How The Shelters Started

Written by Rebecca Bragg

So focussed is the dog on the cookie that she doesn’t realize another man holding a sack is stealing up behind her. He knows that as soon as the pooch snatches the bait, she’s going to bolt, so his timing has to be dead-on. At exactly the right moment, he throws the sack over her, gathers her up in his arms and carries her, unresisting, to the animal ambulance, where she joins several other dogs. She’s so frightened that she loses control of her bowels but the other dogs are calm so she soon relaxes. Then off they all go, dogs in the back, men in the front, the Darjeeling Goodwill Animal Shelter/One Voice ambulance continuing on its rounds.

Cruising the steep roads and narrow lanes of this city famed for tea and tourism is the first stage of a daily mission to create new beginnings and happy endings for the poorest of the poor of India’s canine kingdom. The ambulance’s passengers include a few other pick-ups conned earlier by the cookie sting as well as female dogs that have been spayed, cared for at the shelter for three days and are now are being returned to where they were found. Soon, fur will regrow to hide the telltale shaved patches around small incisions on one flank but the ear notches and inner-ear tattoos will remain, a public declaration that this dog will never bear puppies and has been vaccinated against rabies.

DGAS is the most recent of three projects initiated by Australian animal welfare activist Christine Townend, who has devoted the past two decades of her life to making India a kinder place for street dogs and other animals. The prototype, the Help In Suffering shelter in Jaipur, opened in 1980, but before Christine took over management ten years later, the sanctuary was in such an advanced state of decrepitude that its funding body was on the verge of shutting it down entirely.

Horrified by the way Jaipur’s street dogs lived, reviled, hungry, disease-ridden and terrified of human contact, Christine found the slow and agonizing way they often died — by strychnine poisoning – even more appalling. Originally, she’d only planned to stay in Jaipur for a few months, but those months stretched into the better part of seventeen years. For most of that time, Christine and her husband Jeremy, who gave up a successful law practice in Sydney to join her there and help with the work, lived in a small cottage on the shelter’s grounds.

Under Christine’s leadership, the shelter soon made a complete turnaround to become a model now widely imitated by other animal welfare groups in and outside India. Jaipur’s animal birth control (ABC) and anti-rabies (ARV) program commenced in 1993, the first in India to be funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Today, operations have expanded to include camel, elephant and equine rescue, treatment and public education programs.

The lion’s share of the funding for DGAS, which opened in November, 2008, came from One Voice, a French animal welfare group. Founded in 1995, One Voice is independent of any political or religious affiliation and all the charity’s money comes exclusively from the donations of its 15,000 members. “There is a lot to do in France,” explains the organization’s president, Muriel Arnal, “but we believe it is important to help projects abroad when they are as professional, well organized and efficient as the DGAS project.” One Voice hopes to be able to continue supporting the shelter but their fundraising has been hit hard by the global recession so “at this stage, unfortunately, nothing is really sure,” says Arnal.

How much did this well-equipped animal hospital cost? By Western standards, very little; by Indian standards, a small fortune; but by any standards, a huge chunk of change for one charity to pony up: the rupee equivalent of $120,000 U.S. for the land, construction of the buildings, twenty-four kennels, and the ambulance. One Voice has also allocated the shelter’s operating costs, which amount to $36,000 U.S., until March 31, 2010.

When most people visit Darjeeling for the first time, they raise up their eyes to the heavenly views of the Kanchenjunga range of the Himalayas but Christine and Jeremy’s most unforgettable experiences were closer to the ground. Soon after their arrival, she met a nurse who had been feeding and caring for a dog with a paralyzed jaw, which Christine knew to be a symptom of rabies. “I humanely euthanized the dog, which was suffering greatly,” she said in an e-interview from Sydney. This incident prompted a meeting of local community leaders “who agreed an animal shelter was needed in Darjeeling.”

There were a few problems, though. Land was expensive and, at an altitude of 7,000 ft., winters got too cold to house post-surgery dogs in outdoor kennels. In order to maintain sanitary standards, any animal shelter needs a dependable supply of water but Darjeeling town has a chronic water distribution problem.

Darjeeling district, on the other hand, takes in big swath of territory and the smaller town of Kalimpong, a two-hour drive away from Darjeeling town, was three thousand feet lower in altitude, land was cheaper and the need was as great as it had been in Jaipur. “Luckily, some donations materialized,” said Christine, and the project came together as though it was meant to be. In 1998, the Kalimpong Animal Shelter, situated on one and a half acres of former rice paddy, opened. Regularly, KAS staff travel to remote villages to vaccinate not only dogs but also farm animals against rabies which, in this forested part of northern India, is spread by wild animals like jackals and foxes.

And then came DGAS, located in the village of Lebong, not far from Darjeeling town but lower in altitude and with its own spring ensuring an uninterrupted water supply. The complex sits on a large, fenced tract lush with sub-tropical greenery, and has two main buildings, a large terrace and twenty-four kennels. In addition to veterinarian Dr. Yogesh Sharma, the shelter employs a general manager and four staff members.

