Impressions of Crouton, a Moderately Famous Internet Cow

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Impressions of Crouton, a Moderately Famous Internet Cow

For Crouton, fame came in the form of a wheelbarrow.

“It was really slow going at first,” says Beth Hyman, co-founder of Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary, a sprawling 92-acre farm nestled in the village of Montgomery that Crouton the cow, as well as approximately 40 horses, pigs, turkeys, dogs, and a goat named Lucious, calls home.

“I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? This is ridiculous. There are, like, four people watching cow videos every night.’” Traffic eventually picked up and there were suddenly 20 people watching Crouton. But that changed on March 27 when Crouton became almost famous.

The wheelbarrow video was posted to the @m_crouton Twitter account with the simple caption, “Crouton and his wheelbarrow.” In it, a five-month-old Crouton licking a wheelbarrow before scratching his head against it. The video currently has almost 2 million views.

“There are so many other videos [of Crouton] that are fantastic, but that was the one,” Hyman adds, clearly puzzled. “I don’t understand social media. Why did this one go viral and the other ones didn’t?”

The wheelbarrow might have transformed Crouton into a moderately famous internet cow, but it’s his ardent fans—ranging from MAGA freaks, vegans, the singer Neko Case, and me—that keep him niche-famous, somewhere on the digital B-list. Almost 35,000 of us watch Crouton every day as he eats, moos, walks around, and then eats some more. Who could resist his large black eyes, attentive ears, and tan coloring, all of which makes him doe-like in appearance? I’m part of an eclectic bunch, one that continues to grow as Crouton becomes even more famous, receiving visitors who travel hundreds of miles just for a chance to meet him.

I recently became one of those visitors. In July, I ventured 60 miles northwest of New York City to meet Crouton. I expected to find a cute, humble cow eager for pats. What I found instead was something else.

Photo:Robert Stengel

About 10 minutes into our interview, Crouton arrived fashionably late at the barn’s entrance, golden-brown hair glowing in the sun. His tail swung in happy tandem with his light trots.

There he is! There he is!” Hyman cooed.

Crouton was given a wide berth as he walked down the center of the barn, eventually offering me a polite, if brief, acknowledgment. I gently pet his head as I trilled “Hey Crouton!” I know it’s bad form to be so openly enamored with a subject I’d been sent to objectively assess and definitively profile, but I’m only human, and Crouton is a very cute cow. I was powerless in this situation. I was starstruck; all I could do was squeal.

As I composed myself, Crouton made a quick beeline to his wheelbarrow packed with hay—the same one that helped him go viral. It was time for him to graze. His sienna and cream-colored flank undulated with his gentle treads, and his slender tail swished back and forth in what I could only assume was contentment, but his dark, dewy eyes were alight with pure, food motivated determination. Here he was, a public figure adjusting to the demands of stardom, examining his hay pile whilst surrounded by devoted fans. I wondered: Was Crouton being aloof, or simply being a cow? Either way, he was spellbinding.

Photo:Robert Stengel

Crouton’s rise to fame came in part thanks to Twitter vegans, who have latched on to Crouton as a helpful symbol for the cause, reminding his fans that Crouton could easily have become a hamburger or a steak, especially since he was bred as a veal calf. “I love how many people @m_crouton has inspired to go vegan,” reads one tweet from March. “Crouton is like the ambassador of his brothers and sisters who have been tortured and killed!” reads another from July. And from September: “Whenever I crave meat I check in to see how Crouton is doing. Next step: vegan.”

Hyman gets it, she says, “because you do get to see a different side of a cow instead of it being on your plate.”

I was given treats to feed to Crouton who, I suspected, was very used to the treat treatment by now. I was eager to use whatever was in my arsenal to reel in Crouton’s affections.

There’s an independent streak in Crouton that I didn’t expect.

“He’s a teenager now,” Hyman says. “He went from like being a baby like ‘Where’s mom? Where’s my goat?’ And now he’s like ‘Yeah, I own the place’ and he just goes wherever he wants.”

“The goat knows it too,” Hyman adds, referring to Lucious OG (Original Goat), Crouton’s best friend at Squirrelwood. When Crouton was smaller, the two were inseparable, but as Crouton enters adolescence, the friends are spending less and less time together. “[Lucious] used to be right next to him all the time, but now he’s like, ‘Okay, if he wants to wander on his own, that’s fine.’”

But at the end of the day, Crouton is just one part of the Squirrelwood family. There’s a horse named Shrimp, a donkey named Mojo, Ruby the piglet and, of course, Lucious. They’re all part of the Crouton cinematic universe. In a way, the Crouton account veers into reality show territory, with a whole cast of side characters reckoning with their own mischief: sniffing butts, roaming the grounds, meeting the occasional fan. It’s like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but in a barnyard.

