What will be the future of cow shelters in computer-age India?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2007:
What is to become of Indian cow shelters?
Enduring frequent spasms of reform and reinvention ever since
automobiles began to replace ox carts, cow shelters are among the
most distinctive Indian traditions, and are the oldest form of
organized humane work.
Perhaps more ubiquitous in India than either schools or
firehouses, often endowed with substantial inherited assets, cow
shelters appear certain to survive in some form, but their future
role and relevance is a matter of intensifying debate.
Among the issues are whether cow shelters should be religious
or secular institutions, whether they should be supported by
taxation or strictly by charity and the sale of milk and byproducts,
and whether they should lead cultural reform, becoming actively
involved in politics, as many do, or merely endure as quaint
Few objections are raised when cow shelters promote
traditional Indian values, but controversy explodes whenever the
directors point out that their work alone is not enough to prevent
cattle from being sold to slaughter, and that prominent politicians
and their families are involved in the illegal slaughter traffic.
The terms “gaushala,” “gosadan,” and “pinjarapole” are
often applied interchangeably to cow shelters, and often refer to
the same facility, but under national regulations published in 1947
and 1954, they have somewhat different legal definitions.
“Gaushalas” have an awkward dual mandate, being officially
considered agricultural institutions, as well as having an animal
welfare role. Gaushalas often breed cattle, ostensibly to conserve
native genetic traits. Many have become commercial dairies.
“Gosadans” are hospices for dying cattle. “Pinjarapole”
seems to be the most inclusive term for cow shelters of any type.
All, in concept, are places where cattle found wandering at
large are confined. All honor the mythic role of the cow as “Mother
of India.” Historically, most were projects of specific Hindu,
Jain, or Buddhist temples and religious charities, but many today
Vedic references are said to mention cow shelters existing as
long as 5,000 years ago. By 2,500 years ago they already operated
in most major cities.
Moguls, when India was under Muslim rule, often bought
public favor by helping to support cow shelters, even though the
moguls ate beef. The British governors who succeeded the moguls
found cow sheltering somewhat incomprehensible, but did not
interfere. Some British officers who studied the concept eventually
adapted it into modern dog-and-cat sheltering.
Mohandas Gandhi and followers promoted cow shelters as symbols of
nationalism during the struggle for Indian independence. Post-1947,
the newly enfranchised Gandhians tried to reinvent cow shelters as
vehicles for rural education and economic growth. Secularizing cow
shelters, however, may have encouraged the tendency of many to
operate for profit, while the abandoned cattle they exist to rescue
starve in the streets.
Cow shelters not actively engaged in dairying often exist
today as adjuncts to municipal efforts to clear the roads of animals
whose meanderings cause accidents and impede traffic. A stereotype
has developed of city-run cow shelters as places where cattle are
deliberately starved to death so that dishonest staff can sell their
hides. This has happened, but in fairness, the cattle who starve
in shelters usually come already severely debilitated from having
ingested plastic bags that block their intestines. Emergency surgery
saves some, but many are beyond help.
Cow shelters operated by animal advocates typically take on
more ambitious roles, for instance trying to rescue cattle from the
illegal slaughter traffic, rescuing surplus bull calves who are
abandoned at temples, and attempting to defend and promote the
traditional Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet.
Much of this activity appears to be swimming against the
mainstream. India and the U.S. produce almost the same volume of
milk per year, but three times as many Indian cattle are bred to
obtain it, resulting in three times as many surplus calves and
“spent” cows for farmers to dispose of.
Export to slaughter is the only profitable method, though it
can only be done by trucking cattle huge distances over back roads
into the two states that have legal cattle slaughterhouses, or by
smuggling live cattle out of India.
Abandoning surplus calves and cattle is less risky, and cuts
Indian milk consumption is rising, along with meat
consumption, but the rise in milk use is increasing the volume of
surplus cattle, and the stress on cow shelters.
Current Indian national cow shelter policy still centers on
the Gandhian notion that the shelters should become economically
self-sufficient, a contradiction in terms if they are expected to
absorb the surplus animals from the ever-expanding milk industry.
An alternative approach would tax the dairy industry to
support cow shelters. This would encourage increasing milk output
per cow, but would contravene the goal of promoting use of native
Sperm-sorting to prevent bull calf births could help to
reduce the cattle surplus, but is prohibited because the technology
has been misused to prevent conception of human females. The present
Indian birth rate of only 93 girls per 100 boys is considered a
looming major threat to social stability.
ANIMAL PEOPLE recently visited two cow shelters that are
often mentioned as models–one of them among the oldest and largest,
the other relatively new and small.
“Small is beautiful” in Visakhapatnam
VISAKHAPATNAM–The Visakha SPCA testifies by example that the
approach to revitalizing India articulated by E.F. Schumacher in his
influential Gandhian treatise Small Is Beautiful (1960) can be
updated and made to work, with sufficient inspiration and investment
capital from donors.
When ANIMAL PEOPLE first visited the present Visakha SPCA
site in 2000, it was a gravel-strewn dry flood plain–which has
since flooded twice, necessitating redesign and reconstruction.
