Sunday, May 31, 2020

Dog day afternoons, a sentimental misanthrope, and two books about animal rescue

[My latest First Post piece touches on two dog books -- though this is only tangentially a books column]

On the spookily quiet afternoon of Sunday, March 22 this year – during the “Janta curfew”, two days before the first lockdown was announced – I was walking to the chemist’s shop in my colony. Almost no other humans were visible, apart from a few in their balconies, frowning down at this curfew-violator; it was so still I thought I could hear leaves fall from trees some distance away.

Worried as I already was about the pandemic and what was likely to come (you didn’t need to be an epidemiologist to know that extended lockdowns lay in our future), the full implications didn’t hit me until I passed a well-known vegetable vendor’s tent – always bustling with activity, now closed for the day – and saw the man’s dog sitting all alone, looking lost.

Here was this familiar white creature, his open and affable face seemingly lined with stress. This was the first time he was spending hours on end with not even one of his people around, and with no human sounds within earshot. He must have been very disoriented.

Subsequently, when the lockdown began, my thoughts turned to the many street animals in our neighbourhood who had been adopted or befriended by shopkeepers or roadside retailers or dhaba-wallahs: people who would no longer be around to put out food and water and, just as importantly, to pat and pamper the animals. The dogs in the nearby multiplex complex. The dogs left in parks that had been summarily locked up (this being before animal-welfare teams got into action). The wilder dogs on the periphery of the residential areas, much less accustomed to human kindness, who used to scavenge in the rapidly emptying garbage dumps. I had a few sleepless nights listening to urgent cries in the distance as terrified dogs strayed into other territories and fights broke out (and as my house dogs became watchful and tense in response). It wasn’t until I had got myself on animal-feeder WhatsApp groups, got in touch with other concerned people in the neighbourhood, made a couple of trips with bags of food for stranded animals in the areas I knew well, and got a movement pass through Maneka Gandhi’s organisation, that I felt more at ease. Anything I could do would be a tiny drop in a deep and dark ocean, but at least there was a sense of purpose.

What was more surprising – speaking as someone who has often casually described himself as a misanthrope – was that during this process I also found myself feeling sentimental about my own species, and becoming very annoyed by the online memes that went “Humans are the virus, Covid is the vaccine” or “We are the most destructive species – nature thrives without us”. Partly, this is because I have never had a rose-tinted view of the natural world anyway; I think Tennyson’s “red in tooth and claw” is, if anything, an understated description of the countless random cruelties inherent in nature. But my growing concern about humans was also a result of my relationship with street dogs over the years. Since these are very social animals – who not just depend on people for food but also genuinely like being around us – I had access to this vantage point: how sad and empty a human-free world might look through the eyes of a creature that has evolved socially alongside us over tens of thousands of years, become one of our most steadfast companions, emotionally enriching many of us along the way.

As a lovely, unexpected plot development in the new web series Paatal Lok has it, dogs can be our guiding lights, bringing out the best in us – people can find personal salvation in caring for dogs, it can even help them stay out of harm’s way. One of our most steadfast helpers, Ravi, who has been spending 10 to 12 hours on the road every day feeding and medicating injured animals during the pandemic, believes that this work has helped keep him safe – not so much for mystical reasons but because it gives him a sense of fulfilment and duty, prevents him from falling into despair or homebound ennui, keeps his spirits and immunity levels higher than if he had been cooped indoors for two months. It sounds pseudoscientific, but I hope there is something to it.


The many experiences of the past two months also had me revisiting a couple of books by and about people who discovered a new dimension in themselves and found their senses sharpened through animal rescue. Pen Farthing's One Dog at a Time: Rescuing the Strays of Helmand is about a British soldier who became involved with dogs while he was posted in Afghanistan, battling the Taliban (and therefore supposed to be concerned with more “important” things than stray animals). And Steven Kotler's A Small Furry Hope: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life is about the experiences of the author and his wife Joy as they started a sanctuary in New Mexico for dogs with special needs.

The scale and scope of the two works is different. Kotler's is more wide-ranging, touching on the philosophical and scientific aspects of the human-animal relationship. He does of course tell a specific story, looking at the minutiae of dog care and the many daily challenges: e.g., is it better to go for high-quality but expensive dog food, or to compromise just a little on quality but take the risk that this will lead to medical conditions requiring costly care? However, he expands the canvas too, delving into such questions as the nature of altruism, where our urge to help other species comes from, and why grief caused by pet loss can be so complicated and intense.

Farthing’s book, on the other hand, is more functional and soldier-like in the writing, and is determinedly about the here and now. His concern for one dog – being used in a savage dog-fight by the locals – gradually snowballed into something bigger, until he found himself stretching military rules to provide shelter to a group of animals, and eventually making attempts to have them transported to a makeshift animal shelter in north Afghanistan. This situation – finding the time even during a war to do something for helpless creatures – isn’t unlike the situation some animal-lovers find themselves in during the current pandemic, where they are told that they have their priorities mixed up.

The experiences of Kotler and Farthing are different from my own in the specifics, yet many times while rereading these books I found something that struck a chord. “Joy once told me of an exhilaration unlike any other she’s ever known that comes from seeing a dog reborn,” writes Kotler, “In the psychology of altruism, that rush is known as helper’s high.”

Meanwhile, Farthing writes: “I couldn’t just walk away. My problem now was that the dog with no friends and I were becoming mates […] As I gave him what was probably the first bit of compassion he had ever been shown, I wondered whether I had done the right thing for him and the other dogs. I’d given them a totally unfounded trust in humans. When I was gone that might not be the best thing for them.” This is something that many people who expanded their animal-feeding operations specifically for the lockdown period are thinking about: how long is this sustainable, and what happens to these animals when things return to relative “normalcy”? What about all the irresponsible speeding drivers, endangering the animals who had begun drifting towards the middle of the roads when human movement ceased?

In the end, both these books are about people transformed. They are versions of the parable about a boy throwing starfish back into the sea, one by one; each rescue might seem insignificant in the larger picture, but makes a world of difference to that one creature. Much in these pages should be very familiar to anyone who works with stray animals, constantly balancing the need to make a meaningful difference with the knowledge that there will always be many failures and hopeless cases. And the possibility that everything might go south at any time, leading to a potent sense of loss. Yet we keep at it, doing what we can – there is no real choice.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

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