Gaushala management is a specialized profession requiring particular skills relating to the management of cow shelters or gaushalas, which are traditional and ancient Indian institutions that shelter old, unproductive and abandoned cows, The 1800 registered cow shelters in India have managers who are important stakeholders in the management of cows in these unique institutions. It is important to survey the routine management of these shelters and attitudes of the managers towards cow welfare to identify the constraints and welfare issues. We visited 54 shelters in six states of India for a face-to-face structured interview of the managers. Quantitative data collection included questions on demographics, routine management operations, protocols followed in the shelters and attitudes of the managers towards cow welfare. All shelters except one were managed by males, half of them were in the age range of 45–65 years, were university graduates or post-graduates, with 5–15 years shelter management experience, and with the majority having lived in rural areas for most of their lives. Each shelter housed a median of 232 cattle were housed, out of which 13 were lactating cows. The majority of managers vaccinated their animals against endemic diseases like foot and mouth disease, haemorrhagic septicaemia and black quarter (gangraena emphysematosa) and administered endo-and ectoparasiticidal treatments, however, hardly any screened the cattle for brucellosis and tuberculosis. Only 17% of the shelters had in house veterinarians and most cows died of old age, with an annual mortality rate of 14%. The majority of the shelters allowed the cows to reproduce. Access to pasture was available in only 41% of the shelters, while most allowed some access to yards. Most (57%) had limited biosecurity measures, but 82% of the shelters disposed of the carcasses by deep burial on their own premises or through the municipality, with 18% disposing of them in open spaces or nearby creeks. About one half of the shelters maintained records of the protocols followed routinely. Charitable societies ran half of the shelters, mostly through public donations, with accounts audited regularly. Most managers thought that shelter cows’ welfare was important and that they should attempt to improve it. They were less in agreement that their knowledge of animal welfare was adequate. Local support, more moral than financial, was recognized more than government support. Managers perceived cow welfare as important from a religious perspective, citing the mother god and caring for abandoned animals as frequent themes in their definition of cow welfare. Caring for animals, mother and goddess were key elements in managers’ perception of animal welfare. The recommendations arising from this survey include that the shelter managers should be involved in the decision-making process for the welfare of cows in shelters, which is vital for the sustainability of these unique institutions. Welfare could be improved by strict compliance with biosecurity measures and disease surveillance protocols, avoidance of unrestricted reproduction in cows and separation of males and females.
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