Hyman was, at first, reluctant to acquire Crouton. A steer lived at Squirrelwood for more than 10 years but had to be put down once he got too old, and Hyman didn’t want to replace him. But Squirrelwood co-founder Diane Butler planted the idea in Hyman’s head.

“Diane was like, ‘you have to get another cow,’” Hyman says. “We don’t need another cow.’”

Butler didn’t back off. In December 2018, Butler found a Craigslist listing for a veal calf who was of no use at the dairy farm where he was born. Butler showed the calf to Hyman, who was instantly smitten by the dark brown newborn cow.

Butler got help from her old friend, singer and songwriter Neko Case, and went on an adventure to the dairy farm in frigid temperatures to get the calf to his new home. “Our truck was in the shop and Neko offered to take her truck to go pick up Crouton with Diane,” Hyman later tells me, adding that Case “carried Crouton down the aisle” of the barn on his arrival.

“Diane and Beth are ALWAYS doing nice things to help other people and critters, so I felt like, ‘FINALLY! I can help!’” Case said via email. “Plus, who wouldn’t want to put a cute baby calf in the back seat for a little ride? That was a no-brainer.”

Baby Crouton! Photo:Neko Case

“Without her, Crouton never would have come to us,” Hyman says. “She helped grow his online presence, and she is a true advocate for animals and our planet.”

Case is thrilled that Crouton’s followers see something special in him. “I love that people are indulging themselves in some sweetness,” she wrote. “He’s a calf, so he’s not acting, he really is a loving, hilarious little (big) guy.”

Not even Case is resistant to Crouton’s charms: “He always remembers me and gets way too familiar very quickly. He likes to brace his head in your armpit so you have the best angle to scratch his neck. Kid has zero boundaries,” she wrote.

Hyman and Butler didn’t acquire Crouton, then just two weeks old, with their sights set on social media stardom, but it was his destiny.

“The day he came home we had a bunch of friends here and they were like, ‘He needs a social media account!’” Hyman says. “And I’m like ‘Huh? Are you kidding?’ And they’re like, ‘But he’s so cute!’”

Hyman figured that since they were always in the barn anyway, she might as well start filming him. “Nightly Crouton” became an early feature for the Crouton Twitter account when it launched in December 2018, one that she maintains today. A personal favorite is one from July 2019, in which Crouton stands at the edge the barn’s entrance, seemingly obstructed by a chain he could easily walk underneath. He’s paralyzed by indecision: the overwhelming urge to enter the barn and receive treats versus his cow instincts clearly telling him “chain is wall, chain is wall!” It isn’t until Butler drops the chain to the floor that Crouton feels comfortable passing the threshold, where treats—naturally—awaited him.

While Crouton, like any other animal with a bit of Internet clout, has an Instagram account as well, Hyman found Twitter easier to use. There, she didn’t have to worry about filters, she could just post something and be done with it. No Facetune, no airbrushing; just Crouton, raw, no-filter.

Now, in addition to running a horse sanctuary, Hyman runs an increasingly popular social media account for a cow and his barnyard friends.

“It’s a lot of work,” Hyman says, peering out at the sprawling grounds. We’re chugging water, sitting outside at a picnic table, a small refuge of shade in the summer sun.

Photo:Robert Stengel

When the sanctuary first started in 2002 it was a for-profit business, working with injured horses on the road to recovery, an interim between the hospital and home. But over time, Hyman and Butler became more invested in rescuing horses. By 2009, Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary became a non-profit venture dedicated to rescuing horses and other animals in need of a new lease on life. One constant, however, is their veterans’ program. Three times a week, Squirrelwood provides free equine therapy for veterans and first responders and their families, allowing participants to interact with the horses one-on-one.

But now, Crouton is the hot new attraction. Anyone is welcome to visit Squirrelwood, and it’s become increasingly common to see Crouton’s Twitter account peppered with retweeted photos of visitors petting, feeding, and taking selfies with Crouton, myself included. Crouton, in a way, is the people’s internet famous animal. He’s both accessible and unfiltered.

“If Crouton was a person, imagine the ego,” I say to Hyman.

“Oh, he already knows he’s all that,” Hyman replies. “Normally, he’ll come marching down the aisle and he’s like, ‘Who’s here?’ He surveys his terrain. We’ve seen him grow from this gangly little baby into a cow who is the center of attention.”

But with this attention has come scrutiny, because fame isn’t everything, even for someone as seemingly harmless as an internet cow. Crouton has already been the center of controversy.

