As Indians we have odd, controversial and often contradictory attitudes towards stray dogs. As dog owners, things get even more complicated.
India is not a dog friendly country. Restaurants, even al fresco ones, will not allow us to bring our dogs to sit quietly under our tables while we brunch, like they do in Europe. Resorts and hotels do not have options for dog owners, making travelling or holidaying with your dog very difficult. One would think then, that we are not exposed to dogs in India that much. On the contrary, we have an uncontrolled explosion of stray dogs on our urban streets. They usually have a steady supply of food as they feast on the copious amounts of waste available in open bins due to our tardy municipal garbage collection system. They reproduce like rabbits unchecked. Some move in packs that can be dangerous to small children and other animals. Rabies is a problem in our country because of the massive stray dog population we have.
While many NGOs exist to help in the neutering of dogs to cut down the stray dog population and the eradication of rabies, the numbers are just too big and the government will is just not strong enough to assist NGOs in the good work that they do. Many stray dogs are also tortured and ill-treated. There are few of us who will go to a dog rescue shelter to adopt a dog. We, myself included, tend to favour pedigreed dogs as our companions.
We say that it is a difference in temperament that keeps us from taking in stray dogs. Incidentally, my mother in law’s dog is a stray, adopted when she was a puppy. The difference in temperament between Abroozi, our Labrador and Casey, is stark. Casey is incredibly territorial, suspicious and unwelcoming of all strangers or even partially known people, and cannot be taken for a walk without her attacking another dog or human. But she is supremely affectionate and loyal to her people and displays completely different characteristics to the ones I’ve described above when with the people she trusts. On the other hand, dogs that come from the streets are incredibly savvy, have phenomenal survival instincts and their natural pack instincts have not been dulled like with pedigreed dogs.The behaviour of each breed of pedigreed dog has been extensively mapped and is largely predictable (unless they’ve been through some trauma and there’s the nurture/nature argument) while the temperament of each stray cannot be known because of the random mix of traits they possess.
I admit that it’s only after having my own dog that I have come to appreciate street dogs and find a rugged beauty in some of them. But I’m still not the type to befriend one. Our own experience with an injured stray puppy that found his way to our door step left us thoroughly confused. The question is, would you want to live the life of a stray dog? Some would say they have the freedom to roam and be real dogs, while those in people’s homes can be restricted, even dressed up in shockingly insane outfits. For all their freedom, strays live a very unpredictable and often dangerous life.
For every stray dog that is cared for, we see countless others fending for themselves and many ill-treated. All this despite the story of Yudisthra and the dog in the Mahabharata, an epic so central to Indian culture. For those of you who have not heard it here goes: After years of bravery in battles, Yudisthra was told by Indra, the god of the heavens, that he and his brothers were to make their way to paradise. The road to paradise was long, hard, hot and painful. The days were hot and the nights were cold. They never had enough to eat or drink and the torment seemed endless. Along the way one after the other his brothers died and Yudhisthira was left alone. One day when he was resting under a tree a thin, mangy, ugly, old dog approached him and kept him company on his pilgrimage towards paradise. When they found food to eat, they both ate, when there was nothing they starved together. Finally, they reached heaven and before them appeared Indra in his chariot to whisk them away to paradise. As Yudisthira climbed in to the chariot, the mangy dog followed. Indra was incensed and said that the dog was too old and mangy to enter his beautiful heaven. Yudisthira got out of the chariot saying that while he was grateful for the invitation in to heaven, after the companionship and loyalty given to him by the dog on this arduous journey, he would not leave him behind now. Yudisthira turned around to return on the road he had travelled. At once the dog transformed in to the God Dharma, who had been testing Yudisthra all along. Having past the test of doing the right thing, not for any reward but because it is right, Yudisthira was taken to heaven.
Perhaps this part of the epic poem has failed to penetrate our social consciousness – we see stray dogs and we kick, beat and throw stones at them. I will admit that despite being a dog owner I too have thrown stones at packs of stray dogs who have hungrily tried to defend their territory while I walk my dog. We prevent Abroozi from playing with stray dogs because of diseases they might be carrying – leptospirosis can be transmitted through saliva and urine. And even though our dog’s vaccinations are all up to date, ‘why take the chance’ is most people’s thinking. I don’t think there is anything wrong in not wanting your child to play with a stray dog because they may have mites and fleas because they are out in the domesticated wild fending for themselves. I do believe that the population of strays needs to curbed. Recently I was at Cantonment Railway Station in Bangalore and was thrilled to see that while the dogs have not been “removed” they are all neutered – they have the tip of one year taken off which is the sign in most countries of a neutered dog by a shelter/NGO.
But there are two stray dogs that live near our house, adopted by somebody, who have grown up with Abroozi in their lives. They have an unfailing allegiance and respect for him. While other stray dogs are territorial, possessive and looking for an opportunity to engage in territorial conflict, these two are happy even to be sniffed by him. I’d say they had an obsession with him.
We have resisted the urge to pet them because once we do, it’s all over. One of them Kali, is unbelievable adorable and he’s the only stray dog I’ve felt that I would love to take home with me (him and an Alsatian mix we saw in Wellington one night). He’s still got his puppy downy fur and someone must be bathing him because his coat is very well maintained. I’ve seen him when strangers approach, even if they are with us and he is extremely cautious and barks his head off. But like all stray dogs he is incredibly loyal to the people he knows and loves, any new comer is the enemy. I should add newspaper and milkman to the enemy list. We call him ‘The Muffin’ because of his little size.
The other chap, Robo is not as nice looking. I find it hard to believe they are brothers. He’s much less cute and he’s a bit of a numb skull which makes him quite endearing. He’s quite the happy go lucky type, always keen to play and rough-house with his brothers, a middle-school drop out I’d say. He looks like he’s been through a fair few scrapes. He’s got a typical mongrel coat – very short and stiff. We call him ‘Sucre’ after Fernando Sucre from Prison Break – slow in the head but means well.
Almost every morning, we see these two brothers one clueless and a bit weather beaten and the other fluffy and adorable, launch in to a jubilant charge down the drive way, then low to the ground in submission as they near the Almighty Benevolent Abroozi and finally throw themselves at his feet, legs shoot up in the air and they whine and squeal and beg Abroozi to sniff them. I think they are playing a game when Abroozi makes believe that he’s advancing towards their bellies then suddenly trots off in the other direction, forcing the squealing fellows to follow him, run ahead of him and once again throw themselves on the ground in abject surrender. This goes on and on until Abroozi gives in and rewards them with an interested sniff of their rears.Smell being so central to a dog’s existence, dogs sniff each others’ rears as a form of greeting and to get the lowdown on what you’ve been up to and your general demeanour. That’s why they sniff a human’s crotch or rear – it’s how they find out more about who you are.
Being strays, Robo and Kaili sometimes wander off to other areas of the campus and we may not see them in the morning. On these days, Abroozi waits expectantly at their drive way, then looks forlorn when we tell him, ‘not today’. He drags his feet slowly, still with a smidgeon of hope that ‘the boys’ have overslept and will come bounding out any second now. On the mornings when they appear after a period of absence there’s always a new scar, a scratch from barbed wire or nip from a dog, mud from rolling in a puddle or wet sandpit. Their bodies bare the tales of the shenanigans of the previous nights.
These strays have become a welcome addition to our morning walks. They comprise of nearly half of Abroozi’s pack of dog friends and I think they make Abroozi more dog-social. The flip side is that now he tends to think that all strays should be as friendly as Robot and Kali and that gets him in to trouble. But those are stories for another day.