Letting tens of thousands of cows scavenge for garbage in the polluted streets of India’s capital is, to many Hindus, no way to treat a sacred animal.
But finding good homes for stray cattle has proved difficult in this metropolis of about 14 million people. A new breed of urban cowboys may have just the trick.
Under court order to clear wandering cattle from Delhi’s streets, the municipal government has deployed truckloads of cattle catchers to patrol the streets and lasso the strays. Hired hands, equipped with long-barreled, spring-loaded guns, then shoot computer chips down into their stomachs before they are herded off for auction.
Chief veterinarian Dr. Suresh Kumar Yadav said the chips would force buyers to keep their cows corralled and give Delhi the most successful roundup in the city’s 3,000-year history.
The city auctions off captured strays for an average of $45 a head, with a catch: Buyers must prove they live out of state and sign an oath that they’re taking the cow with them. And they have to pay about $10 for the computer chip.
The new owners’ names are listed in a computer database, along with their cows’ serial numbers. The owner is fined $115 each time an animal is caught wandering Delhi’s streets again.
Yadav has no idea how many cows live on the capital’s streets. Estimates run in the tens of thousands. The city’s 130 cattle catchers have caught 35,000 cows and bulls in the last two years, and about 2,000 of those now have computer chips in their stomachs.
The city had previously paid nongovernmental groups to take care of the cattle in holding areas that were supposed to serve as refuges, where homeless bovines could have some comfort. To most of India’s Hindu majority, cows deserve to be pampered.
But their handlers claimed that more than 20,000 of the captured strays died in just a year. Yadav suspects that it was a ruse. He believes most of them were released into the streets in a scam to get more money from the government.
In a city as crowded as Delhi, rambling cows are more than just a nuisance. They pose public health problems -- some of which are less obvious than the bacteria-filled dung, or the rabid bull that ran amok in February, killing two people.
In March, animal rights activists found a stray cow so sick it could barely move. Surgeons pulled 176 pounds of plastic bags, pins, shoe straps and other junk from the animal’s stomach.
A diet of Delhi’s garbage can taint milk that freelancers surreptitiously squeeze from the strays and sell to dairies. Such milk can spread diseases such as tuberculosis, which is the leading cause of death in India, claiming 500,000 lives each year.
Forcing computer chips down cows’ throats could help save many lives, both human and bovine.
The chips are hidden in chalk-white, round-tipped ceramic capsules the size of a shotgun shell. Developed by the Spanish company Rumitag, the capsules stick in the reticulum, one of four compartments in a cow’s stomach and the one best-suited to storing hard objects without hurting the animal.
Workers place the capsules in one end of a gun, which a cattle hand firmly shoves about 2 feet down the cow’s throat, pulling a spring-loaded handle to release the capsule.
Some cows take to it like kids to candy. Others buck and try to gore the cattle hands.
Once the chip is in place, identifying the cow is as simple as waving an electronic wand near its belly. The device picks up a signal from the chip and displays the details on a hand-held reader.
Not everyone shares Yadav’s vision of a cow-free Delhi, especially the thousands of people who make a living running bootleg dairies.
“Sometimes our staff get bashed up by irate members of the public,” said Ishwar Dutt Singh, a cattle catcher employed by the municipal government.
“At times, our vehicles are set on fire. One particular cattle catcher, Suresh Kumar, was thrown into a ditch. Thankfully, there was hardly any sewage in it, and luckily, he escaped.”
Computer chips haven’t placated the High Court, which ordered the current roundup in 2002. In a hearing last month, an angry justice complained that he’d counted 16 stray cows during a drive through the city center.
With a stern warning against taking the matter lightly, the court ordered municipal officials to encourage greater public participation by offering a $46 bounty for each stray cow. Justices also demanded that officials publish their cellphone numbers in newspaper ads so that citizens could quickly report street cattle sightings.
No one has tried to collect the reward, said Yadav, who thinks catching cattle is best left to the city’s professionals.
“It’s not an easy task,” the vet said. “You need at least two or three trained cattle catchers for one cow. It’s too dangerous.”
Rounding up cows in Delhi traffic is not as simple as lassoing and roping the animals in. Cars, trucks and protesters often get in the way.
Stories of injuries are legend among the city’s cowhands. One had his eye popped out of its socket when a cow fought back with its horns. Another still walks with a limp after a cow kicked him, breaking his leg.
The cattle catchers, who earn between $58 to $85 a month, worry that computer chips will thin both the street herd and their salary, which does not include hazard pay.
“There’s been a drop in the auctions,” said catcher Shiv Narayan Singh.
“Before, at least 50-odd cows used to be sold every day, but now it has gone down to 10. No one wants to buy a cow with a chip inside.”