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).

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When the cows are homeless

You'll remember this. Bounty hunters on motorbikes, herding up stray cows on Delhi streets. And Hurree has this post about it recently.

Now this report goes in search of the cows who have been taken off Delhi roads, and finds this:
Decomposed bodies of unattended stray cattle infested with flies are not an uncommon sight in some of the NGO-run gosadans that fall under the purview of the Delhi government. There are reports of three to five cattle deaths in some of these shelters every day.
There are several reasons for this. In Mumbai, it's usually the oldest and weakest cattle, their bodies emaciated by lifelong shackling in tabelas and too much injection of oxytocin, that are left to wander the streets in their old age when they cannot produce milk any more. But another reason for their ill health is that they get no food on a regular basis when they are on the streets, and often have to scrounge around in open dustbins. And what do we see most often in dustbins? Plastic bags, of course. Here is a case where 55 kg of plastic was found inside a cow's stomach. The report goes on to highlight just this:
One of the reasons offered for the death of animals by the volunteers working in the gosadans was that these animals are accustomed to eating garbage and their stomach contains polythene and are unable to digest the food offered at the gosadans. Some animals refuse to take the green fodder and prefer to stay hungry.

A welcome step

In a rare case, Delhi customs slapped Delhi-based importers Nadia Studio a fine of Rs 50,000 for importing 18-kg consignment of copperhead rat snake skins last year. In the first ever case, the courier company, DHL, whose consignment was held at the Indira Gandhi International Airport's cargo-courier terminal in mid-July 2004, has also been slapped a fine of Rs 20,000 for despatching the import from Hong Kong.
This report adds that while there are no restrictions on poaching these snakes in Hong Kong, they are an endangered species in India.

Outside the bill

Bijal Vachcharajani on how she was always an animal rights activist:
Ever since I can remember, the treatment of animals at the hands of humans has always made a deep impression on me. When a roadside chicken vendor raised his hand to sever a hen’s head from her body, I would cringe; when children of my age flocked to Juhu beach to ride horse-carts and clap at monkeys dancing, I would desist; my first trip to the circus turned out to be the last one. My sister gifted me a leather watch for my birthday, but on chancing upon a newspaper report about investigations in the leather industry—photos of cows and bulls forced to walk for miles between trucking points, beaten, chilli pepper rubbed into their eyes, tails twisted and broken to herd them ahead, overcrowded into trucks where live animals struggle under the dead, and finally meeting a painful death — I promptly changed my belt to a blood-less synthetic one.
I so agree. It took me far more time than it took her, but for some years now, I've stopped buying silk or leather. There are enough other natural as well as synthetic fabrics, suiting all budgets these days, to justify buying another Kanchipuram silk.

But, Bijal points out, there are also difficulties in working for animal rights. Some of these are ethical difficulties; some come in the form of threats:
There are times when people come to me and say: “Why are you working for a bloody animal when people are dying on the streets?” Makes one wonder-- if that person cares passionately for the underprivileged, then why isn’t he out on the streets helping them instead of asking pointless questions. Apart from the evolutionary, philosophical, emotional, moral and ethical argument, which rationalises why a person works for animals, at the end of the day it’s simple--animals too have rights.

So many times, people on the road have ganged up against us when we have confiscated parakeets from sellers or stopped urchins from stoning a stray dog. These are times when the man-animal conflict comes to the fore and it is always a painful experience. In the larger picture too, be it the leopards of Bollywood, or the elephants down south, there is always a flip side-- either a human is hurt or an animal is killed. Of course, deep down, it is our so-called development that drives animals to desperate measures and come hunting for food in what was once their own home, but now is taken over by people.