Home » The Hindu Cow
Demonstrations outside Westminster, calls for my resignation and me being personally “condemned” by the nation of India. Questions in the house of commons. The RSPCA being sued and monks demonstrating outside national RSPCA headquarters….And it was only Tuesday!
How the hell did that happen?
One of the best things about being an RSPCA officer, no matter what rank, is that you genuinely never know what the next phone call is going to be about. In my world as I rose through the ranks, it could be anything from an injured animal, an emergency response to a major national incident such as Foot and Mouth or the Gloucester and Tewkesbury floods or it could be a speech at the House of Commons, an interview on the breakfast TV couch or a local critical incident such as a sheep transporter overturning or an intensive poultry farm losing power. Frankly the list is seemingly endless.
The one thing you very rarely hear when you answer the phone is a vet who wants to make a complaint about an animal’s welfare. There is sound logic and reason behind this, even if a member of the public presents a sick or injured animal to a vet too late. The concern is that if the vet reported it to the RSPCA then this client and others like them may not take the animal to the vet at all in the future. So, better late than never. Let’s treat the animal and move on is the philosophy.
Sat in my office in Peterborough, I answered the phone and spoke for a few moments to a vet in private practice. He had been called in to examine a collapsed cow, which was being looked after at a Hindu temple. The story was that two DEFRA (Department for environment, food and rural affairs) employed vets had visited the temple examined the cow and based on its condition had concluded in writing that the animal should be euthanised. He went on to explain that following his clinical examination he concurred with the other two vets. The cow had not been on her feet at all for over 14 months
My mind went back to a case in the Midlands, where a cow called Shambo had tested positive for tuberculosis and the government department supported by vets had insisted in accordance with its policy that the animal be killed. Most of the tabloids carried the image of the cow on their front pages and there were one or two court applications made on behalf of the Hindu community to try and prevent the cow from being killed. Ultimately, the appeals failed, and as a result, in spite of large numbers of demonstrators officials moved in, loaded Shambo and took it to a secret location where it was shot.
So I knew right from the start that we were potentially walking into a storm which would likely involve all the things normally best avoided, especially when they’re in the same cocktail – religion, politics, media and a suffering animal. I was going to lend appropriate weight to all of the above, but really my only priority was going to be the cow and its welfare
My first priority was to get my eyes on the animal. Unless it’s someone you’ve worked with for years. Accepting information on face value from anyone, especially when the stakes are so high, I don’t care who they are, it is just unwise.
If I was to visit the temple and inspect the cow. I needed some assistance. Remarkably, given my RAF background, I’m not rank conscious at all and in this particular case, what I needed were the right people, with the right talents to help me deliver the best result possible, irrespective of their rank.
As it turned out I chose two inspectors. The first was the local inspector for Peterborough. Catherine Parfitt, or Kat as she is known.
Kat, joined the RSPCA about 10 years ago and in the time that I spent with her, She did nothing other than impress me. She’s an excellent Inspector, balanced, reasonable prepared to use her judgement appropriately, as well as her discretion. She has a great doorstep approach but above all I wanted her because she had shown me on a number of occasions that she had no difficulty looking me in the eye and telling me that I was just plain wrong. And that’s the polite way of putting it!
To me that has always been valuable. Anyone in a leadership position should tell you that surrounding yourself with people who are prepared to challenge you, question you, even be downright annoying, is nothing but a good thing. You can ignore it, or simply disregard it but you must listen to it and give it appropriate consideration.
So my brief to Kat was on the face of it dead simple. Whatever I say, whatever I propose whatever decisions I make she was to take a position 180° in the opposite direction and argue that case to me forcefully. She was not to leave my side.
The other member of the team was inspector Mark Martin. Mark has been with the RSPCA for many years and on one occasion whilst he was working for me in the East region, we nearly lost him. He was struck down by some strange inner ear anomaly which meant that for a protracted period he wasn’t allowed to drive and under normal circumstances that would be the demise of an average RSPCA inspector.
