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How pets helped Indians get through the pandemic

Pets may have been abandoned during the pandemic but there has also been an increase in the rescue, fostering and adoption of street animals. Lounge meets some of the troopers who went the extra mile

Kappi and Luna in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park with Shruti Raghuraman. Courtesy: Tarun Saldanha.
Kappi and Luna in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park with Shruti Raghuraman. Courtesy: Tarun Saldanha.

The last time Job Koshy had a pet was when he was eight or 10 years old. “We had a Dobermann puppy who lived with my family for five years,” says the Bengaluru-based edutech professional, now 33 and a father of two. “He was my best friend and died while saving my mother from a viper.” Koshy did not get another dog for years. Then the pandemic struck, and the stars aligned to change his resolve.

Not far from Koshy’s home, Reena Puri had found a litter of stray puppies, which were being abused by the locals. “One puppy was killed in an accident, two were paralysed,” says the senior editor at Amar Chitra Katha. She rescued the pair and took them home. “For the first few days, they just held each other and cuddled,” she says.

After a week of homoeopathic treatment, they were well enough to walk. That’s when Puri put out the word for adoption. “I have been fostering for 35 years but most of the animals I have taken in have ended up staying with me—only a few have been adopted,” she says. This time she got lucky. When Koshy chanced upon a photograph of the puppies, something stirred within him. “I remembered how much I had loved growing up with a dog and I wanted my children to have the same experience,” he says. And just like that, little Jasper joined the Koshy family.

Not many indies (as strays or street dogs are also called) have such a happy ending. In fact, most Indians tend to be averse to adopting them, preferring pedigreed animals instead. “When people think of getting pets, they think of them as companions or status symbols. Instead, they should care for pets as they would for their own children,” Puri says. Indies are usually hardier than foreign dogs and genetically far better suited to Indian living conditions. “Jasper is not only a very friendly dog, he is also extremely adaptable and low-maintenance,” Koshy says.

As with every aspect of life, covid-19 has affected our relationship with the animals around us, at home or on the streets. Several animal shelters as well as people who foster and rescue animals from across India spoke to Lounge about an uptick of interest in taking in dogs and cats, either for fostering or as pets. Abhishek Joshi, a digital marketing professional based in the National Capital Region (NCR), has been running an online community for adoption called Dog With Blog since 2010. He says messages offering to foster have quadrupled on his social media accounts. “Many people are working from home now and have more time to foster or adopt. There is also a belief that these activities may help counter depression and loneliness.”

Jasper with Job Koshy’s family and Reena Puri (right).
Jasper with Job Koshy’s family and Reena Puri (right).

Beyond anecdotal evidence, scientific studies, including a recent one conducted by the University of York, UK, have shown that pets can positively influence the mental health of their owners. But the pandemic has brought out the flip side of it too. In July, The Times Of India reported instances of pet abandonment, partly due to their owners’ (misplaced) fears of contracting the virus from them, or because the stress of being confined all day at home with the whole family and the pet had got the better of them.

Tandrali Kuli of Friendicoes, an animal shelter and welfare organisation in the NCR, says they typically rescue 30-50 dogs every month—from places as far as Meerut, Bulandshahr, Bijnor—and the number hasn’t changed much since the pandemic. “Many people are fine as long as the puppies are in their cute phase. But they run out of patience as the dogs outgrow it and enter their destructive phase,” she adds. Apart from the food bills and vet visits, a pet demands time, attention and emotional support, which may be in short supply as and when the work-from-home period ends. For people not fully sure about being a full-time pet parent, fostering may be a more sensible option, rather than impulsively adopting a pet just to fill the lean days of the pandemic.

Animals, however, also bring out the best in us—and the pandemic has proved it many times over. In the early days of the lockdown, as millions of migrant workers set out on foot from cities to walk back vast distances to their homes in villages and towns, heart-breaking images of despair and suffering emerged. Amid those scenes, there were men and women trudging with their meagre belongings and an assortment of pets they loved and cared for—dogs, cats, ducks and rabbits.

