Are bulls nurtured or tortured?
Today is Thai Pongal, the harvest festival dedicated to the Sun God. It also celebrates cattle, particularly bulls that play a vital role by working hard to help farmers to raise crops on their fields. Also, according to Hindu mythology, bull is a sacred animal. Here, animal rights activist from Jaffna, V. Jogeswaran, takes a critical look at the tradition of bullock cart races in the North, and questions whether the practice should be abandoned or amended.
Bullock cart race is a popular pursuit among some rural masses and peasant folks in the Northern region. Some men from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar are engaged in this activity. It is a race that gives them entertainment, and name and fame. For many of them, it is a must-watch entertainment, often after a week's toil.
The owners of the bulls which win races soon become much talked about personalities among spectators. Amidst concern about animals' welfare, they still keep this practice continuing in the region almost every Sunday except during the rainy season when venues become unsuited for the race. In addition to a few other venues in Kilinochchi and Mannar, there are numerous venues in Jaffna for the sport. It is said that this pursuit originated in Jaffna as an entertainment activity.
Bulls were part and parcel of the agricultural society in the Northern region. However, the vital role they played in people's lives is diminishing due to the advent of modern technology, particularly in the agricultural sector. In the past, bulls were used to assist in cultivation. They performed the toiling tasks of watering and ploughing. To water cultivated lands, bulls had to turn a crossbar geared to the water wheel rigged with tin buckets to scoop water up and distribute it to where it is needed; however, the former task is now performed by water pumps and the latter mostly by tractors.
In addition to these, bulls played yet another significant role, that is, transportation such as moving people to distant places and sacred spots, using bullock carts, a task which is no longer performed by bulls now. Leonard Wolf in his autobiography of the years 1904-1911 says that he travelled from Anuradhapura to Elephant Pass by a large bullock cart.
In terms of social benefits, bullock cart race promotes social gathering without any political motivation. This sort of gatherings creates a platform for bolstering relationships, empathy, sharing, learning and brotherhood. Therefore, the spectators and competitors have a purpose and reason to assemble rather than engaging themselves in violence that paralyses the society; therefore, it generates a sense of competitive attitude among people, instead of hatred and violence. Besides, both human and animals undergo skills development through training. Cart drivers always want to win, and therefore they try to develop their skills and train the bulls. Bulls are fed well and nurtured well. It, therefore, makes contribution to the preservation of the local cows and bulls.
Although the role of bulls in terms of farming is losing its significance now, cows are still reared. Many families depend on them as a source of income. Now imported varieties of cows are reared for obtaining milk. But, bullock cart racing is a boost for the preservation of local varieties of cows and bulls. Additionally, cattle provide farmers with dung and urine. The use of cattle manure, or cow dung, at small scale agriculture garden is a popular and advantageous practice which the farmers use in many rural areas to make their soil fertile enough. Cow urine is used as a good organic fertilizer and pesticide.
Moreover, cart drivers and bull owners have a reason to keep themselves occupied; they have pleasant and peaceful leisure by looking after the bulls and training them. Additionally, cart drivers must possess the required skill and feat to control and direct the course of the bullock cart to win competitions. They master the skill of concentration, coordination and control through constant practice.
Cruelty to bulls
However, there is a dark side to this practice too. In the name of winning, animals are treated cruelly. Not only in bullock cart racing, but when it comes to horse racing too this is happening. Yet, the pain inflicted on horses is hardly highlighted in media, as this sport is closely linked to the affluent aristocracy in the country. It is clear though that intense pain, in whatever form, inflicted on innocent animals cannot be justified at any cost.
Furthermore, owners of some bulls resort to aggressive and traumatic means to gain maximum performance of their bulls in contests. The drivers use sticks embedded with sharp nail on one end and other sharp edged instruments to pierce the animals to make them run faster. But, the Association of Bullock Cart Races has recently banned biting tails or using any sharp objects to stab the beasts. If a bull is found to be bleeding due to its tail being bitten, it will be banned from competing in subsequent stages of the race. It is a welcome move by the Association as far as animal welfare is concerned.
Yet, beating the bulls still continues. When Ponnaiah Thirupalasingam, who was engaged in cart races for more than 40 years, was asked about banning the beating, he laughed off such an idea. He asked how the bulls could be driven without being beaten.
S. Mahendran, who still participates in the races, says, "We nurture bulls like our own children. Bulls have a thick layer of fat under the skin on the back. They, therefore, do not feel pain when they receive a beating. Bulls are like schoolchildren who are hesitant at the initial stage of the training. Later on they become accustomed to the race. Gentle push and tapping is in most cases enough to make the bulls run to their maximum."
Besides these practices, forcing intoxicants into the mouth of bulls, which was suspected to have taken place on a few occasions, should be avoided too. It is, therefore, necessary to educate bull owners on the sufferings of these innocent animals. The Association of Bullock Cart Race has to play a vital role in this context. It can create awareness on this issue among the masters of the bulls.
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