By any measure, Mark could not be described as average. His nickname “The Brain” is more than well deserved. I decided to give Mark an open brief for nearly 7 months. The only direction I gave him was to nudge him towards examining existing police and other organisations intelligence gathering and handling strategies and capabilities and to see what would fit well and serve the RSPCA.
Today, Mark is the head of the RSPCA Intelligence team. Their job is to gather and interpret intelligence about individuals actively involved in cruelty and pass it on to the specialist investigators who deal with them.
Last year the RSPCA received about 1.4 million telephone calls from members of the public and until the formation of Marks excellent intelligence team all of the activity of all of the RSPCA inspectors was based on one member of the public seeing something and then taking the time and effort to report it to the Cruelty Hotline. Why wait for the report, how much better to gather appropriate intelligence to interpret it correctly and act upon it before we ever receive a report from the public.
The now infamous Amersham horse case is a good but very negative example of what I was trying to achieve. The RSPCA knew all about the horse dealer Jamie Gray but still waited for a complaint from a lady who one day just happened to look over a fence and saw a down horse. The subsequent enquiry resulted in the rescue and rehabilitation of 130 horses and a life time ban for Mr Gray. It also turned out to be the most expensive case that the Society had ever prosecuted.
At that time we had no concept of being intelligence led and when I consider what we could have done better and faster for so many animals if we had an intelligence community years ago, it causes me to shudder.
As well as pure intelligence, Mark brought a high degree of sensitivity, excellent legal knowledge and the ability to think laterally.
Once the RSPCA team had been decided I then made contact with the local police and I immediately understood the potential gravity of the situation when they appointed a Chief Superintendent and Chief Inspector to be our liaison. The religious sensitivity was their main concern As it turned out the local police had an excellent relationship with the temple. Unfortunately, over the next two days we were going to test that relationship to breaking point and then some.
The next morning we all arrived for a briefing at Borehamwood police station. The operation for the first day was very simple. Visit the temple with my two colleagues and a vet, examine the cow arrive at a conclusion regarding the animal’s condition and its prognosis. Meet with the temple leaders and decide on a way forward which was in the best interests for the welfare of the cow. What could possibly go wrong?
As we turned into the lane that led up to the temple. It was like turning the hands of time back. They had a number of cattle which were used for ploughing and other work on the farm, which sat adjacent to a beautiful old Manor house, which had been converted into a fully functioning Hindu temple. It had been gifted to them many years ago by the Beetle, George Harrison
Shoes were respectfully removed before we entered and we were lead through the temple to the office of the leader of the community, Gauri das
The office was surprisingly well appointed with a seating area, to which we were ushered. Introductions and pleasantries over. I asked permission to inspect the cow Shoes back on and short walk to a barn containing some of the best cared for cattle that I had ever seen.
In its own stall and to the right was a cow laying down in deep litter straw and Gauri das introduced her to me as Gangotri. The cow was named after one of the sources of the River Ganges in India
These animals weren’t just looked after, they were cosseted and doted upon by the monks. If I did believe in reincarnation, until then I had always wanted to come back as a cat. Now I want to come back as a cow at a Hindu temple! As I approached Gangotri I could see that she was lying on a combination of straw and blankets with food and water sat right under her nose, so it took her little or no effort to feed and drink.
Each time she tried to adjust her position I could see red and inflamed areas on her legs and stomach which were clearly pressure sores as a result of her being “down”. In humans we would call them bed sores and bedridden patients are frequently “turned” to help prevent them. That simply doesn’t work on a cow.
The farm manager arrived and started to tell me the story that about fourteen months previously they were attempting to mate her to a large bull and either she was too weak or the bull was too heavy, but either way she was crushed under the weight of the bull as he attempted to mount her and since that time she hadn’t got up.
It was pure speculation as to what had gone on physiologically, it could have been a problem with major leg bone and one vet hypothesised that it was more likely a severe pelvic injury, but either way, this poor cow has not been able to get to her feet for over a year, and it was her own body weight pressing on those parts that were in contact with the bedding which was causing all the sores which I was looking at.
