A loss from a few days ago: this sweet, gentle creature who was known mainly by the much-too-generic name “Kaali”. After many days of blood tests, ultrasounds, drips, and much monitoring of/despairing over food and liquid intake, she succumbed to a kidney + liver issue that had become irreversible.
Like many other street dogs in our immediate neighbourhood, she was being looked after by a wonderful feeder-carer named Chhavi; but in recent months I had become involved, in a very small way, with Kaali’s care, and I got to know her briefly during her tough final months.
It began in early February when I learnt that Kaali (whom I had only known by sight till then, as one of the more delicate-looking members of the pack that hung around outside the CISF area in D-block Saket) had been hit by a speeding car. A hind leg was fractured in a very dicey spot – the initial prognosis at Friendicoes was that amputation was the only way out. This changed after a couple of further opinions, and eventually Kaali’s leg was plastered and a long, slow healing process began – there was no question of her being out on the streets during this period, and none of the local dog-carers could keep her at home, so we got her admitted at the recently established Soul Vet clinic in CR Park, where my paravet friend Ravi works. During the month and a half that she was there, I went across a few times, mainly to supervise the changing of bandages and check on the state of the wound. (The dressing that was done just before Holi was a particularly colourful one, two shades of orange used to stylish effect.)
After she returned to her home turf I would see her occasionally, limping around, sometimes putting her weight on all four legs – and staying as close as possible to Chhavi’s building, where she must have felt secure. (A few times she strayed into our lane, probably scavenging for food, and was chased away by other territorial canines, including my own ancient 15-year-old.) Then, early this month, it became clear that her health was deteriorating – a tick-fever diagnosis was followed by the realisation that there was a problem with her inner organs.
(We could never say for certain, but it's likely that the liver failure was precipitated by the heavy load of medicines – including antibiotics – that she had to be given for a long time after her accident. That was unavoidable, of course, given how bad the fracture was. Of course, the fellow driving that car so rashly in a residential area got away and was never identified or called to account for the huge amounts of pain and suffering – plus inconvenience to human caregivers – that he had caused. This is how it goes. Meanwhile, if a *dog* shows the slightest sign of aggression – regardless of the provocation – most RWAs jump down the throats of any animal-feeder or carer they can find.)
With street dogs, there is a lot of trial and error involved in these complicated medical cases – going to multiple vets, looking at various options for serviceable shelters – but Chhavi and her son Armaan unfailingly took time out from their office schedules to take Kaali wherever needed. I helped out a couple of times, and though that was a very small contribution, it gave me the opportunity to renew acquaintance with her. It never became a close relationship as such: she barely seemed to register me during the car drives, possibly because she was in a lot of discomfort, or dazed; when she snuggled close to me it felt more like a mechanical response, to deal with the disorienting movement of the vehicle, than anything else. I did get to carry her around a few times though – having lost a lot of weight in her final weeks, she felt like nothing compared to the 36/40-kg dogs I have lifted out of cars or onto vets’ tables. And I watched in despair as she first lapped up a huge amount of water, then vomited it all out within minutes, while we were waiting for her ultrasound (just at a point when we thought she had started to retain liquids again).
As I mentioned in my essay about “part-time dogs” in Hemali Sodhi's The Book of Dogs, an occupational hazard of keeping an eye out for street animals in your neighbourhood (including the ones you aren’t officially taking care of but need to be around for in case an emergency arises) is that many relationships aren’t clearly defined: one spends pockets of time with this or that dog, becomes a little attached, even, but without ever being able to think of the creature as one’s own. When Chhavi called me a few days ago to say that Kaali had died overnight at the latest of the many shelters that she was staying in, it didn’t feel like a potent personal loss, but it felt like… something. I thought about one of the first times I had really noticed her, months before her accident, when I found her moving around in our building stairway late one night, rummaging around in the garbage bags our upstairs neighbours had left outside their flat – and how I wished it were possible to take her in, except that our house dog was barking her head off already. (There is a similar issue at my other flat, where Lara, normally the meekest and most nervous of dogs, turns into a ferocious snarling hound if a colony dog is let into the house in her sight; the last two Diwalis I have struggled to keep different sets of dogs closeted somehow in different rooms at night while the firecracker terrorism has been on.)
One of the things I have become most aware of in the past 2-3 years is how vulnerable old dogs are (especially old street dogs), and how much more imperative it is to look out for them once they reach a certain age where the eyes and the joints aren’t working well, and movement is impaired. This, unfortunately, is precisely the stage when many of them are most neglected: at an advanced age they aren’t as attractive or personable to human eyes as younger dogs are (I’m talking about the humans who don’t already have a long-time bond with them); many of them no longer even make eye contact, something that is usually the first step in the forming of an intense human-canine relationship; and their last few months are often difficult ones. (Kaali wasn’t all that old – probably 10 or 11 – but she was old enough that she may not have been able to cope with the heavy doses of medication after that completely avoidable accident.). Increasingly these days, when I speak to people who are showing interest in street-animal welfare for the first time, wanting to understand more about the challenges and responsibilities, I ask them to look out as much as they can for older animals and to do whatever possible to make them comfortable. It’s never going to be easy, of course – there are way too many challenges facing animal-carers even when the animals are fit or active – but it’s something that should be prioritised. And yes, for those who need it, an incidental benefit is that taking care of old animals (or even just opening your eyes and noticing them, becoming sensitised to them) is good preparation for similar contingencies – caregiving for older people, looking after yourself as you age – in the human world.