Another day, another 500 mouths for Sanjukta Lal to feed.
Each day, Lal prepares chicken and rice for scores of street dogs. Then she ventures out, during a nationwide stay-at-home order, to drop off the meals at various places around the southern Indian city of Puducherry.
Lal is one of the animal lovers looking after India’s 35 million free-roaming dogs, many of which can’t find food during the world's largest lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19. With shops and restaurants shuttered from March 25 until at least May 18, the canines’ main source of sustenance—garbage scraps—is gone.
Anticipating this problem, the Animal Welfare Board of India issued a letter two days before restrictions went into effect, declared feeding “companion and stray animals is an essential service.” The letter encouraged cities to allow people to feed street animals during the lockdown because without that aid, large numbers of animals would “suffer and die.”
A number of other cities, including Delhi and Jaipur, are issuing "feeder passes" that permit people to leave their houses to care for street animals—such as dogs, cows, birds, and monkeys—mostly on their own dime.
Lal, a volunteer at Bark India Charitable Trust, sometimes stays out until 1 a.m. feeding dogs. Activists like her are doing everything they can, but it’s not enough, she says in a phone interview. “There are dogs who go hungry for about seven days. Then they get one meal, maybe, on the eighth day.”
In Puducherry, formerly Pondicherry, most of the city’s 240,000 residents are staying home. The dogs Lal sees are “more relaxed” and “sprawled all over the streets,” she says—because for once, there are no cars honking at them to move.
Things aren’t as peaceful in the country’s north. Harshit Sharma has been putting out food for street dogs for a couple of years in Ghaziabad, a suburb of Delhi, India’s second-largest city with a population of over 11 million people. Sharma says that the dogs now are growing more territorial and aggressive. That’s particularly troubling because rabies-infected dogs can transmit it through bites—and India has the world’s greatest number of rabies cases, up to 20,000 annually.
Pandemic or no, feeding hungry stray animals is not universally accepted. In the city of Agra, renowned for the Taj Mahal, people have been harassed for feeding dogs at some apartments.
Vineeta Arora, owner of the Agra animal rescue shelter Casper’s Home, says one of her volunteers was “beaten up by a shopkeeper” for feeding dogs too close to a store that was open illegally during the lockdown. Though the government supports individuals caring for animals, those individuals’ fellow citizens may go by their own rules.
The crisis comes just as street dogs—which often are “indies,” an affectionate term for native Indian breeds—have experienced a popularity boost, with more people adopting them as pets in recent years.
Now, due in part to unfounded fears that pets will spread COVID-19 to humans, dog abandonments are on the rise around the country. Pet shops and breeding facilities have shut down with animals left inside; the welfare board sent an urgent advisory imploring officials to evacuate such properties. While checking such neglected areas, Arora and her team found pups that had starved to death in a local market.
Animal rescue workers must also look out for dogs stuck in homes when their owners are quarantined or isolated elsewhere, Arora says. “There was a doctor who was infected by coronavirus,” she explains over the phone, “and his entire family was picked up and taken to a hospital without unlocking the Labrador which they had.”
Authorities rescued that dog after one day. In several similar cases, Arora has placed stranded pups in foster homes.
With 42,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in India, some owners are deserting pets “simply because they don’t feel like it’s safe to have a dog anymore,” Sharma says. “There are, of course, people who just want to get rid of their dogs, and [take] advantage of this corona excuse.”
Sudha Narayanan, founder of Charlie’s Animal Rescue Centre in Bengaluru, gets an average of five calls and two emails per day from people asking to give up their pet—a 30 percent increase over such inquiries before the pandemic.
Narayanan says she tries to talk people out of doing that—but when she hangs up, she has a “bad feeling” that her advice will be ignored.
In Agra, Arora also has counseled owners considering abandoning their pets—and since January, not a single dog has been adopted from her shelter.
Still, activists have found one bright spot. The coronavirus pandemic’s effect on street animals has increased the general public’s awareness of the animals' plight—a gain that animal advocates hope will persist long after the health crisis is over.
In Puducherry, Lal has observed more families leaving extra food outside their door for stray dogs.
And in the Delhi area, various citizens and organizations are so eager to contribute that they end up duplicating efforts.
“There’s a dog in my street and I went to feed him yesterday,” says Sharma. But in his suburb of Ghaziabad, a security guard reported “that the dog is actually not eating anything anymore …
Every person is coming and thinking the dog has nothing to eat, which is why they’re feeding him every two hours.”