Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, which surprisingly for a book on animals, has shot to the top 10 bestseller list of The Sunday Times. It is a very sweet small book about the animals she has brought up, especially the cows, at her Kite’s Nest farm in England. She has treated them with kindness and consideration, kept them in as natural conditions as possible. And she has been rewarded with an entire world of innocence and love, play and happiness. She knows all of them by their names and describes their personalities.
Rosamund describes her relationship with each cow. “Cows are as varied as people” she writes. “They can be highly intelligent or slow to understand, vain, considerate, proud, shy or inventive. Although much of a cow’s day is spent eating, they always find time for activities such as baby sitting, playing hide and seek, looking for berries.”
Cows have intelligence
Cows look for happiness in the warmth of their own families. Grandmothers step in when mothers need a break from feeding, calves make best friends and share treats. They jump in the air when happy and excited. Rosamund describes how cows in trouble come to her or her brother at their house, and tell them when they are about to calve, or when they are not feeling well, so that they can be helped. They respond to their names and come from far when called. They will stare at you when they want something, panning their gaze between you and the object they want you to see till you understand.
Cows have different kinds of moos — voices like ours. Mooing in a loud, agitated way could mean that the mother is looking for her calf. Fear, disbelief, anger, hunger or distress – all of them have different sounds and a low quiet moo means she is asking you a question. Cows tell the difference between people, remember those who have been kind to them and nurse grudges. They are easily offended and will ignore you until you try very hard to make friends again. But ultimately, they are forgiving. They make friends for life. They can be obstinate, gentle or aggressive. Above all, they are wise. If you choose to see a cow the way you see your dog, she can be very good company.
They love each other, have friends and enemies. They communicate with people – if you are willing to listen. They like music. They are problem solvers, which denotes a high degree of intelligence. The cows in my hospital Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre, New Delhi know how to open the gates of their pens and come out when they feel like. They have food preferences too. Are you listening gaushala or dairy people who feed them the same awful food day after day? When I was sending some cows to a really good cowshed on the outskirts of Delhi so that they could have more freedom, Radhibai, our most beloved cow inmate, turned violent, a sign she was not willing to part with her friends.
The mother in cows
They are good mothers. They will lick their children all over as a calming grooming gesture. A cow that came to us some time ago had a prolapsed uterus. She was under immense pain and was found lying with her newborn calf on the road after two days after giving birth. She did not take her eyes off her baby, even while being stitched as the baby was being bottle fed. After she recovered, she went back to feeding the calf.
Bovine needs are in many respects the same as humans’: freedom from stress, adequate shelter, pure food and water, liberty to exercise, to wander about, to go for a walk, or just to stand and stare. Every animal needs the congenial company of its own species and a cow needs to be allowed to enjoy her “rights” in her own way, in her own time, and not according to a human timetable. The number of ways a calf may be treated is no less than the number of ways a child may be treated. “A badly treated calf is simply a neglected, ill nourished, lonely frightened child,” says Rosamund Young in The Secret Life of Cows.
If a cow senses danger, then none of the cows around will sleep. If the source of danger is remote, cows will communicate to the calves that they can sleep while the older ones keep guard.
Don’t belong to in gaushalas
India is the only country in the world that treats cows as special, worships them, dedicating shelters called gaushalas for them. But we don’t recognise a cow as a thinking animal. We fail to understand that the gaushalas that we put them in simply become prisons for them where they stand in an indiscriminate herd till they die. They have no names and no individual recognition here.
Dr Sujoy Khanna and I have co-authored the only manual in India on gaushalas and we have a chapter detailing what cows like and what they fear, how to approach them and how to recognise their moods.
Even the people who keep cows in their homes, who should know better about their personalities, don’t bother to be nice to them or even understand them. Cows are kept tied most of the day, milked, their children separated at birth and tied a few unattainable feet away from their mothers. For such people, it is simply an animal tied to a post whose only thought presumably is of fodder. For owners, it is easy to assume that an animal has no feelings. They can then be treated as generators of profit without any thought to their needs. And yet, the same people will worship the idol of Kamdhenu in their house.
The Secret Life of Cows should be made compulsory reading in schools, especially for people who have the compassion to run gaushalas. If animals are to survive, people must realise that they are like them, existing just in another form. Anyone who eats an animal is eating himself.
Maneka Gandhi, Sultanpur MP and former women and child development minister, is an animal rights activist. She is the founder-chairperson of People for Animals organisation. Views are personal.