The facilities consisted of one makeshift cattle shed.
Today, more than 600 animals including several hundred
cattle occupy space that could then barely hold a few dozen. Almost
every square inch appears to be in well-planned multiple use.
Between buildings and access paths, fast-growing native trees,
bushes, and grass provide shade, a congenial atmosphere, and a
surprising volume of home-grown food treats for the resident animals:
not only dogs, cats, and cattle, but also monkeys, birds of
multiple species, and star tortoises, rare in the wild due to
poaching, who have found the Visakha SPCA a safe place to breed.
Central to the Visakha SPCA is a biogas reactor that converts
the animal waste into fertilizer and fuel to generate electricity.
The Visakha SPCA is a model of the cow shelter modus operandi
that the Gandhians espoused as their ideal; but it is also a hybrid
with newer concepts of the role of animal welfare institutions.
The original Visakha SPCA project was protecting sea turtle
nests, a relatively rare instance of a humane society managing a
species conservation program. The project that most built the
organization was persuading the city of Visakhapatnam to stop
electrocuting street dogs, accomplished in November 1998, followed
by building one of the leading Animal Birth Control programs in
India, to reduce the dog population without killing.
Growing with Visakhapatnam, which is among the
fastest-expanding cities in India, the Visakha SPCA now provides ABC
not only to the central city but also to a constellation of suburbs.
The pinjarapole helps the Visakha SPCA image, founder
Pradeep Kumar Nath believes. High-profile rescues of cattle from
illegal butchers, and of calves from temple abandonment, help to
deflect criticism of the emphasis on dog rescue. Some cow protection
donors are so offended by the presence of dogs on the premises, Nath
says, that he welcomes their visits at a second entrance that
bypasses the kennel area, beside the main gate.
Meanwhile, the Visakha SPCA pinjarapole facilities are full,
and cattle and calves continue to be born and dumped.
5,300 animals in Ahmedabad cow shelter
AHMEDABAD– From the road, an American visitor might easily
mistake the present location of the 400-year-old Ahmeda-bad Dabla
Pinjarapole for a massive feedlot. It is the economic engine for the
surrounding countryside, employing more than 80 people, and
supporting countless small farms by purchasing fodder.
The facilities housed about 5,300 animals when ANIMAL PEOPLE
visited, including 2,500 adult cattle, 2,000 calves, 200 buffalo,
and other species including donkeys, horses, a camel, a nilgai
antelope, and a small troupe of languors.
Most of the cattle were male, abandoned on the streets of
Ahmedabad because cattle cannot legally be sold for slaughter. Many
were once working bullocks, but suffered injuries or illnesses that
rendered them unfit. Others arrived as starving calves.
Buffalo may be sold to slaughter, but are sometimes
surrendered to the pinjarapole by people who choose not to sell
retired work animals, yet cannot afford to keep them.
About 1,000 animals per month arrive, on average. About 750
die, explained Mr. Bhyasam, the retired Indian revenue service
officer who took over the pinjarapole management as part of a reform
movement more than a decade ago. He won release of the funds to
build the present facilities in 1996.
Land rents and inheritances have made the Ahmedabad Dabla
Pinjarapole wealthier than the Animal Welfare Board of India itself,
Mr. Bhyasam asserted. Money for good management is not a problem,
Mr. Bhyasam emphasized. What the pinjarapole lacks, he said, is
knowledge about how to do a better job–and, perhaps, an
understanding of how to make the time-honored work of the pinjarapole
relevant to modern India.
Like many Indians of his place and time, Mr. Bhyasam has
only one name. He dresses traditionally. But instead of resisting
change, Mr. Bhyasam proclaimed, he welcomes the contributions of a
younger and better educated generation, and looks forward to
learning from youth.
Mr. Bhyasam brought out meticulously kept books detailing the
causes of animal deaths. Most of the dead, he said, arrive in such
poor condition that they cannot be saved. Sprawling as widely as
Houston, with about the same human population as New York,
Ahmedabad is a harsh environment for working animals. Those who
remain ambulatory when they reach the pinjarapole often become
longterm residents, but those who drop have low odds of recovery.
At the pinjarapole the animals receive good food and clean
water. Other care has been rudimentary, but Mr. Bhyasam recently
hired a new veterinary concessionaire, Animal Help Ahmedabad,
founded by Rahul Sehgal, 32, whose main project has been running
the city Animal Birth Control program.
Within days the Animal Help vets began updating and amending
much of the animal care regimen. The first change was that the
resident bullocks are no longer drafted each morning to help haul
away dead animals–a chore that apparently no one considered before
in terms of the possible psychological effect on the working animals.
There are other problems yet to deal with. Monsoon flooding
is an annual menace. Mired cattle die of exhaustion. Parasites
breed in the standing water.
The few cows among the cattle and buffalo are housed with the
males, at risk of impregnation by the occasional intact bull.
Traditionally, if calves are born at a cow shelter, their mothers’
milk is believed to convey special blessings to those who buy and
drink it, at premium prices.
Sehgal is optimistic that the necessary changes and
improvements can be made. Mr. Bhyasam has pledged to cooperate.