Thursday, September 01, 2005

Animal Precinct

In a city where people are packed like cattle into the local trains every day, who has time for – cattle?

Few people have time for stray animals in Mumbai. Generally people just smile at them distractedly; some ignore them; and a few warped ones throw stones at the animals, tie firecrackers to their tails, and even try to poison them. It’s tough enough for humans to survive here, and animals have a much harder time.

And so it is heartening that in one leafy corner of Parel, in the Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw Petit Memorial Animal Hospital, also the office of SPCA Mumbai, animals still have a shelter. This worthwhile project began in 1883 when Sir Dinshaw Petit donated his grandfather’s estate of 40,500 square yards, costing Rs 45,000 at the time. The centre has now been working for well over a century for the well-being of animals.

Dr Khanna, the Secretary of the SPCA Mumbai, is a retired senior army veterinarian. He tells me about the tragic impact of the recent floods on buffaloes and cattle in the tabelas across the city. The animals are shackled in their stalls for most of their milk-producing life. Naturally, they were unable to escape when the waters rushed in, and drowned by the thousands. Others who survived have injuries and infections, and are still being treated for these.

But through the year, the SPCA also has its daily struggle with cases of animal cruelty: snakes with their mouths stitched up, a pregnant mare being whipped to near-fatal exhaustion, a pregnant camel brought into the city illegally for slaughter; and cows who have swallowed plastic bags while foraging in open dustbins.

And then there are the everyday cases. A man drives up in a Santro and out jump two Labrador puppies, wriggling happily, and a German Shepherd puppy who immediately lets out a series of sharp, indignant barks. They have come for their vaccinations. Another stray dog, brought by an animal-lover, gets an injection and a friendly pat. I walk past the open pens where groups of dogs are housed – some old, some sad, all looking up at me with hopeful eyes – are they looking for homes?

Further ahead, at the electric crematorium, a father waits with his four children, their eyes red with weeping. I know immediately what has happened: the death of a pet is always like the death of a member of the family.

But even as I feel despondent, a board on the wall reminds me of the sayings of Mahavira. A cat curled up on a window AC looks up sleepily at me. And an old man in a lungi, his head wrapped in a red bandanna, walks past me towards the hospital, carrying a wounded wildfowl in his hands. He fusses over it repeatedly, smoothing its feathers, talking to it in a low, reassuring murmur. I smile. There’s sadness here, but also love, and one more animal is being cared for in this quiet corner of a busy city.

(Crossposted on Indian Writing. This is my Mumbai Mirror column which has appeared in the paper today).

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