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It could have been a roundup in the Wild West, but it was in the heart of New Delhi.

As eight "cowboys" stalked it with lassos, the cow bolted across a road and triggered an accident before it jumped a 5-foot wall and disappeared.A motorbike trying to avoid the cow slammed on its breaks and crashed onto its side, its driver nearly run over by a speeding car.

"See that?" yelled Akash Ghosh, one of the "cowboys," or city animal catchers. "This happens all the time."

This year's heavy monsoon rains have brought tens of thousands of cattle into the streets of India's capital, where they stare serenely at drivers and snarl up traffic.

Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, and few drivers dare toot their horns at them or gently bump them with the fender.

So it is left to the city's 120 cattle catchers to deal with the cows and bulls who saunter down busy streets and laze on the narrow traffic islands.

"We suffer from the Holy Cow syndrome," said Maxwell Pereira, the city's traffic police chief. "Not a soul takes the pain to move the cows off the road - they all skirt around them."

The sight of a lassoed cow being forced into a government truck often arouses public anger and sometimes violence.

Anirudha Kumar, a veteran city cowboy, recalls one cow that climbed up to the second story of a government building to escape capture. "There were hundreds of employees there, but no one helped us. Instead they called us butchers and evil men."

No one knows exactly how many cattle are in this city of 9 million humans. All year, they are seen poking through garbage or munching grass in the many open spaces and parks.

During the rainy season from June to September, even more wander onto the highways when low-lying areas become slushy and thick with flies and mosquitoes.

Most are scrawny humpbacked Brahman cattle too old to be useful and are owned by poor people who kept them for milk. Often, they are let loose to fend for themselves or die, since they cannot be killed.

It's not just the poor who keep cattle.

Many ministers and members of Parliament keep cows in the yards of their sprawling government houses.

Devi Lal, a former deputy prime minister, keeps a dozen.

Hindus call the cow the "gau mata" or the milk-giving "mother" associated with the gods and goddesses of mythology. The bull was said to be the steed of Shiva, the god of destruction.

Most religious Hindus won't touch meat or leather, and cattle slaughter is illegal in all but two of India's 25 states.

From January to August, municipal authorities impounded 10,677 cattle and collected more than $53,000 in fines from owners.

Fines range from $10 to $16 and not all owners can afford to pay them. Cows that are too old to give milk often remain unclaimed and are auctioned or set free.

Police say they have no statistics on how many accidents involve cows, but they must be legion, judging by the number of people telling cow-bumping stories.

Any motorist who hits a cow risks attack from angry Hindus. Most drivers would leave a wounded animal on the road and flee.

Many accidents happen on poorly lit streets at night, but "by the morning neither the cow nor the driver is around to tell you what happened," said Pereira, the traffic cop.