Cow Chronicles

Bovines can cry. Great headline.
This second edition of Cow Chronicles has been an interesting journey. On the one hand, I get very touching personal emails that react to these stories. On the other, I think it was overkill to do this the second time around.

The cow chronicles: bovines can cry
Everyone from Charles Darwin on has a view about whether animals have emotions
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Jun 08 2013. 12 07 AM IST
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Updated: Sat, Jun 08 2013. 11 17 AM IST
The next morning, both Sarala and I are strained as we meet for milk. “We have left the calf,” I say, nay accuse, “just as you wanted.” “I know. Did you tell the staff to take special care of our calf?” I shake my head. “I just followed your husband’s lead. He didn’t speak to anyone and neither did I,” I reply.
“Why, ma?” she accuses. “You should have slipped Rs.50 or Rs.100 to the staff and told them to take care of our little one. They do that if you ask for it. They will even brand your calf with an iron so that you can identify it when it grows up. That is painful for our baby so we don’t need to do any branding. But at least, you should have told them to keep an eye on it.”
“I thought your husband would do all that,” I reply. “How did I know?”
We bicker—feeling bad, laying blame.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” says Sarala. “I was thinking about the calf the whole time. Look at its mother.”
Ananda Lakshmi (AL) is mooing loudly and has been for the last hour. She searches for her calf. Had it been around, it would have mooed in reply. AL doesn’t stop. The milkman approaches her with his pail. Selva is out of town. This is a paid labourer. Sarala walks with him and stands in front of AL, “making nice”, as she calls it. She rubs AL’s forehead and ears, speaking softly. Sarala plans to take AL to the grassy meadow inside. They are worried that AL will develop a fever. This is what cows do when they are sad.
“People think that cows have only five senses,” says Sarala. “They are wrong. Cows are like humans. They have six senses. They form relationships; they feel pain. They can’t speak. That’s the only difference.”
Sarala continues in this vein, vocalizing my thoughts; wondering out loud if the calf slept last night and how it was faring without its mother.
“If the calf goes to suckle other cows, they will kick its face with their hind legs,” she says. “Poor thing, it has to receive this abuse at first before it can latch on to another cow-mother.”
I bring the milk home, feeling terrible. Separating a child from its mother has a huge resonance in most cultures. In India, a cow and calf are used as allegories for maternal love. When I search for “cow and calf art” on the Internet, I am stunned by the number of images I get. There are bronze sculptures, bass reliefs, miniature paintings, folk art from pretty much every ancient culture—Egyptian, Etruscan, Persian, Mediterranean and predominantly, Indian. A ninth century sandstone relief depicting a calf suckling its mother is currently at the Art Institute of Chicago in the US. No matter how much I tell myself otherwise, I cannot help feeling that I have failed—betrayed—the newborn calf and its mother. Have I committed a sin? Should I not have gotten involved?
The next day too, AL moos loudly for her calf. It continues for a week.
The photographer wants to go and shoot pictures of the goshala. I offer to accompany him. I want to see how the calf is faring.
It is noon when we reach the goshala. All the calves have been rearranged. I wonder if I can find my calf. We poke around and find it a few yards from its original location. It is sitting down desultorily. It doesn’t jump and bound towards us when it sees us. Instead, it stays in its place, staring unblinkingly at us. It looks okay. Thank God!
I give it the jaggery water and pineapples that I have brought. A dark, thin woman clad in a cotton sari walks up. She is part of the staff at the goshala. I offer her a box of sweets that I have brought—a clumsy attempt at a bribe.
“Please take care of this one,” I say, pointing at my calf.
The woman stares at me. “They come one day and go the next,” she says.
I don’t blink. “Some people bring the calf just a day after birth. How will it survive? It will catch an infection.”
Ours is seven days old, I tell her. Please put a thread or a rope around its neck so we can identify it.
She takes the sweet-box wordlessly and walks away.
Satisfied that the calf is okay, we walk to the main enclosure. A massive vaccination exercise is going on. Four men grab each animal with a rope and bring it to the wicket fence where the veterinarian waits with his injection. He inserts the needle into the rump of each struggling cow. Animals in fear exhibit similar responses. I’ve seen it in my dog and I see it here with the cows.
Each cow arches away from the injection-holding vet; its mouth frothing with saliva; the whites of its eyes visible and dilated. The intensity of its response—the wild, fearful, frothing nostrils and crazed eyes—is out of proportion to the simple pinprick of the injection. Then again, the animal doesn’t know that beforehand.
As far as it is concerned, capture leads to bad things, ranging from a ride in a tightly packed van to a butcher’s block. Uncertainty is what the animal is reacting to; not the injection. The vet pricks the animal and they let it go. The helpers dab the vaccinated cows with yellow paint for identification. “It is to protect them against foot-and-mouth disease,” says the vet. “Once they contract that, we cannot do anything.”
An hour later, we go back to see the calf again. I kneel down in front of it, apologize, and say goodbye.
Research about whether animals have emotions is frequently conflicting. Everyone from Charles Darwin on has a view. Two years ago, researchers at Newcastle University in the UK interviewed 516 farmers. They discovered that farmers who named their cows got more milk from the animals than those who didn’t. The study, published in the journal Anthrozoös, suggests that naming animals led to a personalized relationship with each cow, which in turn led to increased milk production. In 2011, a researcher at The University of Northampton in the UK suggested that cows have complex social and emotional lives. Their heart rates went up when they were separated from the herd and they formed bonds with certain specific animals. Cows have best friends, the research indicated.
Not all scientists are on the “animals have emotions” bandwagon. The usual criticism is that humans anthropomorphize animals and attribute human emotions to them: Because we feel fear before an injection, we assume animals do too, when in fact they may just be reacting instinctively. That is the critique anyway.
As I study the research on cows and emotions, I come across one item of good news, which I sort of knew intuitively. Animals have a different sort of memory. Cows, for example, have great spatial memories; witness their ability to navigate the roads of Bangalore. Their emotional memory, however, is for a shorter time span than humans. Calves that are separated from their mothers quickly forge new connections with other cows. Their mothers will miss the calf for some time but will adjust far quicker than a human mother who has been separated from her baby. I knew this with dogs. When a litter is given away, the mother dog perhaps mourns for a while but adjusts to life without her pups.
I hope that AL will adjust to life without her calf.
Shoba Narayan is done with cows…and calves. This is the last column in the series.
Also Read | Read the earlier four-part cow chronicles and the present series
First Published: Sat, Jun 08 2013. 12 07 AM IS

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