She was on constant antibiotics to help prevent secondary infections from the pressure sores.
Let me put this into context for a moment, if we take away the religious prerogative and teachings. If a UK farmer had a cow “down” say for 72 hours. Never mind. fourteen months and if that farmer has done nothing to ameliorate the problem, then it’s highly likely that an offence under UK law would have been committed and the farmer may have faced potential prosecution.
Here we had a cow which three vets in writing had brought to the attention of the temple with their conclusion that the animal was suffering and in its own interests should be put out of its misery as soon as possible.
We adjourned back to the temple office where I let Mark lead on trying to understand the history of the religion in this context and what, if any options were available which would solve the problem for the cow whilst not offending the religious community, its members or its doctrine.
It was explained that cattle have a very special place within the Hindu religion, that they’re considered to be the mother and the giver of life. In a firmly literal sense Gauri das at one point said to me that if we did kill the cow, It would be akin to me killing his own birth mother. He then added that some teachings indicated that if a cow was to die at the hand of man. The man would suffer 1000 years of Purgatory in hell for every hair on the cow’s body.
Kat, Mark and I shared nervous glances and I knew we were all thinking the same thing.
Every RSPCA inspector, including me, during our training has to certify as a trained slaughter man in order to use a captive bolt to kill large animals. The reasoning is very simple. I’ve attended dozens of major road traffic incidents involving livestock lorries containing cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. Due to the way the animals are loaded onto the transporters often in three tiers, when the vehicle is involved in an incident and if it turns on its side. The consequences for the animals are pretty grim.
Let’s assume it’s a sheep transporter travelling in difficult weather conditions, it brakes hard jack knifes and falls onto its left-hand side. All those animals that were on the left-hand side of the vehicle are now on the bottom of the pile with other animals bearing down on top of them. Only the top “layer” or two of sheep will survive all the others will be suffocated by the weight of those on top of them.
Those which do survive often have major trauma injuries, broken limbs crush injuries to the chest or head injuries and in these circumstances these animals need to be put out of their misery as quickly and as professionally as is humanly possible. And that’s why RSPCA inspectors train in abattoirs and learn how to slaughter farm animals.
The first time you ever have to do it using what would be strange equipment in difficult circumstances is not when the lorries turned over on the road. It has to be trained. It has to be learned and periodically, it has to be practised. It has to be done properly professionally above all humanely.
The morning that Inspector trainees go to the abattoir to learn and practice killing cattle counts amongst one of the very worst days of my life, and I know that I am very far from alone.
I mentioned a captive bolt, it really does what it says on the tin. Inside what appears to be an oversized handgun is a sharpened bolt of metal which, when loaded with a blank round sends a bolt at very high-speed out of the front of the device for approximately 6 inches, the energy is then captured by a series of giant rubber rings contained within the weapon and the bolt bounces back to its original position.
It can be unsightly. It can be messy. It is an efficient device to immediately stun and often kill large animals before bleeding, or to kill smaller animals such as large dogs and foxes instantly.
By the time the meeting with Gauri das and his farm manager had ended one thing above all was abundantly and absolutely clear; there was no way they were prepared to allow the cow to be put to sleep. They were absolutely immovable and made it perfectly clear that no debate or negotiation would get us any further. The senior police officers, Kat, Mark and I tried every approach we could think of. I even tried the tactic that if I killed the poor creature it would not reflect on the monks, their religious prerogatives or their community, but to no avail.
Crucially, as we were about to leave Gauri das, said in earshot of the police officers and myself. “If you come back here to kill Gangotri. There will be 10,000 Hindus between her and your gun or syringe”.
This was new ground for me, I fully appreciated the religious sensitivities involved and respected them completely. I felt completely compromised as far as UK law was concerned but what was becoming rapidly apparent was that this, however it ended, was going to be one of the most difficult decisions of my career, and as it turned out with consequences I could never have imagined.