“They would never part from their pets, whatever may come their way,” Rajesh Natraj, an animal rescuer in Mumbai, told the Hindustan Times, after migrant workers turned down his offer of fostering the animals while they were away. “They said they leave their families back home and come here to work, and all they get in return is disrespect. They can’t trust anyone with their pets, they told us, and kept walking.”

There were other troopers, too, fostering, feeding, caring for and adopting street animals, their acts of daily kindness keeping the embers of humanity burning.

Lockdown love affairs

Moneesh Nair, 28, a Bengaluru-based publishing professional and parent to four cats, was perturbed, like millions of others, when the prime minister announced a lockdown at short notice in March. It wasn’t so much himself that he was worried about, though. “So many animals around us feed on the trash from hotels, restaurants and pushcart vendors every day,” he says. “I immediately thought they would go without any food if the city shut down completely.”

Nair swung into action. A vegan, he not only quickly learnt to cook for himself but also for the four-legged carnivores on the streets of his neighbourhood. “I would go to the butchers and buy chicken feet, neck and other parts they don’t usually sell,” he says. “Then I would boil these bits with chicken stock and mix them with rice.” In the final stage of the preparation, he would collect empty delivery containers from friends all over the city, sent over to his house via Dunzo, ladle out portions into these bowls, borrow a scooter and drive around central Bengaluru, leaving the meals for dogs and cats. Carrying several litres of water and food in bulk wasn’t easy. Soon, a few locals, who saw Nair at work every day, also started leaving water for the strays in bowls.

An information ecosystem of humans and animals has long coexisted on the streets of India. (Getty Images)
An information ecosystem of humans and animals has long coexisted on the streets of India. (Getty Images)

Feeding street animals in India can be tricky business, even though a loose ecosystem of dogs, cats, crows, cows and humans has coexisted harmoniously in the open since ancient times. Being kind to animals is a tenet of many religions. Dogs, in particular, have a storied presence in the history of the subcontinent. One of the earliest images of a man walking a dog on a leash, believed to have been made between 10,000-7,000 BC, appears on the walls of the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh. Dogs are also mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the Vedas and Upanishads.

In spite of such ancient ties, modern India’s relationship with strays remains fraught. There is a spirited opposition from sections of people to feeding street dogs, for a variety of reasons, not least because they are believed to be a threat to public health and safety. The National Health Portal estimates around 20,000 deaths due to rabies every year, with a majority having contracted the disease after being bitten by rabid dogs. Strays are also known to attack pets. But it’s not fair to point fingers at the animals alone—the entire machinery of civic governance is responsible for this menace, having failed to control the stray dog population through sterilisation and immunisation.

In a recent article in The Indian Express (Gone To The Dogs), journalist Coomi Kapoor blamed a range of stakeholders—from the Animal Welfare Board of India to those who feed strays—for street dogs becoming a real public nuisance. The piece unleashed a torrent of responses, from both pro- and anti-feeding lobbies, reigniting a long-drawn debate, with each side defending its stance forcefully.

For instance, Sanjukta Lal, who volunteers with Bark India, a charitable trust for street dogs in Puducherry, feeds roughly 150 canines every day in the city and firmly stands by her mission. The 67-year-old has faced the antagonism of neighbours over the 11-odd years she has been taking care of the dogs of Puducherry. “Why don’t you feed children on the streets instead of dogs, they ask me,” Lal says, referring to her critics. “Why don’t you do that, I tell them, while I feed my dogs? Unlike humans, dogs can’t work and earn money to buy food.”

During the lockdown, Lal says every household in her neighbourhood started feeding three or four strays each day, probably because people heeded the call of the prime minister, who had urged the nation to champion indie dogs. Lal’s routine, though, remained largely unchanged. On a typical day, she leaves her house at 10pm and spends the next several hours with the canine population, feeding them, administering spot treatment and medicines, until 2-3am.

“I get the dogs vaccinated, dewormed, gain their trust and have them sterilised,” Lal says. “I treat them as though they are my own home pets.” Since she lives in a modest flat with five cats, taking in dogs is not ideal, though Lal has given refuge to ill or disabled dogs temporarily, cured them and released them in the streets to allow them to live out the rest of their days. Sadly, unlike Lal, most kind-hearted Samaritans who feed strays don’t take the next step of getting them sterilised.

