The story behind Kathmandu’s cattle.
At first blush, tourists to Kathmandu are charmed by the novelty of seeing cows curled up in busy intersections, chewing their cud, and by seeing cars and motorbikes weaving left and right to avoid small herds of wandering cattle. But if they stay a little longer than it takes to upload a picture to Instagram, and they will find a sorry story behind Kathmandu’s cattle.
A hard existence
Old and young, cows and bulls rummage in piles of garbage and plastic bags desperate for food and water. Some have been injured by vehicles or are sick from their impossibly hard existence roaming the city streets. Almost all are malnourished and one can assume, scared and stressed. The carcasses of those who succumbed are collected and sometimes dumped on the banks of polluted city rivers.
Cows are considered sacred animals
A common misconception, Hindus do not consider the cow to be a God, but they do consider it a sacred animal to be revered and protected. And the cow is the national animal of Nepal. Nepalis celebrate the cow on Gai Puja Day (Cow Worship Day) during the festival of Tihar which occurs in the Fall. On this day, cows are decorated with marigold flower garlands, colored powders are used to make a tikka mark on their foreheads, and they are often given fresh vegetables. Killing a cow is a major crime in Nepal, punishable by heavy fines and/or incarceration.
Even today, reports of people arrested for cow slaughter make headlines in the local Kathmandu newspapers. So as an outsider, it is hard to reconcile this reverence for the cow, with the lack of concern over the pitiful state and fate of the hundreds of homeless animals on the streets of the capital city.
Bulls however are abandoned because they have no economic value
Cows are unwanted when they become old and have stopped producing milk. Bulls, however, are abandoned when they are very young – often not yet weaned – because they have no economic value. They can’t be slaughtered for food, they don’t provide milk, they don’t give birth and so they are simply a drain on the dairy farmer, needing food and shelter for the duration of their lives. A further factor is the growing popularity of mechanization over traditional farming methods, rendering oxen virtually obsolete. Farmers drive the unwanted beasts into the city under cover of dark, and release them knowing it will be impossible for them to find their way home.
I came across a young injured bull
I still find this story surreal, but in April 2017, I came across a young bull, near my house in Kathmandu, who seemed to be unable to walk. The local liquor store owner said it had been hit by a school bus but there was no open wound. A gardener and I, using a large bamboo branch under his hind quarters, helped him to hobble off the main street and lie down outside my gate on a dead-end street. He was safe there and we fed him and gave him water, but I had no idea what the next step would be.
In the morning, he stood and walked, so seemingly nothing was broken and he started to wander around the neighborhood. But despite his mobility, Kali (meaning black in Nepali) always came ‘home’ to my gate every night. We made him a bed of straw and left piles of fruits and vegetables.
At first, I confess it felt rather exotic – I was living in the heart of the city of Kathmandu and had a pet bull calf. He would moo loudly for his breakfast as soon as he heard the sound of my voice in the morning. Similarly he would greet me like a dog, when I came home in the car. But as he grew, his head butts started to worry me and my neighbor complained about stepping in cow dung and I knew this little adventure in animal husbandry had to come to an end.
I researched and found a small and overcrowded bovine shelter near the Pashupatinath Temple, a holy shrine to Lord Shiva run by animal lover, Mr. Neupane. We loaded Kali into the back of a truck and he was taken there.
The shelter takes in diseased and ageing bovines as well as simply orphaned male calves like Kali. It is literally a concrete cow shed with a field of well-worn grass around it. Neupane relies entirely on donations to maintain upwards of 150 beasts at any given time. It is a drop in the ocean in terms of the enormity of the problem. The dauntingly long name of the shelter is Math Mandir Gai Bachchha Bachau Tatha Samaj Bikash Aviyan. No website seems to exist.
A potentially dark fate
By Neupane’s estimates, there are as many as 8,000 stray cows and bulls on the streets of Kathmandu and neighboring Bhaktapur. In an effort to minimize road accidents, traffic police and the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) municipality capture cows and if they can identify the owners, they are fined between $1 and $70. But the fate of these ‘rescued’ creatures is not clear. Some reports suggest they are simply released outside the valley of Kathmandu. Some say cows from eastern Nepal are sold to slaughterhouses in neighboring India. Some officials state that they find new owners for the animals at auctions. According to the Kathmandu Post, in four months in 2018, the KMC auctioned off 113 stray animals at a cost of around of $2 each, calves at a cost of just over $1 each. Mostly people from the villages bought the animals but the KMC readily admits they do not know, or care, what happens to the animals after the auction. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to buy the animals, since the only ones abandoned in the city are the ones which had no economic value. According to NPR, the black market transports them to neighboring China to be butchered. There are numerous photos and reports of the animals transported in packed trucks without food or water.
The problem is vast but there is no clear solution
Everyone agrees the problem is vast but there is no clear solution. Certainly most commentators feel the government of Nepal needs to own the problem. The Director of Animal Nepal, an animal welfare organization, has suggested that the government could enforce strict registration rules to enable it to maintain a national database of all farm animals. Micro-chipping cows so that owners can be easily tracked could also be effective if the law enforced repercussions against farmers who abandoned their animals. According La Republica newspaper, KMC has allocated a budget to build a sanctuary for the stray animals.
Innovative solutions include artificial insemination using sex-sorted semen, which could pre-select gender and thereby eliminate the unwanted male offspring. Animal welfare legislation is badly needed including intervention for dying cows – currently euthanasia is not used due to the law against killing cows.
How to donate
Tourists wishing to visit or donate to Neupane’s sanctuary can find it outside the Pashupatinath Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. http://pashupatinathtemple.org
Author: Karen Rae, originally from the United Kingdom, has lived in many countries including Uganda, Ghana, Costa Rica, Nepal and the US. No matter where she goes, she is a strong advocate for animals. Karen currently volunteers with Animal-Kind International, www.animal-kind.org.