Sorry we killed your cow, RSPCA tells Hindus – have another one

Archbishop of Canterbury helps to heal bitter rift after temple animal is put down

When animal welfare officers walked into the grounds of Watford's Bhaktivedanta Manor Temple on13 December 2007 and put down one of its cows, the local Hindu community was outraged. Gangotri, a 13-year-old blue Jersey cross, was being nursed by temple officials after becoming paralysed during an overly vigorous mating session with Karma Deva, the resident bull. But the officials, from the RSPCA, believed Gangotri was "suffering unnecessarily" and killed her.

The decision caused a bitter rift to develop between Britain's Hindus, who regard cows as sacred, and the RSPCA. But a year on, the two groups have buried the hatchet thanks to a series of high-level talks and a little encouragement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, a patron of the society.

The Independent has learnt that a meeting between temple officials and the RSPCA's chief executive, Mark Watts, took place earlier this week. The society agreed to apologise for upsetting the Hindu community and offered to give a replacement cow to the temple as a goodwill gesture.

Officials from Lambeth Palace yesterday said they played no part in brokering that final meeting but one temple official admitted that progress in the talks only came about once Rowan Williams was contacted. "The Archbishop is a patron of the RSPCA and we wrote to him asking for his help," said Stuart "Shyamsundar" Coyle, the chief herdsman on the temple's farm, which claims to be Europe's largest cow sanctuary.

"The Church of England worked very hard in getting the RSPCA to talk to us about our concerns and we are extremely grateful for their help."

A spokesman from the RSPCA stressed yesterday that its vets had acted within the law when they put Gangotri down but admitted that they had upset the Hindu community in the way it was carried out. "We recognise we offended religious sensibilities," the spokesman said. "We know what happened caused a lot of offence to the Hindu community and we wanted to show that we want to work with Britain's Hindus in the future. The RSPCA has so much in common with Britain's Hindus when it comes to our attitude towards animal welfare."

Kapil Dudaki, who led the temple's "Gangotri Task Force" campaign group, said the donation of a new cow would help calm tensions between Hindus and the RSPCA.

"It is a wonderful gesture and we gladly accept it," he said. "It will very much help repair some of the damage done to our community in the past year. It was the way and the manner in which the RSPCA killed Gangotri which upset our community the most. To see a cow killed on the temple's grounds was utterly devastating."

In Hindu culture and scripture cows are considered sacrosanct. Bhaktivedanta Manor, a community of Hare Krishna devotees that was set up by the Beatles guitarist George Harrison, has a herd of 48 cows, most of which are milked or used to work the land.

Other temples have clashed with the RSPCA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over the care of sick animals. Under the Animal Welfare Act officials can kill an animal if they believe it is suffering unnecessarily. Defra has powers to destroy any animals that have contracted a contagious disease.

But most Hindus believe that killing a cow, even for merciful reasons, is sacrilegious because only God can decide when a sacred animal should die.

Yesterday Defra released a new set of guidelines on how to deal with sacred temple animals without offending the Hindu community. A spokesman from the Hindu Forum of Britain welcomed the new protocol.