The term “street dogs” casts a wide and often misleading net, especially in the Darjeeling hills, says Dr. Sharma. Some of the shelter’s patients have never been housed but a more accurate way of describing many others would be “community” dogs, attached to one neighborhood, fed table scraps by every household and often much loved. Other common canine plights: people move away and leave their dogs behind to fend for themselves on the streets. If someone’s pet gives birth to a litter, out go the unwanted puppies, especially the females, onto the street. Many people can’t afford veterinary care but even some who can don’t believe in spending money on a dog so if their pet develops a health problem, it is simply abandoned.

The shelter’s first year of operation has been a trial by fire – and water. In May, Cyclone Aila battered the Darjeeling hills, dumping what seemed like half an ocean on this town built in tiers on the steep slope of a mountain. The devastation caused was almost unprecedented in the region’s history, prompting the government of India to declare it a disaster zone: hundreds of landslides, including dozens in the town itself; considerable loss of human life throughout the region; thousands of people left homeless after the deluge washed away the foundations of their houses and sent untold tons of concrete crashing down onto lower levels. In the aftermath, as crews worked frantically to free the living and find the bodies of the dead, clear the debris and shore up the most precarious areas before the arrival of the monsoon turned the earth into mud soup again, many roads were rendered impassable to vehicular traffic for weeks.

And then there were the bandhs, general strikes called by the leaders of the Gorkha Janmukhti Morcha, the political body agitating for separate statehood status for the Darjeeling hills, where the lingua franca is Nepali and not the Bengali spoken by most of West Bengal’s plains-dwellers. When a bandh is called, compliance is mandatory and the areas affected are required to shut down completely: no shops, businesses or restaurants are allowed to open; schools are forced to close; roads are blockaded to prevent vehicles from entering, leaving or even moving around; beggars are not even permitted to beg. In July, an “indefinite” bandh was called; no one knew how long it would last but residents were advised to stock up on enough non-perishable foodstuffs to last a couple of months. It was lifted after fifteen days, during which time the animal ambulance was confined to the garage, but the driver quit to seek more secure employment elsewhere and they had to find a replacement.

But perhaps the unkindest cuts of all have been the occasional barbs in local English and Nepali language publications implying that DGAS is being run by a bunch of critter-huggers standing in the way of a real solution to dog overpopulation and the threat of rabies: a return to indiscriminate killing.

Is this the prevailing opinion here? Definitely not. But since DGAS opened its doors, something more nebulous and difficult to quantify than numbers alone can convey has been happening in Darjeeling.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his brilliantly written best-selling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little Brown, 2000) argues that ideas are as contagious as infectious diseases and even though they may incubate unnoticed for a long time, once they reach critical mass, the resulting change in attitude spreads through a population in much the same way as an epidemic. According to Gladwell, three “laws” make the difference between notions that never catch on in a big way and those that go pandemic.

First, you need a leader with the will and conviction to give her vision of change form and substance, as well as the ability to project that vision into the hearts and souls of others and then connect key people up into a viable, energetic network. Second: the vision of change has to be inspiring enough to impel people to act on it. Third: for a network to become a movement, and a movement to go mainstream, it has to fit into an existing context of time, place and circumstance.

Life is no box of Milk Bones for any street dog in India but many of the 100,000 or so residents of this city love dogs and would never harm them. Some dislike and fear them but give them a wide berth. And others…well, you find them in every country, community and culture.

Over the past year, though, here are a few changes I’ve noticed.

Whereas most people used to turn a blind eye to unprovoked acts of cruelty against street dogs, this behaviour has become increasingly socially unacceptable. Anyone who abuses a dog just because it happens to be within striking range is likely to find himself on the receiving end of an angry tongue-lashing and a whole lot of dirty looks from bystanders. In general, since people dislike being publicly humiliated in this way, this kind of thing doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to. Peer pressure is a powerful deterrent.

In the past, gangs of young boys used to roam around the Mall, Darjeeling’s scenic promenade, carrying sticks of substantial size and heft to whack any dogs that didn’t get out of the way fast enough. As the dogs fled with their tails between their legs, squealing in pain, the boys hooted with laughter. I haven’t seen this happen for quite some time either.

Recently, in my area, the owners of a dog thrown out on the street after committing a minor misdemeanor were shamed by the neighbours into taking him back. I was delighted – if astonished – by this.

When a dog is visibly sick or injured, DGAS is often flooded with calls from concerned citizens who have no connection to each other. If the animal ambulance isn’t available, people sometimes bring the dog in to the shelter by taxi at their own expense.

In a town the size of Darjeeling, word of mouth travels at the speed of sound and now that folks know there is an excellent vet here who, when he has time, accepts private patients and charges only a modest fee as a charitable donation to DGAS, they’ve become far more likely to seek veterinary care if their dogs develop health problems than put them out on the street or let nature take its course, as was more common in the past.

All small things that add up to a big difference by collectively sending the message that dogs are animals worthy of kindness, compassion and humane treatment, not vermin to be poisoned like rats or cockroaches. Thanks to the leadership and dedication of Christine Townend, without which DGAS wouldn’t exist, I think Darjeeling might just be closing in on the Tipping Point.

* Rebecca Bragg, who worked as a reporter for twelve years at Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, has lived in Darjeeling for the better part of four years. She is the proud owner of a gorgeous mutt, Hira, rescued from the street three years ago. Dr. Yogesh Sharma saved Hira’s life after she developed pyometra, a massive infection of her reproductive tract, as a result of a botched tubal ligation performed by another vet.

Written by Rebecca Bragg

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