Slumdog, Streetdog, Beachdog

Last time I blogged it was in Goa, and it seems a world away from the week we’ve had in Kerala. However before I post about Kerala, I have to share an experience which has been dreadfully upsetting for me and highlights the East meets West mentality in a nutshell.

Dogs are everywhere here. Street dogs in the towns, beach dogs in the resorts. In Goa many had collars, and I assumed they were owned as they had pieces clipped out of their ears as if part of some registration program, and they were incredibly friendly. Being fed and petted consistently by tourists has served to take the edge off their pack-dog mentality, however some mothers of fights would break out where 5-6 dogs would converge on one, resulting in blood-curdling growls and squeals of pain. These appeared territorial and would usually end up with the interloper running back in the direction he came from, often limping or nursing a wound. It’s hard to watch, but is exactly how our beloved pet dogs would act if they lived in the same situation.

Harder still is the way Indians treat the dogs, and they are the bane of the beach restaurant staff. Indians seem bemused by the way that tourists pet and fuss over the animals, and I often saw dogs being kicked, or things being thrown at them to make them move away from tables. Normally the foot wouldn’t connect, the dogs having a built-in instinct to get the hell out of dodge once they’ve outstayed their welcome. Tourists feel sorry for the dogs, so feed them, meaning the dogs are vulnerable then to the wrath of restaurateurs who just see them as mangy critters putting off the punters. Most of them seemed well fed and cared for however – or so I believed my first day. It turns out that when Goa packs up for monsoon, and all the bamboo huts and restaurants are stored away and the tourists go and find the sun and sand elsewhere, these animals are left to fend for themselves. The reason someone puts collars on them is so that they won’t be beaten to death by Indians, who will instead think they are pets, giving the mutt a slightly better chance of survival. Needless to say there are very few cats and kittens, these poor creatures getting devoured by dogs during monsoon when there is no other food.

A woman is setting up a charity in Arumbol in Goa to care for the beach dogs during monsoon. Her aim is to make enough money to get them all wormed, de-flead, neutered and spayed, thus cutting down the number of dogs and reducing the problem. It’s a worthwhile charity and something I want to find out more about when I’m stable again. Tourists come, tourists go, fickle in our desires, not thinking about how our brief visit might impact the lives of the dogs by teaching them bad habits which may result in their death, or how their lives might be during the time of the year that our food and money is absent.

This in itself is upsetting enough for any animal lover. It’s sad enough looking at the human poverty present in India, and the deformities are horrendous. I may write more on that later. For me my heartstrings are always tugged by our four-legged friends, and that is subject matter enough for one post.

So I come to the upsetting part, my small personal journey in India where I tried to bring my Western mentality to a situation where no-one else apart from myself really cared. Carolyn and I stayed in a beautiful part of the world, Varkala in Kerala, a cliff-top town with pretty beaches and palm trees. There are dogs aplenty here too, but sporting more battle scars and far thinner and more wary of the Indians than those in Goa. Some had collars, but these were in the minority. One restaurant round the corner from our hotel had a small black and tan puppy, I’m guessing maybe 3 months in age, no more. I’d seen her as we’d walked down the beach the night before, seemingly playful and hanging round dining tourists. The next day she was under a table and as we chatted to an English couple we met I picked her up. I immediately realized something was wrong – her eyes were almost glued shut with sleep which then had sand stuck to it, and her nose was pouring mucus. She was incredibly lethargic and bloated, her little ribs straining with the pressure. I asked the guys in the restaurant to put some water in a bowl and get her to drink. Due to her protestations I put her down and she collapsed under the table in the sand. I just hoped that some water and food that evening, perhaps from a caring diner, might perk her up, and perhaps she just had a cold and was tired from the heat – it was a scorching day.

Yesterday afternoon I went down to check on her and she had worsened considerably. The restaurant staff had tried (they said) to get her to drink and she wouldn’t, but they were far more interested in chatting to the blond Westerner than they were in the welfare of the dog. They had taken the bowl of water away and didn’t have another one – all bowls were just used for food for patrons and not ‘street dogs’. I suggested they cut the bottom off a water bottle and use that as a bowl, and I managed to get her to drink some. It was obvious she was dying though, she could barely stand or walk, and when I put her down she staggered off to hide under the building. I heard her crying a few minutes later and there was nothing apparently wrong so I brought her into the shade of the restaurant and put the water beside her, but as she could barely lift her head I had little hope she would drink it. I left her with a lovely French lady who said that she would use reiki to speed the puppy’s ending and make it peaceful.