Hyman tells me about a Memorial Day post that caused a stir. “Crouton has nothing but respect for those that made the ultimate sacrifice,” a tweet from the cow’s account read. The message was accompanied by three American flag emojis and a video showing Crouton grazing on grass—but some of his followers didn’t take too kindly to the image. “And [people were] like, ‘Oh, he supports drone strikes!’” Hyman says.

Suddenly, Crouton was complicit in endless war.

But that wasn’t the only time that Crouton, a cow, has invoked the ire of Twitter users. On July 9, Cow Appreciation Day, a Crouton fan asked what Crouton’s preferred pronouns are. Crouton replied, “He, him, his, thanks.”

Predictably, this caused a stir.

“One guy went batshit and said, ‘[Crouton’s] not even a cow!’” Butler says. Bad faith concern trolls came out of the woodwork to inform Crouton’s handlers that, because Crouton was male, he could not be referred to as a cow. They’re incorrect. “It’s like within horses,” Butler elaborates. “There are stallions and mares, geldings and colts and fillies… they’re still fuckin’ horses.”

“I did debate for quite a while, probably a couple of hours, whether I was going to respond to that,” Hyman admits. “You know, yes, it’s straightforward, what his pronouns are. But at the same time it’s like… do I want to engage in that?”

The answer, eventually, was yes. Crouton responded by tweeting a screenshot of Merriam-Webster’s definition of a cow, emphasizing the word’s second definition. It wasn’t a screenshot of the Notes app but, at this point, it’s only a matter of time before Crouton, like every other celebrity, uses it to tweet an apology.

Still, Crouton and his team hesitate to venture into these waters. Hyman tells me she wants to keep the content “wholesome.” Butler and Hyman both know that something as simple as taking a photo of Crouton donning a sticker supporting their preferred Democratic presidential candidate would attract needless controversy.

“I have 30,000 people as an audience, and there’s so much I want to say,” Hyman says. “But […] what I want to say personally isn’t what Crouton wants to say.”

When asked, Crouton declined to comment on who he will support in the Democratic primary. Instead, he ate grass.

Crouton might be a bit of a diva, but he is no cash cow. He has no sponsors and he’s yet to fall into the trap of sponcon. Though it’s unclear how a cow could be an influencer (hay influencer?), Hyman says she would be happy for Crouton to become one. Monetizing Crouton isn’t a priority, but Hyman has run a fundraiser to help pay for hay and, in September, started a GoFundMe to help pay for a GoPro to document Crouton’s daily activities.

She seems to understand that the fame of an internet cow is fleeting. “Will people lose interest because now he’s going to be a big cow and he’s not quite a little cute cow anymore?” Hyman wonders. “But he still has those big brown eyes. People keep watching.”

Photo:Robert Stengel

Still, the attention economy is brutal, and Crouton and friends have tough competition. After all, every Britney needs a Christina; every Backstreet Boys, an NSYNC. Caenhill Countryside Centre, based in Wiltshire, England, boasts 70,000 Twitter followers and also follows the goings-on of a slew of farm animals. While Caenhill has no Crouton—no one animal is the centerpiece of the account’s success— it does feature charismatic British farmer happily talking to his congregation of quacking ducks, snorting pigs, and braying donkeys keep followers captivated. Squirrelwood and Caenhill aren’t rivals in any real sense, but they occupy the same niche subset of farm animal content, one far from the separate sphere of talking dogs and funny cats.

But like the LOLCats of internets past, Crouton’s fame is transactional. Cute can only take you so far and only accounts for some of Crouton’s popularity. What else is keeping Crouton’s fans so engaged?

“They want joy and they want [it] bad. It’s medical,” said Case. Considering Crouton’s role in therapy for veterans, it’s not a woo-woo leap. And for those who are unable to interact with Crouton up close and personal, the daily ritual of calming Crouton content—Crouton chewing on grass, Crouton relaxing in his barn—morning, noon, and night provides a regularly scheduled moment of escapism of ASMR-like proportions. Modernity has separated fans from the kind of rural setting where Crouton and his friends thrive and, in comparison, their life seems simple and slow. As John Berger once noted, looking at animals is, in part, an attempt to reconstruct the pastoral where the bond between man and animal was natural. The need to recreate that, Berger wrote, is “an epitaph” to that relationship, one “as old as man.” Through phones and computer screens, Crouton’s s objectively mundane activities can be observed; the medicinal need fulfilled through the proxy of technology.

There’s a fascination and deep contentment in watching Crouton go about his business that cannot be fulfilled by watching a video of a cat or a dog. Modernity’s gauntlets can feel limitless, but Crouton rubbing his head on bundles of hay acts as a reliable, soothing constant. Case is right: It’s medical.

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