By Shambhavi Saxena:
A group of residents in my neighbourhood threatened to file a police complaint against my mother for being ‘dog feeders’. They’d plastered notices everywhere, naming her, and another dog feeder, going so far as to say that stray dogs were even being encouraged to attack people. It’s been a month since all of this, and there has been little resolution.
“Be compassionate to animals.” It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since I was a first-grader glued to National Geographic or Animal Planet, with one arm circled around my favourite stuffed toy lion. It’s a lesson that has influenced many parts of my life, such as the choice to adopt pets rather than buy them from breeders and puppy mills. It’s a lesson that taught me to extend the same concern to all animals, rather than just some fancy dog breeds in sleek nylon leashes.
Compassion for animals is something I’ve even written about in the past, because it mattered so much to me that ordinary people like myself took the requisite steps to help out stray animals in their localities. But how could I simply leave my principles on paper? So last summer, equipped with a plastic bucket of water, some earthenware bowls, and a big steel tiffin-carrier filled to its brim with fresh food, my mother and I set off to find the five or six street dogs that lived in and around our building complex. From the moment they licked their bowls clean, and nudged our hands with their noses, we became ‘community dog feeders’ – a term that I wasn’t even aware of back then.
Come nine o’clock, our six street dogs would position themselves at their usual spots, ears perked, waiting for dinner, which would be followed by vigorous petting and the usual happy scampering. Eventually, we christened them all with silly names, and they’d learnt to answer when we called.
But soon we began noticing random injuries on these street dogs. We often caught security guards in the area walloping them with lathis. Some nights they wouldn’t come out at all, for fear of being harmed. I realised then that being compassionate to animals wasn’t just about putting out a bowl of water and some biscuits. It meant wandering around in the dark calling after them, hoping they hadn’t been hit or run over; it meant extra trips to the vet to get their deworming medicines; it meant having them sterilised and running after them with vitamins and ear drops. It slowly dawned on me that the consequences I faced for living my writing were not going to be pleasant.
As pet-owners, we’ve faced some ridiculous situations. One time, large quantities of ‘evidence’ (get my drift?) were planted against my small 10 kilo dachshund, and a notice was sent to our home accusing us of deliberately dirtying the building complex. We should have taken that as a preface of what was to come.
It started with small intimidations. When we took food out for the community dogs, or when we walked our own dogs inside our own building complex, security guards would warn us “Complaint lag jayegi. Sahab ne bola hai.” (“The boss has said that a complaint can be registered”) We wondered who on earth this ‘sahab’ was whose whim was, apparently, law (spoiler, it was the RWA president). So when the Animal Welfare Board of India’s circular on pet dogs and street dogs was notified on February 26, 2015, we were over the moon. We read feverishly through the “Guidelines for Care-givers of Street Dogs“, and found that we were already complying with it. We even deposited a copy of the new document with the manager and the head of security. What could possibly go wrong now?
The guards quit policing us, and we had an easy month or two, but then the residents of our own building complex got their claws out. We were stopped by neighbours on several occasions, and told not to feed stray animals. “They bark at night,” “They chase cars,” “They’re dirty,” “Think of the children,” “Think of the elderly” – we heard these and more, but nobody seemed to hear us when we caught drivers kicking and beating dogs. Nobody seemed to hear us when a group of boys (did they have licenses?) laughed and drove at top speed towards the dogs. Nobody seemed to want to know that these dogs had seen their own kin crushed under vehicles, and did not react well to the sight or sound of fast-moving cars.
We knew the dogs’ safety was now under threat, but we were soon shown that ours was too. And no amount of reasoning, no amount of telling people that we were well within our constitutional rights to feed dogs, worked.
On one occasion, a male resident brandished a large stick at us, ordering us to stop feeding the dogs. One night, four men in a large black car pulled up in front of me while I was alone. Words were exchanged and I was told very vaguely that someone would soon run over and kill these dogs. I was called a ‘bitch’ and the car drove away. I was shaking with anger, and my mother, when I told her, was shaking with fear.
Then one morning, we found those notices publicly defaming my mother and another community dog feeder, saying we were all, out of sheer spite, feeding these dogs just so they could make life hell for everyone. We were stunned. Not only was the document wildly inaccurate and inappropriate, it had also been put up without any name, signature, or official stamp from the manager’s office. On probing further (I paid a visit to the manager himself) I found out that official processes had been waived this time because the notice had been okayed by – guess who! – the president of the RWA!
Even today, members of the RWA remain silent about the issue. No attempts have been made to sensitise residents about the rights of street dogs and their feeders. And there’s little we can do, other than go down every night, bowl of food in hand, and hope the dogs are okay.
“Be compassionate to animals” – it’s a sweet little reminder to drop in front of six-year-old school children. I assume we’ve all heard something like this growing up. I wish, however, that it came with an addendum. “Be compassionate to animals; and steel yourself for the absolute shit storm coming your way because of it.”