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Bengaluru, a city of dogs

Feeding strays, providing medical attentionBengaluru's animal rescuers have a strong network

Ankur takes care of around 20 dogs. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Ankur takes care of around 20 dogs. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

It’s almost midnight on Saturday and there’s a big white van standing outside my gate. I can hear the diesel engine snarling even where I’m sitting, groggy and cold, in my living room.

A cool breeze whips my face as I shut the door to my house. The van could serve as an official getaway vehicle or a rather small ambulance. Tonight, however, we’re using it to go around feeding over 100 dogs in Bengaluru’s Whitefield area.

Bismi Anil is standing next to the passenger side door, waiting to slide it open for me. In the driver’s seat is her husband, Anil, and in the back seat, his cousin Suman, wrapped in a shawl and looking as though, like me, she wishes she were in bed, snuggled in warm blankets.

We exchange smiles and pleasantries and set off on our business. This is the first time I’m joining Bismi and her family in a task they have been carrying out for almost five years. Despite the late hour and my grogginess, I feel like an excited little child. Bismi and Anil are more business-like. They have been doing this every night—barring Saturdays, as they want the dogs to keep scavenging for food and not take their nightly meals for granted. So for them, it isn’t a novel or feel-good charitable exercise, it’s a way of life. Feeding the area’s dogs also helps them keep tabs on the local population and intervene if they find a dog in need of medical attention.

I turn around in my seat and notice that the back of the vehicle is spacious. Even though it’s empty, I can almost smell the rice and chicken. Suddenly, I’m hungry.

“Where’s the food?" I ask. As though in response, the car stops in front of a small bungalow off Kadugodi’s main road.

I hear dogs barking and watch in fascination as a few of them jump as high as they can to catch a glimpse of us.

We’ve reached the house the couple rents—it serves both as a centre for the rescue and rehabilitation of dogs and a place for cooking (“our drains at home were getting clogged from the mutton fat," says Bismi).

Moana, lost the use of her hind legs when she was less than a month old, it was rescued by Bismi and is now waiting o get adapted at a foster home in Yelahanka. Photo: Afsha Khan Jayapal

There are two gates. A main gate to the compound and a second gate within to keep the dogs in. Between these two gates, I see four containers, each weighing around 20kg, and realize that this must be the food prepared a few hours earlier by the caretaker they have hired.

“This is around 75kg of chicken, rice and mutton fat," says Bismi. It smells delicious.

This is the first time I’m meeting Bismi in the four years that I’ve been living in Bengaluru. We have, however, talked on the phone a few times. It is because of Bismi that I was able to secure a discount of almost 50% on a hip replacement operation for a puppy named, well, Puppy, almost two years ago. Bismi is also the person I call every time the female indie (indigenous dog) at the end of my street goes into heat, sending all the un-neutered male dogs within a 5km radius—mine included—into a howling match at 3am.

Bismi, a former software engineer, quit her job to do rescue work full-time around two years ago, and has been involved in over 500 rescue and rehabilitation cases. She is involved in ensuring rabies and distemper vaccinations in the area around Whitefield. Bismi registered the Dumas Animal Welfare Trust when she started getting media attention, and there has been a stream of contributions since.

Their work is, I believe, a major reason that the stray dog population in Whitefield is almost under control. But more is needed.

A litter of puppies rescued from Whitefield have all been adopted into loving families. Photo: Afsha Khan Jayapal

“Everybody needs to do his or her part," says Bismi. “If someone calls me to help an injured dog, for instance, the first thing I’m going to tell them is to take the dog to the vet. If you don’t have transport, I will give you the numbers of a few autos who help out or an ambulance. The duty of a reporter (a label for individuals who call in sick or injured dogs) doesn’t end after reporting an incident. There is a basic course of action they need to follow if they want to truly help dogs in need."

Let’s say you find a dog like Puppy with a dislocated hip. You need to take it to a veterinarian, get an X-ray done and then get it operated on. Operations for street dogs come at a heavy discount. But they are still not cheap. After the operation, the dog will need to recuperate in a safe area, like a foster home. Many a time, shelters and foster homes are packed.

Most seasoned street dogs tend to return to their territories once they have healed. Puppies who have lost their mothers and haven’t got a caretaker in the area can be offered for adoption.

Most of Bengaluru’s animal rescuers—individuals and charitable organizations—follow this unwritten policy.

The effort can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t deter them. Bismi alone has a network of around 100 people—online and offline—in the Whitefield area who alert each other about injured dogs and assist with transport, foster homes, even money when an operation is required. They communicate largely over WhatsApp, only turning to Facebook groups such as Bombat Dawgz or Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (Cupa) when they feel the need to reach a wider audience.