Just as we were about to leave the temple. We were honoured in traditional Hindu fashion by the offering of food, half a dozen small brown bags containing home-baked cakes and biscuits were handed to each of us. As we drove through the gates and I started to realise what had happened and in all likelihood what was going to have to happen, I couldn’t bring myself to eat a mouthful.
I didn’t want to go directly back to Borehamwood police station. I wanted some quiet time and a full debrief with Mark and Kat so we found a nearby animal centre and a quiet room and sat down for well over two hours going over everything that we’d seen and heard, taking legal advice and contacting the vets involved discussing options for ongoing pain relief. Anything to avoid what was increasingly becoming the inevitable decision.
The pain relief issue was complicated but simple all at the same time. Was she in pain? The vets said yes and they pointed to increased and abnormal respiration as well as her grinding her teeth and her reluctance to move due to the pain. If I accepted that then the next question was how much pain and was it feasible to keep an animal alive on analgesic pain relief for an extended period of time.
This is where the simple part came in. I had recently had to take my son Oliver to hospital for a minor procedure, he was about six and whilst we were in the examination room, he was asked how much pain he was in and shown a laminate card with five faces on it. The one on the far right was very happy and smiley, the one on the far left had tears and a down turned mouth i.e very unhappy. He was asked which one he felt like and Oliver pointed to the one in the middle because he could. He understood the question, he understood his pain. He understood the concept and he was able to communicate with others about it.
Everyone agreed on the veterinary and legal and pragmatic side that we couldn’t replicate that, or anything like it with this poor creature. And as I said, all the veterinary advice was that the cow was displaying clinical signs of pain and distress.
Kat did her job brilliantly and was a thorough pain in the arse all day and all through the evening. At one point I pointed outside at the grass and said look, it’s green. She turned to me and said no it’s not It’s blue . Whilst I may sound a little glib. I think a lot of people in positions of responsibility or even on specific issues should have a “Kat” and embrace the process of being thoroughly challenged.
Through her efforts on that day, the one thing I can say with complete certainty is that no decision was made lightly, every single option was considered, every opposite or alternative to every option was considered and that does help me put my head on the pillow at night.
We travelled back to Borehamwood police station in silence, all of us understanding what had to be done. The only question left was how we were going to do it and when.
We have a brand-new piece of legislation to work with the Animal Welfare Act 2006, prior to this we had been struggling with legislation which dated back to 1911, it still talked about overriding, over driving, overloading horses on the streets of London and it clearly wasn’t fit for purpose in the 21st-century.
The new 2006 Act was championed by the RSPCA in company with some fantastic cross party MPs and Civil Servants. I was privileged to play a small part in the process both at the main Party Conferences and in Westminster, I say a small part relative to the man (and a hero of mine) who in my mind was its principle coordinator or architect Mick Flower. Mick has been with the RSPCA for years and has the kind of brain most of us would be prepared to lose a limb for. Part of the new act provides for the application of a warrant for the police to enter premises in order to prevent an animal(s) suffering.
After much debate with the police late into the evening it was very reluctantly agreed that entering the property and killing the cow was the only way forward.
There is a provision where unless certain criteria are in play, the police are obliged to inform the subject of the warrant that they intend to serve or action it.
This was the subject of lengthy debate, we all remembered the words “If you come to kill Gangotri there will be 10,000 Hindu’s between the gun or syringe and her”. Very bravely and no doubt with an eye on preventing a major public order incident the police made the decision not to advise the temple of the warrant or our intentions.
Later this led to allegations of duplicity and underhandedness, but you can see why the decision was made in these most difficult of circumstances.
Before we did anything next there was more work to be done. Firstly I needed to get onto my headquarters via a late night conference call and explain everything I had decided and give them a chance to vary the plan or spot something I might have missed. Unfortunately they didn’t and the plan was endorsed.
