Chief, a roughly 2,000-pound African Watusi steer, has suffered a great deal of loss in the past two years at his Parkland-area pasture.
Tammy Merkle feared she’d have to further distress the family pet by finding him a new home. Her husband died in February and she didn’t think she could afford the steer’s $200-a-month food bill.
She knew Chief was popular. His horns give him a distinct look, and people often stop to take photos of the exotic animal when they drive through the well-traveled intersection by his pasture east of state Route 7.
But it wasn’t until Merkle started an online fundraiser asking for help to keep the steer that she realized he’s a little bit famous.
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In the past two weeks, more than 125 people donated more than $5,000, sending well-wishes to Merkle; her 9-year-old son, Hunter; and “Chief and his little goat.”
(Actually, Chief’s friend Jacob is a sheep, Merkle said, but it’s the thought that counts.)
“My grandma lives down the road from you guys and every time I had my grandma drive right past so I could see if he was out with his buddy for the past 15 years,” Skye Scott wrote about Chief and Jacob on the fundraising website.
“I have driven by Chief every day for over seven years now,” Teresa Duncan posted. “He needs to stay in the home he has known all his life.”
“I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband. I truly hope you are able to keep Chief there,” Theresa Roush said. “We love seeing him.”
Chief’s original owner was Merkle’s father-in-law, Bob Merkle, who was a head carpenter at the Puyallup fairgrounds when he met the steer as a calf about 20 years ago.
When 70-year-old Bob Merkle died from cancer in March 2014 his son Jason, Tammy’s late husband, inherited Chief and Bob’s Parkland-area home and pasture.
The family moved there, and while the steer appeared depressed by Bob Merkle’s death, he got used to Jason being his new caretaker.
With Jason’s unexpected death from a heart condition at age 42, Chief’s depression started all over again this year, Tammy Merkle said. He lost weight and spent lots of time laying down.
It also didn’t help his morale, she said, that the family’s pair of old Labrador retrievers died recently. One in November, and one shortly after Jason.
But recently Chief has seemed happier.
“Lately, he’s been perked up,” she said. “I think he’s kind of getting used to: ‘It’s just us now.’ ”
Which is why having to send him away in his senior years would have been heartbreaking for everyone.
“My kid has lost too much,” Merkle said. “I don’t want him to lose him.”
Hunter said he’s glad Chief gets to stay: “Because he was my grandpa’s.”
The steer really does seem to be part of the family.
“If we’re out playing baseball, he’ll come and lay down like a dog and watch us play catch,” Merkle said. “I mean, you drive in the driveway and he sees you coming, and he kind of comes down and waits for you to talk to him.”
And he’s close with the other animals. In particular, Jacob, whom the Merkles have to make sure the steer doesn’t get lonely.
Chief has outlived several of his sheep friends. This is Jacob Three, the family thinks.
“They just always kind of stick by each other,” Merkle said. “I just know animals always like to have a buddy.”
Sometimes, she finds Chief, Jacob and her cat, Wee One, all laying together in the barn.
She’ll have some extra sets of hands around the farm soon. Hearing about Chief’s troubles, the local Outlaw Ranglers 4-H group, which specializes in cattle, has stepped up to help take care of him.
Leader Carrie Burrus saw the online fundraiser and reached out to Merkle. She said her 18-year-old daughter grew up watching Chief whenever they went by the pasture.
“We’ve driven past their house hundreds of times, and we’ve always really enjoyed seeing him,” Burrus said.
The roughly dozen kids in the 4-H group will start helping in a couple weeks. Some of the youngest ones, about 10 years old, have emailed Burrus asking whether they can organize meals for the Merkle family.
Helping care for Chief is a chance for the kids to work with an animal they probably wouldn’t otherwise see. Burrus doesn’t know of any other African Ankole-Watusi cattle in the state.
“Who gets to go out and work with an African Watusi and help a family that’s in such need?” Burrus said. “We’re ready to dig in and get going with o’ Chief.”
Because of the community support, Merkle said Chief will get to live out his remaining years in the pasture he calls home.