Lal and Nair belong to a tribe of animal lovers who don’t think twice before caring for strays, in spite of public disapproval or personal costs. Nair, for example, took in a fifth (skinny and malnourished) cat he named Sphinx, during the pandemic. “I had to take him to the vet daily for 12 days straight,” he says. Friends pitched in to help with the bills, and his reporting manager was supportive about him taking time out. In the end, Sphinx was diagnosed with diabetes, which means Nair has to administer insulin injections to it each day—even though he himself has a phobia of needles.

A moment from an adoption campaign organised by the Bangalore Cat Squad. (Courtesy: Bangalore Cat Squad)
A moment from an adoption campaign organised by the Bangalore Cat Squad. (Courtesy: Bangalore Cat Squad)

Sanjana Govindan of the Bangalore Cat Squad, a foster network run by 70-odd volunteers, shares similar love stories of people who have come forward to foster during the pandemic. “We have placed cats with spinal injuries with those who work in sports medicine,” she says. “Thanks to our wide network of vets, we were also able to offer remote consultations to pet parents who couldn’t reach their local vets.”

At its most basic, fostering is an intensely humane act. “As a foster parent, you are helping save a life,” says Bengaluru-based Aparna Kapur, who works in children’s publishing and has been fostering for the last 10 years. “I have left standing instructions with friends that I am ready to foster any moment.” So far, she has fostered four dogs and five kittens. It has been intense and exacting each time. From staying up all night to feed the animals to checking their poop to see if the worms have disappeared, Kapur tends to get obsessed with her parenting duties. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to adopt yet,” she laughs.

Even though Kapur’s round-the-clock devotion may not be the norm, it is essential to have a degree of commitment for fostering. “It has to make sense for the human as well as the animal,” says Shiv Patel, 21, from Bengaluru, currently studying in London. “You have to be able to give the dog or cat, especially rescues who have gone through physical and psychological trauma, the time and space to decompress.”

Patel had been visiting his local animal shelter as an after-school activity since the age of 11. He would pet and groom the animals there, help with vet visits and encourage people to adopt, not buy, puppies. “Although I have grown up with dogs, I have been fostering only for the last three years,” he says. Bringing a new dog into his already crowded family home of four humans and seven pets in Bengaluru is not easy, but Patel has embraced the challenge several times.

One of his early fosters was Pachino, a 12-year-old Beagle, which had been released from a testing laboratory. “He had no exposure to the outside world. He didn’t know how to climb stairs, had never stepped on grass, or felt the sunlight on his face,” Patel says. “I was able to show him love for the first time in his life. He remained a happy dog until he passed on two years later.”

Fostering involves much more than looking after an animal, though. If there’s one worry that sits on every foster parent’s mind, it is the duty of finding them a loving home—a family that will care for them come what may. And foster parents of indies face the roughest time when it comes to getting their babies adopted.

Fostering involves much more than looking after an animal (Courtesy: Friendicoes/Facebook)
Fostering involves much more than looking after an animal (Courtesy: Friendicoes/Facebook)

Puppies and prejudice

Official numbers are hard to come by but multiple sources estimate 35-40 million indies live on India’s streets. Yet, as far as pets go, many Indians still tend to opt for so-called “pedigree dogs”, often acquiring them for exorbitant prices from illegal breeders. This preference for certain species is tied to prejudices of class and status that run deep among India’s privileged.

Ahona Sen, a musician who lives in Kolkata and fosters rescue puppies, says she has always found it hard to get indies adopted because of the perception that they are not pretty or “unique looking”. “Even among people who are willing to take indies, some do not want female dogs because they menstruate,” she adds. “These days, I try to make my foster dogs look more photogenic on my social media posts.”

