Switzerland is perhaps the only country apart from India to have cows on its national agenda. While the Indian government contemplates giving cows unique identity numbers, come Sunday, the Swiss will vote on the practice of removing cow horns.

Earlier this month, I found myself at a Swiss Hornfest, a horn festival and campaign event for the vote, held on a beautiful cow farm. There was a comedian, a cow beauty contest and lots of beef.

Armin Capaul was the star. A farmer from the mountains near the capital Bern, Capaul spearheads the Hornkuh (literally, horned cow) initiative. He wears a flowing beard and a colourful hat. Sitting against the backdrop of a meadow with horned cows, he told me, “Horns are organs with blood vessels. Dehorning causes cows great distress. This deeply moved me. I wrote to the agriculture ministry. They asked me to talk about something more relevant.”

Capaul wasn’t discouraged. He took the law into his own hands. In Switzerland’s direct democracy system, any citizen can propose new legislation. The catch is that they must collect 1,00,000 signatures in favour of the proposed law. The agriculture ministry didn’t quite expect Capaul to convince so many people. He did better, collecting 120,000 signatures. His agenda does not call for a blanket ban on dehorning, a cruel procedure. Instead, he proposes that farmers who let their cows keep horns be given a subsidy of one Swiss franc (around Rs 70) per cow per day.

Brigitte Egger, a feisty activist and ecologist, is one of the people that Capaul convinced to support his proposal. “Only 20% of Swiss cows have horns today,” Egger said. “To amputate animals for economic reasons is scandalous.” Some farmers, however, have been resisting Hornkuh because horned cows need more space and are supposedly more violent.

Armin Capaul is leading the campaign against dehorning of cows. Photo credit: Esther Michel

After the comedian at the festival had milked all possible cow puns in his Swiss German dialect, I got talking to Walter Schluep, a passionate organic farmer. In 29 years of cow farming, he said, he has never been butted by a cow. But he has been kicked. “Does that mean you cut off the cow’s legs?” he asked. “These are real animals, not a piece of meat.”

Capaul, Egger and Schluep are arguing for a more traditional way of farming in which farmers are intimately connected with their animals. But will this campaign resonate with the average Swiss voter?

Kaspar Schuler is Capaul’s jovial campaign manager. As the former head of Greenpeace Switzerland, he has campaigned against atomic energy. He admitted that Hornkuh is the most unusual campaign he has worked on. Will it succeed? “It might,” he replied, “because Capaul is stubborn. And deeply moved by the issue.”

Egger is also hopeful. “The right to launch an initiative is a precious political tool,” she said. “Even if the initiative is not accepted, it will have brought a hot subject to public attention. Our direct democracy is less about favouring the tyranny of the majority than about reinforcing the different minorities.”

The Hornfest was enlivened by a comedian, a cow beauty contest, and lots of beef. Photo credit: Christof Schaefer

Cows are holy here too’

At the festival, cheers and alphorn sounds broke out in celebration as the winner of the beauty contest was declared. A cow bell was rung to signal it was time to meet the winner. As we walked around the farm and met the beauty queen cow, the farmer guiding the tour launched into a long speech about the art of curing beef. “Himalayan salt is just better,” he told the crowd.

How do the Swiss hold the contradiction between love and lunch so lightly? I asked, curious. Schuler was straightforward: “We love cows. We eat cows.”

I asked Capaul if he sees this as a contradiction. “If you want milk, cows need to calve,” he said. “If we don’t kill some, soon there’ll be more calves than people in Switzerland. If you treat them well all their lives, it’s better their death serves a purpose in feeding people.”

When it is time to take one of his cows to the butcher, Capaul speaks to her and prepares her for what is to come. “The native American hunters talked to animals before killing them,” he explained. “The only difference is that I can kill them much faster today.”

His wife, Claudia Capaul, an elegant lady with a long grey braid, chipped in: “Cows are holy here too. We just don’t say it explicitly.”

The Capauls and their tribe may represent an alternative community, but cows have always been an important part of Swiss culture. In the harsh alpine environment of central Switzerland, it’s difficult to grow crops. So, the people reared cows for milk, cheese and meat. Customs like ceremonial cow processions when seasons change evolved out of the central economic role cows played in Swiss life. Today, as soon as you arrive at the Zurich airport, you are greeted with simulated cow mooing.

Cheers and alphorn sounds broke out in celebration as the winner of the cow beauty contest was declared at the festival. Photo credit: Christof Schaefer

Peter Jaeggi, a journalist who has written a German book on the holy cows of India, said in Switzerland “a cow is something to eat”. The reason 120,000 people have still signed up to Capaul’s proposed law is “they care about the dignity of animals and yearn to be closer to nature”. The horn, for the urban voters, is a symbol of that.

Switzerland, as India, has its share of what would elsewhere be seen as quirky ways of treating the cow. While some Indians pray to cows and feed them ritually, the Swiss provide them acupuncture treatments, paid for by the state, and even bras.

Unlike the Swiss, however, Indians abandon unproductive dairy cows, a problem exacerbated by the shutting down of abattoirs as Uttar Pradesh did last year. Such cow protection measures perhaps only prolong the suffering of the animal. It also raises the question of whether India’s cow vigilantes really care about the welfare of the animal or merely use it for political gain.

It is no secret the meat and dairy industry worldwide is cruel to cattle. But, perhaps, Capaul best embodies how to unhypocritically love the cow in today’s world. In fact, he is the only “cow vigilante” I am happy to endorse. Even if he is eating schnitzel tonight.

Yamini Deenadayalan is a Jungian analyst in training at the International School of Analytical Psychology in Zurich.