That evening as we were dining on the cliffs there were two massive thunderstorms. After they had cleared and we could get back to our beach I went down to see what had happened to the dog. She was no longer in the restaurant, but lying in the grass near the generator. Luckily she wasn’t drenched so she must have been inside during the rainstorms, but she had no strength and couldn’t stand or lift her head. I knew she had very little time left, but I wasn’t going to leave her to die alone outside in the dark and the wet. I ignored the waiter’s reassurance that he would take her to the vet the next morning, as it was a) a lie and b) even if true would be way too late for this poor little dog. My gut feel is he just wanted to impress the tourist. I picked her up and took her back to my room. I put her on a towel on the bed, covered her with another one, and cuddled her very gently. She cried twice early on, coming out of sleep and very loud considering her weak state. Whether it was fear, pain, bad dreams, or the subconscious knowledge of her impending death, I don’t know… but it was heartbreaking and all I could do was try to soothe her. About midnight she slipped into a deep sleep and her breathing became shallow for quite some time and a little part of me hoped that she was improving. Then she started breathing heavily, her lungs rattling, which went on for a while. She passed away at about 2am. I only had one large plastic bag – the one I’d been using for my laundry that I’d brought from Australia – so I wrapped her up in that and walked back round to the restaurant, crying my heart out. The lone night watchman there spoke little English but suggested I put her back in her original spot, near the generator, which was sheltered. Uncomfortable with my tears, he nodded a lot and patted me on the shoulder, doing the best he could. I left her there in my Kathmandu (an Australian hiking shop) bag, and that was all I could do for her. When I went down to the restaurant early this morning I managed to find the owner, and showed him the little green plastic-wrapped bundle. He nodded sagely, ‘dead’, then went off back to the restaurant. I have no idea as to her fate now, I can only hope they bury her before crows or other dogs eat her, but I imagine she may just be dumped in the forest as food for whatever may want to eat a tiny skinny dead mutt, just another street dog that nobody apart from me shed a tear for. For the Indians, it’s life and death. Dogs are pests, not pets. When I had pointed out that she was dying and wouldn’t last the night, the waiters laughed – not out of malice but because they didn’t even realize she was sick in the first place. They just didn’t believe it. For the tourists, they accept that this is how the Indians treat street dogs, and reach their own mental comfort level where they can block it out in the same way they can walk past deformed beggars on the way to the next beer, yoga class or nice meal in a restaurant. I guess I’m not that sort of person, certainly not to turn my back on a tiny animal in need (people are another matter).

Half of you will think I’m mad, some will think I’m an idiot to put myself through so much deliberate heartache, and hopefully some of you (all the animal lovers) will empathise. I just couldn’t leave her to die on her own in the dark, in the rain, crying out and scared. After all she may be just a street dog, but she was still only a baby. Abandoned by her mother and everyone else in the short weeks that were her life, she deserved to die in a warm sheltered place, to the whisper of kind words and a warm hand stroking her head. I’m not sure she even realized I was there, but I hope some part of her knew I was and it helped.

The maddening thing is that if I’d been there just a few days earlier I probably could have got her to a vet, got her on a drip, and saved her life. As the French lady pointed out though, what life would it be? It’s survival of the fittest for street dogs in India. Some may survive early puppyhood, more in Goa than Verkala I believe, but people, monsoons, starvation, attack from other dogs and illness also face them. Begging from tourists, no respite from worms, fleas and ticks which bloom like dark melanomas all over their bodies, is no existence. I can be inspired by Jill Robinson of Animals Asia who runs the Friend not Food program in China and uses dogs rescued from food markets as her ambassadors. Reduce the dog population, teach the younger generation that cruelty is appalling and that a dog’s friendship can be as wonderful as a human’s and more loyal; that euthanasia is kinder to end the suffering of an animal (what I’ve heard is vets won’t put street dogs down as it is bad kharma, so they just leave them to die naturally). It would be nice to believe that these things are changeable in a country that is emerging into a world leader for commerce and business. It would be nice to believe that this attitude will change all over the world: after all India isn’t the only place with animal cruelty. In fact here it’s more of a blasé non-caring attitude, stemming from ignorance and lack of education and life experience, and the lot of a street dog mirrors the caste system which is alive and well. Street dog, slum dog, beach dog: lower class. Pedigree: upper class. It’s their lot in life, it can’t be changed. Born on the street, die on the street.

The experience has left me very upset and drained today as we wait in the airport now to fly to Rajasthan as I’ve had no sleep. Sometimes the right thing to do is the thing that hurts the most. One thing is for sure, part of my future life is becoming clearer because I know that, like the lady in Goa, I can’t sit by and do nothing when it comes to animals suffering in my immediate vicinity. I’m not that type of person.