Correct, the ancient Vedic culture actively advocates and promotes cow protection.
There are a few reasons for why the cow is considered holy:
Traditional Deity worship required pancagavya, or five ingredients, which are cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee, and curd. Cow dung has antiseptic properties, cow urine has medicinal properties, milk is nutritious, ghee is required for fire yajnas, and curd is made into many preparations which are then offered to the Deities as part of worship.
Traditional Vedic culture also lists the cow as one of the seven mothers.
Krishna is worshiped as protector of the cows by Vedic mantras, specifically:
namo brahmanya devaya
go-brahmana hitaya ca
govindaya no namaha
Unfortunately, there is little, if any, environmental regulations in India, and cows are often neglected as well.
I know in Vrindavana, a prominent holy place, there has been an active campaign to stop the use of all plastic bags within the city, and there are a few organizations which take in stray cows and rehabilitate them.
According to one version of Pushkar yajna story, because of absence of Savitri for the yajna, Brahma married Gurjar girl, Gayatri. Gayatri got purified by Cow's womb to be worthy to be wife of Brahma. After Savitri ( Srasvati in some versions) arrival, she cursed everyone responsible of yajna. She also cursed Cow to get unholy waste as food in Kaliyuga.
Endowed by the powers of yajna, Gayatri diluted Savitri's curse, and said that whatever Cow will eat in Kaliyuga, she will still treated as holy.
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