Why vegans don’t wear leather and you shouldn’t either

End Animal Slaughter’s Sandra Kyle has been visiting India for more than twenty-five years, and has recently returned from her latest trip. In the second of a series of articles for this website on the state of animals in India, she looks at illegal trafficking of cattle, and the rise of leather production in Kerala and Bangladesh.

One of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen is the Indian cow.  Imposing in size, but with a sweet, docile and curious nature, the native breed is most commonly light in colour, although there are brown and pied cows as well.   A distinguishing feature of the true Brahman cow is the distinctive hump, evolved over time to help the animal survive in hot, arid conditions.   These animals are well-proportioned, with floppy ears, large upcurving horns, and enormous expressive eyes and long straight eyelashes.  

Revered by Hindus as ‘sacred’, the Indian cow is also called  “Mother” because she provides milk and, literally, the skin off her back.  Yet this beautiful, gentle animal who gives so much is egregiously treated by the very people who revere her. While it is mainly Christians and Muslims who carry out the trafficking, slaughter and leather processing, it is Hindus who sell their cattle to the traffickers. The whole sordid story is one of cruelty and corruption of the most egregious kind.

Nearly twenty years ago an expose by PETA first brought the problem to light. This created a scandal that saw celebrities such as Chrissie Hynd, Sir Paul McCartney, and the Dalai Llama calling for an end to the trafficking.

The problem with illegal trafficking began in the 1990s, when the Hindu nationalist party (BJP) came to power. When protection for the cow was enhanced,  including heavy restrictions around slaughter, an almost entirely clandestine trade in cows for beef and leather began.  This illegal trafficking was mainly to Christian Kerala in the far South (where cow slaughter is still legal) and neighbouring  Bangladesh, a Muslim nation.   While regulations exist, widespread bribery and corruption by government officials and veterinary surgeons means that they are not enforced.

Prominent Indian Animal Rights activist and veteran campaigner Mrs Meneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Children in the Narendra Modi government, said at the time of the initial expose in 2000:   “There is a huge amount of trafficking of cattle to both West Bengal and Kerala.  The ones going to West Bengal go by truck and train and they go by the millions. The law says you cannot transport more than 4 per truck but they are putting in up to 70. When they go by train, each wagon is supposed to hold 80 to 100, but they cram in up to 900. I’ve seen 900 cows coming out of the wagon of a train, and 400 to 500 of them came out dead.”

‘The cattle are unloaded just before Calcutta, at Howrah, then beaten and taken across to Bangladesh by road. Bangladesh, which has no cows of its own, is the biggest beef exporter in the region. Between 10,000 and 15,000 cows go across that border every day. You can make out the route taken by the trucks by the trail of blood they leave behind.”

When their destination is Kerala,  the cows are taken on foot, tens of thousands per day, to slaughterhouses  on the border.  “Because they have walked and walked and walked the cattle have lost a lot of weight, so to increase the weight and the amount of money they will receive, the traffickers make them drink water laced with copper sulphate, which destroys their kidneys and makes it impossible for them to pass the water – so when they are weighed they have 15kg of water inside them and are in extreme agony,” Mrs Gandhi stated.

“It’s a hideous journey,” wrote PETA President, Ingred Newkirk, who followed a caravan of cows to Kerala.   “To keep them moving, drivers beat the animal across their hip bones, where there is no fat to cushion the blows. The cows are not allowed to rest or drink. Many cows sink to their knees. Drivers beat them and twist their battered tails to force them to rise. If that doesn’t work they torment the cows into moving by rubbing hot chilli peppers and tobacco into their eyes.”

When they finally make it to the slaughterhouses, the PETA investigation revealed,  they were  slaughtered with repeated hammer blows, which beat their skulls to a pulp. 

It is a devastating  story, and  the worst of it is that it is still happening today.  

I recently watched a video that took a look at tanneries on the India-Bangladeshi border.   Skins are acquired by the tanneries from neighbouring slaughterhouses, and processed by employees working under appalling conditions.     These places are swelteringly hot, and there is an ever-present pungent stench from toxic chemicals used to process the hides. The poorest of the poor work in this industry, including innocent children who also handle the chemicals. Eventually the waste spills out into the streets and then into the waterways, making them black and viscous. Humans, fish and other animals all become sick or die as a result of this industry.

Another shocking revelation in the video I watched were images of a buyer for an Italian shoe company walking around and inspecting the hides. In subsequent shots we saw shoes  being placed in boxes with an Italian brandname, to be packaged and exported to Europe.The illegal trafficking of cattle, their treatment, slaughter, and processing of their hides for leather is a story of unbelievable cruelty, but also poverty, greed and ignorance. It is also a story of unethical employers who exploit their labour, and wealthy international companies who perpetuate the misery in order to profit from their immoral gains.

There is so much misery  tied up with cattle meat and leather in India. Animals transported in punishing conditions who are whipped and beaten as they travel to their destination. Primitive and barbaric slaughter methods in unregulated slaughterhouses.   Unsanitary conditions and poor pay for workers, including children.  A toxic environment that makes people and animals alike sick.  

This is the chain of production of some Italian-brand shoes and no doubt many other High Street brands.     It is why vegans don’t wear leather, and why non-vegans shouldn’t either.

Worker in a toxic Bangladeshi tannery