The dairy cows at New Vrindaban eat grain while they're milked twice a day.
NEW VRINDABAN, West Virginia, USA -- Saving cows, the Hare Krishnas in this village have learned, is a lot easier in India.
Created four decades ago, New Vrindaban was the first cattle sanctuary in the U.S. At its peak, it had 434 bovine refugees. Today, the cattle population is down to 80 because there's not enough money to support more. So the Hare Krishna community is borrowing a tactic more commonly used by charities that try to save people.
For $51, you can feed a cow for a month, while $108 would "provide special care for retired cows who can no longer breed or give milk," the group says in one appeal. "In one selfless stroke, you are sending a valuable message to our children and to a troubled world which sees today's gentle cow as tomorrow's dinner."
The adopt-a-cow effort promises bovine photographs and updates for donors, along with an open invitation to visit the cows in this village, near Moundsville, W.Va. The village is modeled after the childhood home of the Hindu deity Krishna, who taught his followers to revere cows.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, a Hindu group that grew out of a movement to ban the slaughtering of cows, has joined the Hare Krishna effort with its own appeals to help raise the roughly $1,000 needed to support each cow for a year. "It is needless to mention that by taking special care of Lord Krishna's cows you and your family will definitely receive His special blessings," reads another appeal, targeting the estimated 1.5 million Hindus in the U.S., recently posted on the group's Web site.
Other Hare Krishna groups in the U.S. also offer adoption programs, including one just up the road, called the International Society for Cow Protection. It posts names and profiles of cattle available for adoption on its Web site, calling one a "party animal and break-out artist" and another "Mister Handsome Heartbreaker."
Cows are sacred to Hindus, a status allowing them to roam the streets of India untouched. Most Indian states prohibit their slaughter, although an illegal beef trade thrives. Krishna is believed to have encouraged the people of Vrindaban, India, to worship the land and animals that support them, preaching the power of cows to provide everything from milk for children to manure for farming.
The cows at New Vrindaban -- from the oldest of the herd to the youngest calf, 6-month-old Rama -- are doted on, often getting hugs and kisses. Devotees offer the cows' milk to Krishna in religious ceremonies and use it to make butter, yogurt and sweets.
"We look at them like our own mothers," says Ranaka Das, 54 years old, a cow caretaker. Once known as Doug Fintel, he worked at a Coors brewery in Colorado before joining the Hare Krishna movement and moving to New Vrindaban in 1977. "You take care of them like your own family," he said. "In a regular dairy operation, cows are like any piece of machinery."
Milind Bharambe, a Pittsburgh software analyst who immigrated from India nine years ago, initially sought a reward of sorts for helping to save the animals. "Cows are very dear to Krishna," he says. "If I help someone very dear to Krishna, maybe I might benefit," he thought.
But today, Mr. Bharambe -- who donates about $800 a year to New Vrindaban, half earmarked for the cows -- says his motivation is more spiritual. "I'm supporting someone very dear to Krishna. That thought itself gives so many things. You feel happiness. You feel better."
Many of New Vrindaban's cows were born on site. Devotees occasionally rescue doomed cows from slaughterhouses and bring them to the sanctuary.
"Slaughtering an animal is not natural for human beings," said Rishi Shinde, a Dallas businessman who donates about $360 a year to sponsor one cow. "It affects one's consciousness, makes one violent and makes one lose contact with the emotional self."
New Vrindaban's cow farm, or goshala, includes a giant barn for the cattle -- as many as 200 -- which spend most of their day grazing on the pasture. Only half a dozen of the 80 cows still produce milk, about 50 pounds of it a day. The rest of the cattle are left to carry out their natural lives -- as long as 20 years -- far longer than the life span for many U.S. cattle raised for slaughter.
At the top of a winding West Virginia road, New Vrindaban was established in a small farmhouse in 1968 with 100 acres by two American disciples of Swami Prabhupada, an Indian who moved to New York City to spread his love for Krishna. As the Hare Krishna movement expanded with hippies-turned-devotees in the 1970s, hundreds of Americans -- 700 at one point, the group says -- moved to New Vrindaban, took up robes and Sanskrit names and assumed a mission of protecting cows, growing their own food and building temples.
They raised money selling wares at street corners and airports nationwide, pouring their funds into materials to build, by hand, an ornate temple for Prabhupada on the site of a former trash dump. Completed in 1979, two years after his death, Prabhupada's Palace of Gold became a shrine. Tourists came by the busload, drawing more publicity, devotees and money -- millions of dollars a year. New Vrindaban grew to 3,000 acres.
A 1986 murder of a former devotee sent the community into turmoil. Authorities raided the community, sparking years of investigations into allegations of murder, racketeering and child abuse. The New Vrindaban founder who was alleged to have ordered the murder eventually went to prison for racketeering. He received a 20-year prison sentence, which was then reduced to 12 years due to poor health. He served eight years.
Today, the New Vrindaban area has fewer than 200 resident devotees, about a quarter of them of Indian descent. The site still draws about 25,000 visitors a year, the group says. A donation of $6 is sought from those who visit the Palace of Gold. Visitors of Indian descent take special interest in the cows, often bringing their children to pet the animals.
That doesn't produce the $100,000 a year needed to pay for hay, the barn, workers and property taxes. Hence the adopt-a-cow fund raising. The leaders of the community say only a few of the cows are sponsored in full for life by the donations, which are tax-deductible. But they are clear about one thing: None of these cows ever leave for the slaughterhouse.
"We've kept that promise to Pradhupada and the cows since we first came here," says Nityodita Das, one of the community's current leaders.
The Hare Krishnas' cow-protection campaign doesn't seem to be getting much traction with some neighbors. "There's not much of a push around here to save cattle," says Allen Hendershot, Moundsville city manager. "Cattle are raised for a reason."
Indeed, drivers exiting Interstate 470 in Bethlehem, W.Va., to reach New Vrindaban recently were greeted by a giant sign in the median featuring a bovine cartoon, promoting a nearby event. It read: "Bethlehem Steak Fry."