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Vultures to Return to Mumbai, to Eat the Dead
November 30, 2012 1:17 PM   Subscribe

The Mumbai Parsi community is hoping to return vultures to their traditional and religious role of eating the dead by building aviaries near the Towers of Silence where the Zoroastrian dead are laid out to be stripped clean by vultures. For the past fifteen years, there have been barely a dozen vultures in Mumbai, and members of the community have increasingly turned to cremation (especially during the rainy season), which the religion considers unclean. The community hopes to have vultures return to eating the dead by February 2014.

Vultures have died off in massive numbers in India due to the use of diclofenac in animals, which causes kidney failure in vultures who feed on the animal corpses. The Parsi community is one of two Zoroastrian communities in India, the last remaining stronghold of what was once the largest religion in the world, whose origins date to at least the 6th century BCE. Dead bodies are considered unclean in Zoroastrianism; to prevent the pollution of the sacred elements of earth (burial) or fire (cremation), Parsis prefer to have their corpses consumed by vultures, which can be done in as little as two hours with a large flock.

A link (from the NYTimes article) to some drawings and photographs of Towers of Silence. (Some of these images are graphic images of large numbers of dead bodies in various states of decomposition. The graphic images are at the end of the page and there is a text warning that you're about to view graphic images.)

A 1928 description of the funerary customs of the Parsi community.

Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran. These are not currently in use as the practice is not currently legal in Iran.

Very brief clip
of vultures circling the Tower of Silence in Mumbai.

Instructions for having a Parsi body returned to India for disposal rites, including some of the theology of the body and of the practice of exposure.

Previously on Metafilter.

Bonus link: Cute baby vulture
posted by Eyebrows McGee (38 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting. Here's some more info on the diclofenac thing, since the NYT article doesn't mention it at all, instead blaming "an infectious disease not yet identified..."
posted by Wretch729 at 1:24 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fascinating! I don't have time to read all of this right now, but thanks for posting it!
posted by asnider at 1:25 PM on November 30, 2012


Shoot, I missed a major link I meant to include, that triggered the post. Mods, can you add this link to "return vultures to their traditional and religion role" above the fold? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/world/asia/cultivating-vultures-to-restore-a-mumbai-ritual.html
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:27 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am a turkey vulture. Yes indeed!
posted by ChuraChura at 1:31 PM on November 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


[Added missing link, carry on. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 1:33 PM on November 30, 2012


Required link: Cute baby vulture
Fixed that for you.

posted by RolandOfEld at 1:35 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


in the "drawings and photographs" link, the structures themselves look really cool in the context of that unforgiving landscape.

and then i got to the dead bodies and was like, oh. right. not pretty.
posted by twist my arm at 1:37 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Random vulture fact: The vultures of asia/europe/africa are unrelated to the vultures of the americas.

Also: Picked Clean By Vultures is going to be the name of my new death metal band.
posted by mcstayinskool at 1:39 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


There was a Sandman story called Cerements that centered around this.
posted by empath at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm gonna suggest one of these to the next county planning commission meeting. It's so Green it hurts.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:16 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


As long as they behead me first. Just to be sure
posted by crayz at 2:18 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a Young Indiana Jones novel (#5, The Princess of Peril) that centered around this.
posted by Iridic at 2:22 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm putting this second on the list of what to do with my remains after "Freeze for later resurrection if affordable."
posted by Drinky Die at 3:17 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I honestly hope that if I ever just drop dead here at home, someone discovers it immediately after the dogs and cats have finished me off.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:29 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting. Very neat.

Ed Abbey would approve.
posted by entropone at 3:31 PM on November 30, 2012


I find this whole idea oddly non-distressing.

Then on the other hand it could be that I've been hanging out with a weirdly ornery four-year-old for several hours and being picked apart by vultures is starting to look pretty good.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:41 PM on November 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


From a the article

But then came diclofenac, a common painkiller widely used in hospitals to lessen the pain of the dying. Marketed under names like Voltaren, it is similar to the medicines found in Advil and Aleve; in 1993 its use in India was approved in cattle. Soon after, vultures began dying in huge numbers because the drug causes them to suffer irreversible kidney failure.
posted by the noob at 3:42 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some recent and relatively good news about vulture numbers.
posted by cromagnon at 3:43 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Once again, I fail to follow the rule of the internets: "Never read the comments, especially if they're linked to Facebook".

On a weirder note, why do the birds leave so many...bits...behind on the walkways? It was a little messier than I expected. Is that because of the reduced vulture numbers, or is there a state of putrefaction beyond which even vultures won't snack on meat?
posted by zinful at 3:50 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


On a weirder note, why do the birds leave so many...bits...behind on the walkways? It was a little messier than I expected.

If I recall, the sheer messiness of the practice is described humorously in Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:04 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember reading an article about the Towers of Silence that said that there are two sorts of vultures - one prefers to eat in situ (and this is the species that the Parsis generally used, if you can call it that) and another that prefers to carry off tidbits (often dropping pieces in flight) which was lead to some rather horrible surprises in peoples backyards.

Of course I can't find the article now. Hope me, someone?
posted by ninazer0 at 4:18 PM on November 30, 2012


[Added missing link, carry on. ]
Or rather: "Added missing link, carrion." I mean come on!
posted by funkiwan at 5:09 PM on November 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


Fascinating comment about witnessing a sky burial in Tibet.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I recall once driving past a funeral home in Queens with a billboard proclaiming how they CATER TO ALL FAITHS and sporting pictorial logos for various faiths. A cross, a star of David, a crescent, an ohm, et cetera.

