Since we began our Model Pet contest in 2009, the majority of entries have been dogs and cats. But each year, we get a handful of hamsters, rabbits, horses and other non-traditional best friends. In their honor, we decided to create a separate category -- as we also did with cats this year -- and crown a winner in our "alternative" pets category.
Those entries made up a small portion of our 200-plus pets (just six), but it was a surprisingly tough category to judge. There was a gorgeous macaw named Sunny, an adorable miniature horse named Peek-A-Boo, a princessy guinea pig, an awesomely named rabbit (Hi, Mister Bun Buns!), and a gorgeous rescue horse named Bentley.
But when the votes came in, the scale tipped in the favor of Jilli Blu and Winnie Blu, a mama longhorn and her baby.
They came into owner Deborah Deatherage's life by pure happenstance, along with a $5 dollar bill and a lottery ticket.
Deatherage says a friend of a friend had wanted to get a longhorn to put on her property in Glen Rose, but she said they'd do better with a partner. "So she was trying to get my daughter to buy one," says Deborah, who works as a senior service rep at the Municipal Court in Fort Worth. "Then they would keep them together on her property."
All the women were sitting at a gas station, talking over the possibility of this longhorn business. Deborah's daughter, Mikell, had just come back outside after buying a lottery ticket. Mikell announced that she already had a horse. "I think my mom needs a longhorn more than I do," she said. "So, here's a $5 bill and a lottery ticket. Will that be a down payment on a longhorn?"
Deborah was stunned: "I'm like: 'You're buying me a longhorn?'"
It was never the plan to have cattle, or to start raising cattle, but then along came Jilli Blu, and eventually, another baby named Gigi, which is now 14 months old. Three months ago, Winnie Blu arrived.
In Jilli, Deborah now has a unique friend that dunks her head in her lap and allows her to hug and lie down on her.
In her essay, Deborah wrote: "My Jilli Blu is so sweet, loving to people and the herd. She feeds my heart so deep! I have gained a friend who shows how longhorns have deep love for their young. She is so special you could feel like she is a human on four legs. A rare friend indeed."
Deborah says Jilli Blu is an alpha in the herd but in a sort of cruise director kind of way.
"The herd goes calm when she's with them," she says. "They graze, they'll wander, sit, graze, and whenever she gets up, the whole herd gets up."
And 3-month-old Winnie quickly followed in mama's footsteps. "At a little over 2 weeks old, Winnie and another bull calf actually found a way to get out on Highway 67 -- the two of them were traipsing up the freeway and couldn't have cared less."
They were brought back to safety, "and now all the kids follow her," Deborah says.
Though Deborah lives in White Settlement, her babies stay on Raelynn Stephens' Chalk Mountain property, at the edge of Glen Rose. Deborah visits them every weekend and on days off; she's always sad to leave them.
"They exude love," says Deborah, who adds that longhorns have the softest eyes. "It's very unconditional. It's like they're saying: 'It doesn't matter if you give me food, you came to see me.'"