Sen has got 24 puppies adopted in the 11 years she has been taking care of animals on the streets. In 2009, on her first day at Presidency College (now University) in Kolkata, she chanced upon a litter of puppies and started feeding them. “My mother used to pack food for them,” she says. “She still feeds 30-40 dogs in her neighbourhood every day.” During the pandemic, Sen has taken in several puppies, even though she lives in an apartment with her in-laws. She is working hard to get them adopted, sending out daily missives on her social media and WhatsApp groups.

“It’s like a full-time job, not something you can take or give up when you feel like it,” Sen says. “Fostering has to be a sustainable activity, not a fleeting whim.” If she has to travel for work, she enlists the help of security guards in her building to feed the street dogs she cares for. Joshi, too, has circulated numbers among residents welfare association security staff in various parts of the NCR and asked them to call with news of any injured or distressed dogs. Thanks to his pan-Indian network and social media reach, he is usually able to arrange for fostering or adoption quickly.

“But before we give away a dog for fostering or adoption, we have a checklist of questions,” Joshi says. “Starting with the assurance that the whole family is fine with having a pet.” From who will walk the dog every day to the person assigned to take it for vet visits, to the financial condition of the family, a thorough background check is carried out. Most shelters and foster parents follow a version of the same routine.

“For sick puppies and dogs, we arrange for medical care and pre-adoption meetings,” says Kuli. Friendicoes also has a team of in-house vets who can be consulted for the treatment of any dog adopted from there. Volunteers of the Bangalore Cat Squad conduct induction sessions on video to help new pet parents. “Over the years, we have a network of local auto-drivers in the city who help out with picking up sick cats and transporting them to the vets,” says Govindan.

Joshi and his volunteer network used to conduct surprise home visits before the pandemic. Now they have to be satisfied with weekly video calls. Before adoption, people also have to sign a legal document, which holds them accountable in case of abandonment or cruelty towards the animal. In case they cannot keep the dog for some reason, Joshi has a standing offer to take it back. “I just don’t want them to abandon it,” he says.

In spite of a bevy of checks and balances, desertion of pets, aversion to adopting indies and overall cruelty towards animals in everyday life persist. (iStockPhoto)
In spite of a bevy of checks and balances, desertion of pets, aversion to adopting indies and overall cruelty towards animals in everyday life persist. (iStockPhoto)

In spite of a bevy of checks and balances, desertion of pets, aversion to adopting indies and overall cruelty towards animals in everyday life persist. “The penalty for hurting an animal in India is 50,” says Anupriya Dalmia, co-founder of Paws for a Cause, an animal welfare initiative based in the NCR (the Union government is planning to increase the fine to up to 6,000). “That’s surely not going to make people accountable or put in them any fear of consequences.” Since 2016, her organisation has acted as a gateway between rescue and adoption. “We still have people coming to us looking for fluffy white dogs,” says Dalmia. “Black dogs and indies get passed over.”

There is a slow shift in perceptions, though, which led up to the moment of the prime minister’s recent public appeal to adopt more Indian breeds. In 2018, after Mudhol hounds from Karnataka were inducted into the Indian Army, indie dogs started finding a place in the security services. In 2019, Kolkata Police successfully trained an indie called Asha as a service dog; it created a stir on social media. Recently, another puppy called Pooja charmed the internet as a potential recruit into Bengaluru police, which is training more indies already. Indies are also finding acceptance as pets gradually. “I have been instrumental in getting others to adopt indies too,” says Koshy.

Tarun Saldanha, another Bengaluru resident, also ended up adopting an indie during the pandemic—entirely by chance. He already had a dog—Kappi—that a friend had found a wandering forlornly in the city’s Benson Town area. Saldanha and his wife, Shruti Raghuraman, initially fostered him, later deciding to adopt him. Then, during the pandemic, they were on a trip to Bandipur, in Karnataka, where they ran into a little puppy in a village. Dogs in that area often end up becoming prey for leopards, so the couple decided to adopt Luna too.

“Life has been so much better at home with these two play-fighting all day around us,” Saldanha says. “Apart from their company being good for our mental health, the responsibility of looking after these dogs keeps Shruti and I grounded.”

What more can anyone ask of a year that has taken so much away from the world?

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