And no Ahura Mazda.

I was so disappointed.
posted by ocschwar at 5:53 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


The fellow that discovered the diclofenac/vulture death link was a faculty member at my vet school and someone I knew (not terribly well--he was a grad student when I was a vet student). He was a pretty amazing guy. Sadly, he died in 2011. His obituary (pdf)is here.

The paper in question can be found here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v427/n6975/abs/nature02317.html (paywall, but you can get the gist.)
posted by marmot at 6:13 PM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ocswhwar, there used to be a cemetary I passed on the way to and from college in Texas that had a billboard advertising "Compassionate Care Till the End of Time." Now that's committment.

I couldn't find any good sources as to why Indian cattle need so much diclofenac treatment (it is apparently banned for vet use but commonly bought for humans and used illegally). Are these food cattle (in India??) or working animals...maybe the owners are trying to get a few more weeks or months out of sick animals to save money?
posted by emjaybee at 6:13 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's really sad. One, even as an atheist, I think it's pretty awful when environmental ambivalence gets in the way of sacred practices. Two, even as an atheist, the idea that one's recumbent redundant meat will go to feed creatures of the sky is a lovely metaphor in which I do not believe has any practical ramifications but has great aesthetic and emotional benefits. The fact that the poisoning, previously via dead livestock, is as great an issue w. human vulture fodder does indeed suggest the need to look more closely at pain management for the ill and dying when a possible vulture "burial" is in order.
posted by smirkette at 6:37 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not sure how I personally feel about this. I kind of lean toward the Viking funeral pyre at sea. Or even the post-mortem forensics field described by Mary Roach in Stiff. That seemed sort of pleasant -- just mouldering away in the sunshine while the worms play pinochle on your snout.
posted by amanda at 6:39 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: putrefaction beyond which even vultures won't snack
posted by jcworth at 6:43 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sounds like someone needs an expert in the care and feeding of vultures. I hear Mitt Romney's looking for work.
posted by problemspace at 8:46 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Too soon.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:00 PM on November 30, 2012


I couldn't find any good sources as to why Indian cattle need so much diclofenac treatment (it is apparently banned for vet use but commonly bought for humans and used illegally). Are these food cattle (in India??) or working animals...maybe the owners are trying to get a few more weeks or months out of sick animals to save money?

Looks like they're livestock, and that it's not just in Mumbai.(paywall) I shouldn't have been, but was, surprised to see one of the other known cascades of effects this has had on the Indian environment. Truly, we are all one.
posted by knile at 12:46 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fantastic information on the reasons we NEED vultures! I did not realize vultures destroyed so many disease organisms. I knew its bad to have dead animals lying about. Horribly bad, I had considered the dog and rat multiplication angle, but the incursions of leopards into cities was something which did not occur to me.
Vultures have been hunted to near extinction in Bosnia - Hercegovina and there are locals trying to help them make a come-back.

Who knew the same chemical was also so bad for rainbow trout?

I hope that vultures can be restored to their proper place in nature. They are an important animal.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:29 AM on December 1, 2012


Does this mean that henceforward, after busting our asses on google to craft together the perfect "highly unusual yet intriguing and mysterious topic" we now have to end it with images of cute juvenile animals in order to reach the populace?
posted by infini at 10:56 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


When the zombie apocalypse comes, I am totally hanging out with the vultures. Nothing will make falconry badass again like vengeful vultures swooping in hungry waves upon the undead, while the falconers hang back and feed tasty zombie scraps to their fluffy baby Sid Vicious vultures. Aww!
posted by nicebookrack at 12:33 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


knile, since I can't read the whole paywalled article, what I am wondering is why are the cattle so sick that they need diclofenac? Is it feed lot conditions, something endemic to any kind of cattle raising, or what?
posted by emjaybee at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2012


knile, since I can't read the whole paywalled article, what I am wondering is why are the cattle so sick that they need diclofenac? Is it feed lot conditions, something endemic to any kind of cattle raising, or what?
I've only skimmed it, as I didn't have access to it over the weekend, but somewhat surprisingly I do from the office. This quote from the article sort of answers your question:
Diclofenac prevalence was higher in cows than in water buffaloes and other species, higher in female than male animals, higher at carcass dumps than at slaughterhouses and increased with advancing age. The logistic regression model indicated that these were all significant separate effects and not attributable to correlations among the explanatory variables. These differences might be as expected, as older animals are perhaps more likely to need treatment for injuries and diseases, and since slaughtered animals may be those specifically reared to provide meat and may be healthier than the average. Veterinarians also report that NSAIDs (including diclofenac) are commonly administered in combination with antibiotics to treat mastitis in lactating female cows and water buffalo.
Folks can feel free to memail me with any other detailed questions about the article, but IANA cattleologist or environmental scientist.
posted by knile at 3:32 AM on December 3, 2012


Awww. This post gave me the 'warm fuzzies' for several reasons, that a species threatened in this area is being brought back, to dispose of bodies in an environmentally respectful way, but that most of all, these people will now be able to respect and honour their deceased loved ones in the way that they would have wanted. Smirkette put it well.
Coming off a couple of funerals in the last 2 months, I can really understand that impulse.

Part of me is questioning it - dead bodies! Vultures! You even saw the pictures of bodies!
But nope, it still seems a very sweet and caring thing to do.
posted by Elysum at 12:06 AM on December 7, 2012


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