“Over the last two years, I have noticed that a lot of individuals have stepped up to help dogs," says Bismi. “These are people who actually do everything without the support of organizations and often pay out of their own pockets whenever they can."

For those who can’t afford the expense, but still want to help, there’s no dearth of individuals willing to make contributions—even though they will not get a tax break for it. Post your requirement on one of Facebook’s many groups or tap into the network of animal rescuers in your area.

There are, of course, instances of misuse, with so-called “rescuers" collecting perfectly healthy dogs, separating puppies from their mothers, and posting appeals for funds on Facebook.

Bismi cooks around 75kg of chicken and rice with mutton fat to feed street dogs every day. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

“It’s a double-edged sword," says Bismi. “I know so many people who are fake but I cannot expose them because then what will happen to the animals in their care? So finally we end up supporting them."

Preethika Rao, a homemaker, spends whatever little she can feeding around 24 strays in her area. “I am seriously thinking of writing to someone, maybe (Union minister) Maneka Gandhi, to make a provision for people like me who find it very tough financially," she laments. “Some kind of fund would be great to fall back on."

When they started out, Bismi and Anil faced a lot of hostility from the people living around the areas where they fed dogs. “They used to curse us and say that we are encouraging the menace created by these strays," says Bismi. “But over time they came around when they saw the difference it made in the dogs’ temperaments and friendliness. Now, people call us when the dogs are sick and some even contribute what little they can—a milkman gives us packets of milk—for the dogs."

Thirteen kilometres away, in Indiranagar, I speak to Aarathi Sivadas, who has given standing instructions to her bank to transfer Rs300 to Give India For Voiceless (GIFV) every month. GIFV is an animal welfare trust started by Usha Madan, a psychotherapist, and Sandeep Reddy, an entrepreneur. The payment helps her access their resources—both medical and financial—when she finds a dog in need.

“Bengaluru is a city where you find a lot of people taking the initiative (to help dogs) as individuals," says Sivadas, a 29-year-old who has a full-time job in a logistics company. She has two dogs of her own, but makes the time to shuttle sick and injured dogs to vet appointments, shelters and foster homes. In the last two years, she and her group of six dog-lovers, all based in Indiranagar, have come together to help Ghost, a senior dog with a tennis-ball-sized tumour on his hind leg; Lola, a seven-year-old with skin cancer; and Juno, another senior who needed a ear amputated after a rickshaw banged into her. Sivadas usually gets all the help she needs from her core group. But when she needs a bit extra—like a ride to the hospital or a sitter to stay with the dog during treatment—she turns to Bombat Dawgz, the Facebook group of over 14,000 animal lovers across Bengaluru. “Quite a few individuals step up and say, ‘If you need transport I have a car,’ or ‘I can go to the vet with the dog’. There are always people who will do whatever they are able to do."

More and more individuals are now supplementing the work of organizations and shelters such as Cupa or The Voice of Stray Dogs. For there are just way too many animals in need and not enough time, space and manpower available to tend to them all.

That may be why some of the individuals who work with sick and injured street dogs are now being listed in information directories. Like Ankur Bhatnagar, an animator by profession who lives and works in Whitefield. He spends his days rescuing dogs and nights completing work projects.

“I don’t know how Just Dial got me listed under its animal rescue organizations," he laughs. But he isn’t complaining. “Office work stresses me out sometimes. So this is what I do to unwind."

But not every rescue has a happy ending. I’m reminded again of Puppy, who recuperated and returned to his territory a few streets away from our home and died for reasons completely unrelated—it looked like a case of poisoning—a month later. I ruminate about Tictac, a rambunctious black and brown indie back in Mumbai, who was brought to the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Parel a few years ago with a shattered hip, but developed tick fever and died.

If there’s one thing, however, that one can learn from Bengaluru’s animal lovers, it is that one shouldn’t dwell on such cases. “It’s like an addiction," says Bhatnagar. “You help one. You see them blossoming. You receive so much love from them. That satisfaction, the feeling of making a difference, is what keeps you going."

But with a network so vast and intricate also comes a whole lot of noise. Sivadas has found herself leaving several WhatsApp groups where members tended to question her course of action. “Why did you take the dog to this hospital? They’re so expensive!" “Why didn’t you conduct this test? You could have saved a life." “Why haven’t you gotten to the spot already? What if the dog disappears?"

“Sometimes there are just too many opinions and no solutions," says Bismi.

However grating it may be, though, having people care about an animal’s welfare is never a bad thing. I haven’t seen a network like this in any other city in India.

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