Secondly, Police forces either have their own, or share something called a “Religious Sensitivity Unit”. I needed to know that when we went into the temple that the timing was not going to cause further offence by disturbing or interrupting prayers, or god forbid, that the day was not an important Hindu religious day of celebration. The police were great and through this specialist departments advice I knew the right time to go in to carry out a terrible job, but at least not causing any other collateral offence. This was later denied by thr temple who insisted that we had interrupted their prayers. Simply not true.
All the preparations were made for the next morning. I wanted to keep the team as small as possible. Mark Martin, Kat Parfit, one vet, just a couple of police officers and myself.
The plan was for my officers to go straight to the barn whilst I went to the Manor House to openly inform Gauri das what we were about to do, unfortunately he was off the site taking his children to school. So not praying then! My next priority was therefore to find and brief the Farm Manager, but again we struggled to find him.
I was determined that we would not go ahead without them knowing, it would have been so wrong to have appeared to have slipped in, done the deed and slipped out. So I called a halt and we waited.
Within half an hour the Farm Manager arrived and following my informing him that we were there under warrant to put Gangotri down on the written advice of three eminent vets, he became very and understandably agitated.
At least comfortable that I had waited to advise the Manager, Kat appeared at my side and said almost under her breath “can we do it”. I simply nodded. And then continued to try to explain and reason with the Hindu Farm Manager.
Moments later, Kat was back by my side again and asked to speak privately Mark was with the vet when she had reported back to them and told them about the nod of my head. Typically and correctly Mark had sent her back to me with the message that a nod of the head was not sufficient. It could have been misunderstood. Kat said “what do you want us to do?” I heard my voice say ” Please instruct the vet to kill the cow immediately and then confirm to me when it is done”
I made my way to the Barn, largely to support the team and to coordinate our leaving. I discussed what we could do to help with the removal of the body but other monks had already arrived, covered the body with sheets and blankets and had started to pray around her.
Mark was stood by the door and as I walked towards him with one of the police officers, a fully saffron robed Monk hit Mark hard on the chest. “Do you want to do anything about that Inspector?” said the police officer. I didn’t wait for Mark to answer or even break my stride, and in a micro moment the headline “Hindu Monk arrested for assaulting RSPCA Inspector” flashed before my eyes. I looked at Mark and simply said “no he doesn’t do you Mark”. I could see he got it in a heartbeat and shook his head to confirm not, followed by a knowing wink to me. Great guy.
We all made our way to our respective vehicles and drove away in silence. It felt terrible. Other than the knowledge that the poor cows suffering was over I could not think or find a single positive to take from the experience. In time I did reflect that the sheer professionalism displayed by Kat, Mark, the vet and the police was outstanding in what from beginning to end was a lose lose situation. But as it turned out it was far from the end of the story.
Within a couple of hours Barry Gardiner Labour MP for Brent North, made a statement from the floor of the House of Commons.
Extract from Hansard 13 December
Barry Gardiner (Brent North, Labour)
At 9 o’clock this morning, an outrage was perpetrated against the Hindu community in this country, when a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vet, accompanied by three police officers, went unannounced to Bhaktivedanta manor and put down a sacred cow, which had been nursed by the herdsmen at the manor for 14 months. I must stress that this cow was not contagious in any way and was not diseased; she had a muscle-wasting problem and was nursed for bedsores alone. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate the serious concern that this has caused within the Hindu community, and I ask her to take the matter up not only with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I understand thatDEFRA was not involved this morning—but with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. This has caused great concern in the community. We have laws in this country against blasphemy, and I believe it is now time for us to have a debate about how to deal with such issues sensitively across the board
To say that I was furious doesn’t even come close. Not really for me but for the team who had put so much effort and commitment into getting to the best place possible in the most difficult of circumstances. Barry got to his feet in the House of Commons to make his statement only a couple of hours after we had driven off the temple site.
I know for a fact that he (nor his aids) made any attempt to contact the RSPCA to balance his comments or to discover the truth before accusing us (ok me) of Blasphemy! I cant bring myself to think that he was cynically playing to the large Hindu population and audience living in his Brent North Constituency.
Hang on, after what he did, yes I can, and yes I do! Shame on you My Gardiner for not even taking a moment to discover the facts before deeply upsetting my team.
