SRILA PRABHUPADA writes in a purport to the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.8.16), "[Krsna's] first business is to give all comfort to the cows and the brahmanas. In fact, comfort for the brahmanas is secondary, and comfort for the cows is His first concern."
Because Krsna loves the cows, His devotees not only protect them but also see to their comfort, a practice that has spiritual, psychological, and practical material benefits.
For thousands of years people have understood that for a cow to do her best job of providing milk she must be peaceful and happy. In this century, scientists discovered that the cow produces a hormone called oxytocin that helps her "let down" her milk. If the cow is frightened or annoyed, the oxytocin is shut off and the milk flow stops. This means that human beings must be well behaved around cows to get the most milk.
Bulls and oxen must also be given comfort, and we gain by treating them kindly.
In earlier times, when people relied on the ox for economic survival, scriptures of various countries taught people how to be kind to their animals. Writing in The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge in the nineteenth century, Reverend B. B. Edwards comments on biblical injunctions for the treatment of working oxen:
The ox was best fed when employed in treading out the corn; for the divine law, in many of whose precepts the benevolence of the Deity conspicuously shines, forbade to muzzle him, and, by consequence, to prevent him from eating what he would of the grain he was employed to separate from the husks
In the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section 23), Bhismadeva censures "those who set bullocks to work before the animals attain to sufficient age, those who bore the noses of bullocks and other animals for controlling them better while employed in work, and those who keep animals always tethered."
Modern workers have discovered the wisdom of these scriptural principles while trying to bring improved animal-traction technology to third world countries. For one thing, an animal forced to do heavy work before his body develops will be stunted in growth. He'll never become the powerful assistant he could have been.
Furthermore, proper exercise for bulls, oxen, and cows is essential to keep them in good shape for working, breeding, or milking. Not only will it keep their muscles in tone; it also improves their disposition and makes them easier to work with.
Finally, perhaps some of the most practical gains from animal comfort have come from improved animal-traction equipment for oxen. For centuries, inventors have ignored ox equipment while concentrating on making better equipment for horses. But led by the inventions of the late Jean Nolle, workers in recent decades have discovered that putting greater comfort into the yoke, the harness, and other equipment helps the ox do significantly more work.
Common sense tells us that when an animal is comfortable doing his work, he can pull more weight longer without tiring just as you can carry a heavy backpack longer if it's designed so the straps are kind to your shoulders. Only recently have modern designers taken advantage of this while designing ox equipment.
Sometimes certain types of equipment gain popularity because of tradition and aesthetic appeal, but testing shows that an uncomfortable ox works with less power. The head yoke was formerly popular in parts of Europe because it provides easy control for animals, requiring a minimum of training. Unfortunately, what is gained in ease of training appears lost in working efficiency. Comparing the head yoke with a three-padded German ox collar designed for ox comfort, researcher Rolf Minhorst found that when the oxen used the ox collar their efficiency went up 21% for plowing, 58% for pulling a double-hitch wagon, and 71% for pulling a single-hitch cart.
So modern researchers are beginning to discover the same principle Krsna showed long ago: both human beings and animals benefit when we pay careful attention to the comfort of the cow and the bull. Srila Prabhupada notes, "When the bull and the cow are in a joyful mood, it is to be understood that the people of the world are also in a joyful mood."
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.