Editor's note: As of May 1, in Bengaluru, there has been an estimated 30 percent increase in pet dog abandonments since the pandemic started. Owners are concerned they’ll catch the virus from their pet, despite limited evidence of transmission.
Paws outstretched, black-and-white tail wagging, Rocky likes to jump on any human her furry legs can reach.
She’s the outgoing sibling; her sister, Julie, is less excited by visitors. At just over three months old, these medium-size dogs are the newest "employees" at Kumaraswamy Layout police station in Bengaluru, India’s third largest city and the capital of Karnataka, a southern state.
Like many police forces around the world, officers here use a K9 unit to sniff out drugs, catch thieves, or protect property.
But Rocky and Julie are not your garden-variety pups.
The police rescued them as part of an experimental program that trains strays to join their ranks. Launched in December, the initiative could provide a permanent home for many such canines, making a significant impact on animal welfare in the city and possibly the whole country. So far, authorities estimate 21 dogs are “employed” across multiple stations. (Learn how stray dogs can understand human gestures.)
India’s streets are home to roughly 35 million dogs, a number that’s grown by 17 percent since 2016. The majority live tough lives, scavenging for food among garbage and possibly spreading diseases. Most are native Indian breeds, like the South Asian pariah dog or Rajapalayam hound, so they’re often called “indie” dogs—a kinder term used by many animal advocates instead of “stray” or “street.”
It’s impossible to go anywhere in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, without spotting roadside indies. In 2012, there were over 200,000 dogs on Karnataka’s urban streets. According to a recent census by the local government—the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, or BBMP—it’s now soaring past 300,000.
Residents mostly tolerate the animals, but they do pose some risk to humans as potential carriers of rabies. There are up to 20,000 cases of rabies annually in India, and many of the victims are children who play near and share food with free-roaming dogs. (There is no evidence dogs can spread the coronavirus to humans.)
But there's also a movement among Bengalureans to treat the animals with more respect, which is why more and more are adopting or fostering indies. Sudha Narayanan, who’s spent three decades fighting for animal rights, has witnessed this evolution, which coincides with a growing popularity in owning dogs.
As founder of Charlie’s Animal Rescue Centre, Narayanan’s helped nearly 3,000 street animals find their forever homes over the past seven years, with rates steadily rising. She credits this cultural shift to increased awareness of animal welfare fueled by international travel and nonprofit campaigns.
“The younger generation is a kind generation… They know, they read, Google search, everything,” Narayanan says. “They don’t want to be seen as someone who’s an animal hater.”
During the nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, for instance, dog advocates in Bengaluru are venturing outside to feed stray dogs.
Safety concerns remain, however. Sathwik Sriram, a resident who tweeted about “stupid stray dogs” after reading reports that a child was mauled to death in 2019, confesses he’s scared of the animals.
“Street dogs will be fine during the morning, but during night, [they] will tend to attack you,” he says over the phone, adding that his neighbor was bitten. He says he knows of motorcyclists "who got into accidents because they had to speed up to escape the street dog.”
A 2016 study claimed there are 25,000 dog bites per year in Bengaluru. To prevent attacks, the BBMP recommends not provoking dogs, particularly while they’re in heat or nursing—when they’re extra defensive. But in a crowded metropolis where everyone and everything shares the road, it can be difficult not to step into each other’s space.
Already part of the family
On a sunny morning in a dirt clearing next to the police station, a trainer is teaching Rocky and Julie the basics: sit, stay, heel, up, down, left, right.
The easily distracted pups listen with as much attention as any kid gives their teacher during a lecture, tumbling and tangling their leashes. Sweetie, their mother who likes to nap in the neighboring parking lot, interrupts to nip at their noses. (See charismatic studio portraits of dogs.)
All three were already "semi pets" wandering around the station, so it made sense to take them in, says Rohini Katoch Sepat, Bengaluru’s deputy commissioner of police for the south division.
“They’re already like part of the family, so we’re just formally introducing them into the family,” says Sepat. With support from Commissioner of Police Bhaskar Rao, she’s strengthening their canine unit with street dogs that reside at the 16 stations under her jurisdiction.
The adult indies, naturally territorial and set in their ways, are best suited to guard the station entrances they’ve been sleeping at for years, while pups like Rocky and Julie can in theory be trained from scratch for more ambitious crime-detection duties, she says.
These assignments usually go to imported breeds like German shepherds. With Sepat in charge, indies might finally get a piece of the action.
'The new cool'
Bengaluru is a hub for software firms, tech startups, and global developers who build posh apartment compounds and shiny office buildings.
Within the bustling center is a grassy escape known as Cubbon Park, now jokingly referred to as "Cubbon Bark."
Every Sunday morning, dogs and their owners flood a large fenced-in park to run off-leash: golden retrievers, huskies, rottweilers, shih tzus, and indies.
They’re treated as VIPs here, thanks to Priya Chetty-Rajagopal and her Knights of Cubbon Park, a volunteer network that looks after the park’s 80 to 90 indies on a shift-by-shift basis. All indies have names and are free to come and go as they please. Some, like Mimsy, have their own social accounts and are recognized by regular attendees. (See beautiful pictures of domestic dogs.)
The park’s grounds are packed on this particular Sunday; Chetty-Rajagopal notes it’s a light crowd, yet there are still more humans than animals.
Many of the indies are adoptable; one of the Knights' missions is to convince people that a purebred isn’t the only "perfect family dog."
