At nine-thirty on a weekday morning in the monsoon, Delhi’s Defence Colony flyover is a noisy, semi-immobile caterpillar. The rain always makes the traffic inexplicably denser. Nothing’s moving, there is no likelihood that it will any time soon. Through car windows you can see men and women in corporate uniforms glaring into mobiles. If their fingers stop tapping the keypad, they begin tapping the steering wheel, a steady drumbeat of rage: delayed meetings, lost opportunities, money down the drain.
Underneath the flyover, a young man with a single silver earring and an improbable beret on his head is murmuring to a bird on his wrist. The bird is large, and it has a hooked beak. For a moment I think it’s a falcon, because I’ve heard of trained falcons. When I ask the man, he says with an adoring smile: “She’s a kite. She is mine. I love her.”
The Frendicoes animal shelter and clinic has the Defence Colony flyover as its ceiling. The flyover is made of joined up prefab blocks of concrete. Gaps between the blocks let in a drip-drip of dirty rainwater on to parts of our waiting area even as the cars and buses above -- when they finally move -- make the clinic shudder with their vibrations. The space outside the clinic is a dimly lit passageway and its two coolers struggle to shift the sultry heat. Impatient dogs, cats in carriers, hamsters and birds, all wait their turn here, sometimes one hour, more often two. The vets are furiously overworked, two of them treating five animals at a time, charging from one patient on a drip to another with a gaping wound.
The man with the kite has come because his bird has fractured a wing. Three years ago, the kite had fallen out of its nest as a chick. The man had put the chick back in the nest, but it fell out again. This time he took it home and she has lived with him ever since. “We have a dog too. They are good friends. This bird is a member of my family.” As if to prove this, the bird kisses the man’s lips with its beak, which looks lethal enough to slice faces in half. Its talons quiver on the man’s bandaged hand.
Wait long enough at an animal shelter and you will see all of human life. If this isn’t an ancient proverb, it should be.
We’ve seen ramshackle drunks bring in a wounded bitch for treatment -- complete with her litter of suckling puppies, their eyes as yet blind to the world; injured pigeons, and kittens hardly bigger than mice, wrapped in hankies or aanchals; we’ve seen labourers, motor mechanics, women in patched saris, come long distances with strays, sometimes tied with no more than a rope because leashes and collars are unaffordable. These are animals they happened to see knocked down by a passing car or wounded in a fight. “How could we leave them to die?” is a common refrain. One woman said, “I had to look after her because she was wounded, but then it became love (phir pyaar ho gaya).” Some say environmentalism is a “full stomach” phenomenon: by that logic, people will care most for trees and animals when they can afford a 4x4 to drive to wildlife resorts. But under the flyover is compassion, not entertainment.
There are other kinds of people too: I saw a well-dressed trio come in with a Saint Barnard they claimed belonged to a neighbour. The ‘neighbour’ didn’t want the dog any more, they said. After a few formalities in the office, they patted the dog with a “Bye Bye, Bruno” before walking away, freed of their fifty-kilo charge. The huge, furry dog, as out of place in Delhi as a polar bear might be, gazed at his new surroundings unaware his family had gone forever.
In one experiment, when Konrad Lorenz hand-reared goslings as soon as they had been hatched, he discovered that the process of recognizing parents is not instinctive in birds: it is learned. The goslings followed him around exactly as they would their mother goose, and paid no attention to their biological mother. This is known as filial imprinting, and many animals imprint on to more than one other species, provided they meet them early enough in friendly encounters. The biologist John Bradshaw describes how puppies, between the fifth and twelfth week of their lives, can extend this filial attachment to several species. That is why puppies who encounter friendly humans or cats early in life adopt these aliens as extensions of their own family. Cats and dogs can be the best of friends.
What about humans? Is affinity to animals instinctive or learned? Why do some humans develop a deep sense of kinship with animals -- most commonly dogs? Is it because they have had dogs as children or is it an innate, unlearnable capacity like an ear for music or an eye for colour?
In the West this affinity is valorized: there is a whole publishing and film industry built on its foundations. It is considered good manners -- actually just plain normal -- to greet people’s dogs. Dogs are allowed to travel on trains and go to cafes. I’ve been to expensive restaurants where the immaculate head waiter presents the dog with a bowl of water before he turns to the humans with a menu card.
In our country, it is usually the opposite. Meet someone with your dog and the distrust is immediate: “Does it bite?” This may have complex social causes, and there are exceptions of course, but the bottomline is that most of us in India are indifferent to animals and often cruel. There are other countries where animals are savagely treated as well, but here, the venerated cow is an abstraction. Bull calves, always unwanted, are commonly left to starve to death; boiling water and even acid is flung on stray animals. Most animals, especially dogs, are seen as dangerous and dirty. It is no accident that the Frendicoes shelter is hidden away in a dark corner under a leaky flyover. Another shelter I have been to, the NOIDA SPCA, is set in a wasteland near a cremation ground and a graveyard. This is a country in which its National Human Rights Commission has issued a statement against stray dogs, calling it a “'Human Rights' versus 'Animal Rights' battle.”
For much of the middle class in India, with two jobs, two children, a small flat and dreams of second or third cars, every minute and square metre is apportioned. This does not allow for the genial anarchy of animals, the care and sacrifices they require. Few people have pets at home or feel the need for them. Some want pets, but worry about time, money, space. Their children, who never encounter animals, are usually rigid with ignorance and fear when confronted by so much as a playful puppy. I once saw a boy wash his cricket ball, which had recently rolled several times into a drain, after my dog picked it up. In his head the drain was hygiene compared to a pet dog’s mouth. In his head, as in that of far too many Indians, the species hierarchy was as immutable as the caste system, with humans at the top.
The other day there was the rare middle class child at the shelter: a five-year-old who waited for two hours in the heat with her father, grandfather, and Golden Retriever -- incongruously named Silver. She patted our dog with complete confidence and was unfazed by the dozens of lame and mangled strays who ambled around the waiting area. She’s going to be the odd-girl-out among troops of self-absorbed children growing up unaware of the needs of any species but their own.