The cattle holding area reeked of fear. Lying or standing in their own excrement, the fly infested, bony creatures were fastened to dilapidated wooden fence posts by dirty ropes tied around their necks. They gazed up, daring to hope, upon seeing us enter the premises. I had recently arrived in Sri Lanka for a 6-month odyssey with my four and six year-old children. This sojourn was intended to offer a more authentic experience than two weeks of sightseeing and hotel hopping. My goal was to reconnect with the country of my birth after a decade-long absence. Little did I know that the defining moment in our travels would be a ceremony that would alter our perspective toward life, food, humility and humanity.
The act of releasing a cow from slaughter and assuring it a safe home, free from future killing is conducted as a Buddhist ritual to confer blessings of health and safety to the participant’s family. Aunt Ramya’s son, my cousin, was ill, and she invited us to participate in this release.
I arrived at the temple filled with trepidation over what I imagined would be an emotionally brutal experience. Then I met Chief Priest Ananda who oversees the releases. His kind, tranquil presence quelled my knotted stomach, as he showed us the area where previously “saved” cows now grazed peacefully while awaiting safe, permanent homes. We adults, struggling to keep our anxiety over the imminent visit to the slaughterhouse at bay, distractedly watched as a vet treated the animals and tagged new arrivals. Conversely, my kids were completely taken by the novelty of this scene. They appointed themselves “vet assistants” and began petting and feeding these gentle beasts. “Why are you bringing the kids to this?” was the question many relatives asked, as I too wrestled with the prudence of this decision. “I want them to understand our food system and where meat really comes from…that it doesn’t start at the grocery store wrapped in plastic.” My daughter’s concerns included the injustice of saving only one cow, leaving the others to die, and whether we should eat hamburgers. “It’s easy not to eat meat in Sri Lanka cause it doesn’t taste that good, but I love the burgers back home.” I didn’t want her to feel the pressure of deciding something that significant right then and there, so I answered as honestly as I could, “You can do what feels right when we go back home…whatever you decide is okay.” Today’s event wasn’t about converting to vegetarianism but rather to help us understand and appreciate what animals endure so we can have that delicious burger. I had a sense, however, that I might never feel the urge to eat meat again.
From the temple to the slaughter house
The cattle holding area was as visually brutal as I’d imagined. One cow was determined to make her presence known. After 20 minutes of pitiful bellowing, I broke – my mother and I bought her release. By the end, Aunt Ramya freed 2 cows, and a cousin released yet another. Although I was comforted knowing that four animals were saved from slaughter, the desperate lowing of cattle left behind was unbearable and haunts me to this day. We couldn’t wait to get out of there - I’m sure the cows felt the same!
A welcome refuge
Back at the temple, our gang of cattle literally jumped out of the truck and began devouring grass and coconut husks. We named our cow “Ms. Pokey” after an unfortunate incident in which my son startled her while she was eating - after a brief cry, he was back on the job as cattle caretaker. A farming family had been selected to take all four cows “home” the next morning. We returned to see them off. The cows wailed and bucked fiercely as they loaded into the truck, with Ms. Pokey leading the charge! Once inside, they calmed down, settling into clean, soft hay. We patted their heads and said good-bye, watching as they set off, literally, for sunnier pastures! The “gang” can now be found grazing amidst lush green pastures, streams and fruit trees. Ms. Pokey, much hardier, continues poking anyone who gets too close, probably thinking, “I’m free, I’m full and I’m done getting bossed around - approach at your own peril!”
Profound experiences can occur at any moment. Ours was sandwiched between visits to white sand beaches and luxury hotels. This is why we travel.
P de Silva