I met him some months later at a Westminster reception and tried to explain just what lengths we had gone too, he glazed over and just seemed not interested.
His comment about DEFRA was rich because they had known about the cow for months and had simply put it in the “too hard to do file” I suspect because of its religious sensitivity. They were also invited that morning to attend but guess what. Barry also got it wrong because his comments clearly drew a comparison to “Shambo” the TB cow which had made national headlines some months before. This was a far worse case because it was a suffering animal. As for blasphemy, do me a favour!
You will struggle to find a more tolerant and liberal individual when it comes to religious and ethnicity in all its forms. I am so bad I don’t even like to write that sentence. In of itself its divisive simply because of its innate acknowledgement of the inherent differences between us.
But then something wonderful happened, by a complete quirk of fate and timing Arch Bishop, Dr Rowan Williams hinted in a speech that some aspects of Sharia law should have a place in modern Britain and it caused a media and political storm.
Senior politicians from every party (mostly led by David Cameron) waded in with the overriding message that “the rule of UK law must never be subverted or replaced”. I had struggled with the dilemma of the Hindu Cow Vs the rule of UK law and after the very timely Sharia Law debate, forgive me, but I did feel vindicated.
At this point I could drift into the endless debate about religious slaughter. But you will know where I am coming from if I just make this summary statement which for me is the beginning, middle and end of the debate – or rather it should be!
Within theses shores and over many years our legislators have laid down laws to protect animals welfare at the very critical time of slaughter. These laws are safe, welfare orientated and widely practised upon pain of prosecution if not strictly adhered to.
So by what miracle of stupidity do we as a society give derogations under UK law based on conflicting religious doctrine and outdated tradition. Tolerance? Always! But deviation from core principles and well considered law which is designed to prevent suffering and protect welfare – No! If an animal has to die, for food or welfare in this country it should be done in the best way, informed by science and welfare not religion. End of rant.
Anyway I digress, the story continued with the first threat that the temple was to sue the RSPCA. Quite what for I never did find out, I don’t really think they knew either Then there was a demonstration of robed monks outside National Headquarters. I was banished to my desk with strict instructions not to leave until they did.
It went quiet for a while and then there was a demonstration outside the House of Commons, banners and all, one calling for my resignation, another carrying the legend “Whilst Hindus Pray the RSPCA Slay”. Then Gangotri was cremated and the ashes were sent to India to be scattered on the river Ganges.
A web site was created called Justice for Gangotri which was just full of lies and half truths. It also elevated me to somewhere I never ever wanted to be or would never think to ever find myself; it simply stated that “Superintendent Tim Wass has offended the entire nation of India” I promise I am not being glib but “Sorry India for causing you offence” I believe passionately in self reflection and personal analysis about the decisions I have made in my life, especially the professional ones, I can tell you that if I were presented with the same circumstances again, I would not change a thing.
Overall I was left with the disturbing notion that Monks should not behave like this. There was deception, lies, violence, obstruction, lack of humility and humanity and just when I thought the final chapter had closed and by way of an appropriate gesture for “any offence caused” (That’s the way of saying sorry without saying sorry by the way) the RSPCA gifted a cow in calf to the temple. Part of me approved. But……..
My wish for the cow and its calf is for them to enjoy a wonderful and cosseted life, I know they will, but if towards the end of their lives, whatever the condition which may afflict them ranging from distress, to suffering to sheer agony, they will be on their own and without any humane intervention. I find that in the name of religion, tradition, culture or for any other reason, completely unacceptable.
And as a final post script which I take no comfort from whatsoever this news broke the following July;
Gauri das Found Guilty of Child Abuse
BY: SADHUSHASTRA DASA
Jul 13, UK (SUN) — The President of Bhaktivedanta Manor has been found guilty of child abuse and removed from his position as Temple President. He will not be allowed to work with children again. He is not allowed to give class or hold any position for 3 years.
No comment from me other than, its a funny old world!
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