The haveli’s resident beagle puppy, Milo, pleased me greatly with his floppy ears and chubby legs bounding up the marble stairs. I judged the indulged dog’s owner to be a reasonably down to earth man and I could see he was very proud of his Westernised appearance. He treated me as an equal (how refreshing) and we spoke about the parts of Sydney he’d visited a few years back, as well as how to get yourself a pet dog in India. Terribly unsuited to the Indian climate, expensive foreign breeds such as beagles or sausages serve primarily as status symbols and become more work for the women of the household. Still, they keep veterinarians in business in a country where middle class professionals are a sought-after meat in the marriage market.
On the road the day before, a shopkeeper and I had scooped up a small blonde puppy each to save them from the fast flowing downhill traffic of tuk tuks and motorbikes. These little ones will grow up on the streets and become attuned to the ebb and flow of it all, unlikely to be hit by a vehicle as they time their crossings artfully. They are not witless, but they will have to sleep on stoops and eat from rubbish piles; kitchen scraps, lollies, fast food leftovers and fruit on offering plates at temples (hopefully not laced with strychnine). Their coats will become scabby and they will often go hungry. This is the way of the ‘pariah’ dog in India and they dominate the street animal hierarchy, followed by cows, cats, rats and cockroaches. What a contrast to Milo’s lifestyle, who is already the well-fed little prince of a wealth family.
At night, Indian street dogs kept me awake – they barked and howled at the moon and each other. My Udaipur haveli apparently pays a security guard to chase away stray nighttime howlers, but he was on spontaneous holiday and not expected to return any time during my visit. I think this story was mostly made up to excuse the shitty sleep I was getting. Perhaps the doggy banshees make effective guards for shopkeepers, so the cacophony is tolerated. Though they are mostly friendly in the daytime and tug on the heartstrings of many Western tourists, I would halve their population if I could, by running a sterilisation program and mercifully euthanising the sick and injured. But how to get such a thing started without a magic wand to wave over all 3.3million square kilometres of the country? Stories of people attacked by packs of dogs are common and children are often mauled by them. The government reacts to this and plays some part in the laying of strychnine baits and then, confusingly, steps in to ban the public from doing the same. An ineffective, inhumane and short-sighted strategy, either way you look at it.
So India doesn’t have a great reputation for managing their native and introduced fauna. No surprises there. But I was touched to see puppies sleep in warm little piles along side alleys. In Fort Kochi, that tacky little market town in the south, I’d photographed a gentle little bundle of juvenile pups with their mother, asleep on soft sand nearly the same colour as their jersey cow-coloured coats. In Udaipur, I’d seen an American woman surreptitiously feed a boiled egg to a fair-haired mutt, noticing that Westerners, with our pet-filled childhoods and easy access to sanitation and sustainable food networks, are aghast at the plight of India’s unwanted animals.
A brilliant Australian woman based in Bali was desperate enough to attempt to save the streets dogs of her Indonesian home. Linda Buller is in the business of rescuing, rehoming and, most importantly, re-educating. Her project, Bali Dog Adoption and Rehabilitation Centre (BARC), is long-term and is making a difference. Most importantly, sterilisation is key to their publicly-funded operations, where donors can pay for a day’s worth of sterilisations performed by a veterinarian. India is the perfect place for programs based on this same model to make a difference, as families commonly pack up and relocate to a new city. They think little of leaving behind the unsterilised, unvaccinated family dog to join street packs and continue a sad cycle. Shelters and re-homing facilities exist in most Indian cities, yet I regret I didn’t visit any.
Reducing the number of dogs on India’s streets is more than charity, it is a matter of public safety. Before leaving Sydney, my GP had given me a script for a course of three, ludicrously expensive rabies vaccines which I declined, imagining I’d know if a rabid dog, bat or monkey was anywhere near before making my quick escape. However, a little research revealed that the vaccines would be worth the cost as I’d be certain to die if bitten and not treated with the correct vaccines immediately. This GP had recently sat her vaccine exams and informed me that across India it is now common to be sold a counterfeit treatment. Still, if I were a child under 15, poor, uneducated and living in rural India, I’d have been far more likely to become a rabies statistic. According to the WHO, my first ever overseas travel destination is the place I was most likely to be bitten by a rabid dog, as 36% of cases across the world are reported in India – that is, around 20,000 fatal bites per year.
Dogs are not the only dejected animals I now find synonymous with the streets of India. Street cows are as common as temples and tourists usually seek photographs of majestic elephants as part of their authentic Indian pilgrimage. I saw two in Fort Kochi, brought into town for a festival, the spotty-skinned beasts looked forlorn as tourists snapped selfies and pretended not to see the thick ankle chains hobbling them in place. In that same port-side town, I saw fat cats and their skinny sisters, surviving on little more than feline guile and fishermen’s scraps already picked over by dogs. The cows in India are brahmins, hump-backed and lackadaisical. They wander streets, eating plastic-wrapped foodstuffs, requiring surgery to remove the bags caught in their stomachs, yet were once revered so much as to be sacred to Hindus. In Agra, the stench of one large black bull permeated the dusty alley where I struggled to locate my haveli late one night. Ever after, I stumbled across the correct spot more easily when the whiff of the bull’s skin infection and foetid bowel movements were in the air. Bhavna, the shoe lady from my previous post, was amazed when I told her that, “No, we don’t have any cows on the streets of Sydney”. She just couldn’t imagine such a place.
Like everything in India, paradoxically opposed attitudes exist to animals. On YouTube, you can watch evidence of the mass culling of dogs all the way from Kerala to Delhi (as well as news stories of a woman imprisoned for bashing puppies to death) alongside footage of the most gentle and compassionate efforts of Indian people to save the lives of dogs who’ve swallowed poison or been struck by motorbikes. Mongrels of India is an Instagram page dedicated to elevating the status of pariah dogs, a la ‘Humans of New York’. There is a lot of love in those photographs; they document people who’ve given their dogs a chance to be safe and to be loved. Through a Westernised lens, they ask people to see their potential as pets, not just street litter.