was kneeling in the pasture, checking my exposure and focus amid the serene setting sun and surrounded by the grunting sheep cows, Greg Gatto was carefully watching my back, for there was a mischievous yak afoot.

Although Greg promised me that Matilda would not harm me, I found out that the little gal took every chance she could get to charge my blind side. I am no stranger to playful livestock, so I risked dangerous head cuddles to bring you these photos. While I sat in the field, looking for the perfect angle, I thought to myself how hilarious and awesome these things were. They are like cows but dogs at the same time, and each had its own persona. Maybe we aren’t that different, yaks and I …

The point I’m getting at is that these yaks have spice, and by spice, I mean flavor. By flavor I mean spunk. Not only do they have their own, unique names, such as B116, 2D090, and my personal favorite, 2D083, but they also harbor very adorable personalities. There is the leader, Amelia, the cuddle bugs, Sprite and Princess (both were bottle-raised), the worrying mother Kinnzie, and the troublemaker, Matilda. I’m only halfway joking about the numbered names. Each original cow monster goes by the name of a powerful woman or Stranger Things character.

Having spent over an hour with the Gattos, I can see where their strange yak ladies find their power. It’s neither easy nor practical to raise a herd of yaks in the Sierra, but these two work hard and I would expect to see organic yak milk, gluten-free yak burgers, and cozy yak sweaters on your local grocery store shelves very soon.

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December 13, 2018