In early March, just weeks before the pandemic-induced lockdown, Fizza Shah, an animal rights activist from Mumbai, invited me and a couple of other members of the press to her farm in Virar, on the outskirts of Mumbai. It was the 17th anniversary of the place, home to over 300 animals and birds that she has rescued over the years. The highlight of the day, an invitation card said, was the inauguration of a swimming pool for dogs.
On the day of my visit, around 60-odd guests were humming around in weekend casuals. Most of them were middle-aged, white-collared professionals from Mumbai. Shah, 56, dressed in an all-black salwar kameez, was busy moving from one group to another. Around 11am, her staffers lined up next to her as Shah took the microphone.
It was a special day, she began. When she had bought this land in 2003, some of her friends had voiced regret at her choice of real estate. It was far away, didn’t have an approach road, and was of little aesthetic value. But over the years, with “sweat” and “blood”, she and her 15-member team had turned it into a sanctuary for rescued animals.
After the welcome address, we made our way to an enclosure with a small swimming pool. It was a small 12x16ft space, 3ft deep, with a few balls floating in it. A staffer broke a coconut at the entrance. A guest cut the ribbon. Everyone clapped.
As we entered, the dog handler fetched two dogs—Pepper and Missy—to be the first users of the pool. The two didn’t seem to be too keen on entering though, so the handler carried them in his arms and entered the pool himself. Missy started swimming. Pepper scrambled to safety and started shaking himself dry. Then entered Kaalu, a dog who had been gallivanting around the gathering through the morning. He jumped into the water, landing with a minor splash, and merrily swam to the other end.
Shah looked relieved. Despite the initial awkwardness, the inauguration ended on a cheery note.
“My animal activism started because of my daughter,” she tells me when we meet at her sea-facing residence in Mumbai a week later. Born in a traditional Muslim family, Shah didn’t have any pet dogs growing up. Her in-laws, who belonged to a traditional Jain family, didn’t either. “One day, my daughter brought home a Cocker Spaniel that she had rescued from a breeder. The dog had taken ill. I looked after it for one and a half years but it couldn’t survive.”
Nurturing the pup prompted Shah to look at the stray dogs around her residence in suburban Andheri differently. She started feeding them every day. “I started with eight and before I knew it, I was roaming around Andheri, feeding up to 300 dogs,” she says. If she noticed a stray in distress or injured, she would give it first aid or take it to a vet. “I even bought my own ambulance. I would drive around in it myself with a medicine kit. It was like a craze had taken over me.”
But feeding and treating the animals didn’t seem to be enough. The old and handicapped ones needed care. On a few occasions, Shah ferried them to an animal shelter but the conditions in most of them were distressing. “Once they take your animals, you can’t demand they take care the way you would like. I had once kept seven-eight dogs in the shelter but they died of an infection. But what can you do? The government doesn’t do anything and the animal shelters are already overcrowded and understaffed.”
The only solution, Shah decided, was to set up her own shelter. She would not have to depend on others then to treat the animals. She started rehabilitating the stray dogs on farmland she had bought in Virar. Next came bullocks, many of whom had been abandoned by farmers after they turned old and weak, no longer able to till the fields or pull carts. Then came goats and hens, many of which she bought while they were on their way to slaughter. By then, she had joined the Mumbai chapter of In Defense of Animals, an international animal rights group. She would often get phone calls from people who had rescued animals, asking if she could keep them. The shelter soon turned into a sanctuary.
Today, Fizza Farm is a walled complex, distinguished from the neighbouring houses by the many kinds of sounds coming from it. Within, a cobblestone path takes you around the periphery, with spacious enclosures for its animal residents: a pen for hens, a gaushala for cows and bullocks, a large cage for exotic birds and an all-access pass for geese and dogs. At the centre is a charming, two-storeyed bungalow where Shah lives on her weekly visits to the farm.
“It’s not easy to run the place,” Shah says. Over the years, she reckons, she has spent around ₹7-8 crore building the walls, fences and enclosures, an artificial pond, and greening the premises. Even now, the farm upkeep, animal feed, vet visits and staff salary cost her ₹4-5 lakh a month. Shah funds it all herself, dipping into her “investments”. “By God’s grace, we are comfortable,” she adds.
Shah has a few rules for the staffers: Don’t hit the animals, don’t yell at them, feed them yourself and, whenever possible, speak to them. Also, animals are to be referred to by their names, not as a collective. It does get complicated, Shah admits, especially since she has sheltered over 1,000 birds and animals over the years. “I had once rescued a litter with seven pups,” she says. “I was like, what to call them? So I named them by the days of the week: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday....”
Since 2016, the farm has even hosted Maharashtra police sniffer dogs after their retirement, starting with those who were part of the bomb detection and disposal squad (BDDS) in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks investigation. When they died, Shah built a special graveyard for the “soldiers”. Four years on, there is still no state policy for working animals. So Shah regularly takes in the police dogs in their final days. “I have hosted 30 so far,” she says. “The police simply call me up every time one of their dogs is to retire.”
Shah’s activism has changed her lifestyle. She used to be a meat-eater but is transitioning to veganism. Her family, comprising her son and daughter, doesn’t share her consumption habits. “You can lead by example. If it doesn’t work, jeene do yaar (let them live),” she says.
When the covid-19 outbreak started, it emerged that the disease can affect some animals too, especially cats. Around mid-March, zoos and animal sanctuaries across India shut their doors to visitors to keep the animals safe. Four staffers at the farm stayed back to take care of the animals. Others were forbidden from entering. For the first time in years, Shah couldn’t visit the farm for nearly a month and a half. She would have a video call with her staffers every day to make sure the animals were looked after. Anticipating shortage, she stocked up on food too, paying a lot more than she used to due to vehicular restrictions.
“In May, I remember, when I returned, the farm was filled with animals barking and neighing and braying,” she tells me when we speak in September. She shares a picture from the day: Shah is at the centre, a donkey and two dogs by her side. “It was overwhelming. I can’t express (it) in words.”
The pandemic has been difficult for many city animals. While animal lovers were allowed to feed strays during the lockdown, rescue activities were affected by the restrictions on movement. Despite her willingness, Shah is often forced to turn some away. Does the sheer volume of animals in distress dwarf her efforts?
“To do this, you need to work with heart, not brain,” says Shah. “The brain will calculate, be afraid. The heart makes you do the impossible. And my journey is all about my heart.”