"[We're] not just saying, Hey, please adopt an indie, but saying, This is the sexiest thing you can do. If you have an indie, you’re the new cool.”
Visitors include prospective pet parents and those looking for a pet. The Knights bring in experts—today it’s a vet warning about pet heatstroke as summer approaches—to educate their community of over 14,000 people, who stay connected through a private Facebook group.
Chetty-Rajagopal calls this trend “the rise of the petizen, because no longer are people embarrassed or sort of vague about saying, I have a pet.”
Karthik Sridharan adopted Rocket—a sandy indie with white splotches, who grins with his tongue out—in 2019 and has since rearranged his life, moving his startup to a dog-friendly co-working space and buying a car with space for Rocket.
“It’s easier to have a human baby than to have a dog baby,” says Sridharan, “because there’s just a lot more support in that aspect, rather than actually taking care of these guys, where there’s a lot of misunderstanding.” (Read how dogs are even more like us than we thought.)
The growing affinity for pets isn’t unique to Bengaluru, though activists are especially vocal here. (They’ve organized petitions to ban online pet sales, among other causes.) In cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, pet service startups like Woofbnb and dog cafés like Puppychino are emerging to make pet owners’ lives easier.
A safe space for street animals
Two Cubbon Park indies welcome guests at the entrance of Charlie’s Animal Rescue Centre on a bright Tuesday afternoon. Founded by Narayanan in 2013, the inpatient facility exclusively treats sick and injured street animals: indie dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, actual pigs, ducks, and even pigeons that can’t fly properly.
Charlie himself was an indie who lost a leg in an accident and, once recovered, spent about nine years helping children on the autism spectrum with animal-assisted therapy.
The medical unit includes an operating room for two, a blood analyzer to diagnose rescues straight off the ambulance, plus x-ray and ultrasound equipment—all donated, Narayanan says.
There’s limited funding for animal welfare in India, so money is often a worry for shelters. “Anyone comes I say… give me something for the dogs,” she half-jokes, admitting she “shamelessly” begs for resources.
Narayanan sees the worst of the worst, from animal cruelty to rabies. In 2018, Karnataka had the second highest rate of rabies deaths in India, likely driven by lack of awareness, the volume of dogs, and vaccine shortages. Sixty people died from the fatal disease in the state between 2016 and 2018.
For humans bitten by a rabid animal, the difference between life or death is five shots, the first of which needs to be administered immediately after exposure.
Some agencies administer shots for free. In 2015, the BBMP also offered up to 100,000 rupees, or about $1,300, as compensation for a fatal street dog attack.
As for the dogs, vaccines remain the answer, but current administration protocols aren’t thorough enough to protect the population. In the 1970s and ’80s, Narayanan said, indies were rounded up and electrocuted to bring the numbers down. That practice has been shelved, but even in 2020, abusers have poisoned or beat dogs to death.
Narayanan believes that “as long as there are humans, there will be cruelty”—but hope is the backbone of Charlie’s. (Learn how dogs know the meaning of a human smile.)
Some dogs live out their days under the care of her 34 full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers; others are put up for adoption. At first, one or two indies were adopted per month, she says, but now it’s 10 to 15.
Even breeder Prathvi Shenoy—who’s sold over 300 puppies through her company, My Lil Paw—understands the appeal. “These streeties are more loyal to you because hardly there are people who intend to feed them,” she says over the phone. “Once you feed them, they’re yours forever.”
The road ahead
Widespread spaying and neutering of street dogs is a solution most activists agree on. The municipal government has good intentions, volunteer Nandita Subbarao says over the phone, but it’s not enough.
Some city zones—specifically in the outskirts, where much of the construction is happening—don’t have any animal birth control providers, so dogs keep having litter after litter. Unless every corner of the city is taken care of, the population will continue to explode.
Subbarao has taken matters into her own hands by independently tracking the dogs in her neighborhood and calling BBMP agency services to get them sterilized and vaccinated.
Illegal relocation is another issue, she says. When someone complains about dogs outside their home, a privately funded catcher quietly picks them up and deposits them a few miles away.
When someone in the new area then complains, those same dogs get transferred to another block—wherever there’s a vacancy of dogs. Eventually, they’re moved around so much they may end up on the same road they started at, and nobody wins.
To combat this, Subbarao and other dog advocates spread awareness and education to the general public, teaching them to view indies with compassion instead of fear.
A promising future
Back at the police station, a cardboard box has been brought in, containing four black-and-brown puppies—maybe 35 days old, likely an indie breed, and so tiny they fit in the palm of your hand.
There were originally nine pups in the litter, rescue worker Saranya Babu Nachimuthu says, but she doesn’t know what happened to the other five. She believes the mother was beaten to death nearby. Rocky and Julie similarly had six siblings, but some were too ill to survive and others ran away.
Based on observation, this is the unfortunate reality of animal welfare work in Bengaluru. Volunteers scramble to protect as many vulnerable animals as possible but don’t have the means to save them all. The station’s dog training area is next to a road congested with traffic, and Sweetie likes to sleep underneath cars even if their drivers don’t know she’s there.
Still, dog-lovers put their hearts into helping indies. Subbarao does it for humans, too; stricter vaccination and sterilization processes help everyone, she says, regardless if you’re personally a fan of dogs.
The newcomers in the box, meanwhile, lap at a bowl of water and roll around in newspaper. They need medical attention and deworming. It’s unclear what comes next, but now more than ever, people are looking out for them.