Courage, compassion required of Bengal coast animal rescuers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2001:

VISAKHAPATNAM, India– Street dogs and staff of the Visakha SPCA remained at risk from mob violence well into January, and the Visakha SPCA Animal Birth Control program remained suspended, after a Christmas Eve invasion of the ABC facilities by goondas who demanded that Visakhapatnam resume electrocuting dogs. A political patronage hiree named Bangaraya was reportedly paid about $1.75 a day to kill street dogs until Visakha SPCA founder Pradeep Kumar Nath won an Andhra Pradesh High Court order stopping the electrocutions in October 1998.

As Nath and Christine Townend of the Jaipur-based animal rescue charity Help In Suffering each documented in photos sent to ANIMAL PEOPLE, Bangaraya and helpers packed dogs brought by the municipal catchers into a steel cage mounted on a trailer. The dogs were left in the tropical sun, without food or water, until the cage was filled. Reaching the cage capacity of about 40 dogs usually took several days. Then Bangaraya hooked the cage to an extension cord, and hosed the dogs down. Dogs who were still not electrocuted after half an hour were dispatched with iron rods. Municipal records indicate that at least 86,400 dogs were electrocuted, speared, or beaten to death by Bangaraya and staff between 1986 and the cessation order.

Bangaraya et al, including associates believed to have traded in dog-leather, never accepted the High Court verdict as final. The managers of the municipal cattle clinic whose facilities the Visakha SPCA has used to neuter dogs instead of killing them have never welcomed their canine co-tenants, either, who are to be ousted at the February 11 expiry of the Visakha SPCA lease.

Vigorous work on behalf of suffering animals, regardless of species and the pretext for the abuse, has earned the Visakha SPCA a small army of enemies. On Christmas Eve they joined forces. “About 200 people attacked us with sticks and we exchanged blows in self defense,” Nath e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE, whose editor and publisher visited the site in late November 2000. “Teresa Gibbs,” a veterinary technician at the VSPCA on loan from PETA, “was punched in the face as she charged at one of the attackers who was removing the kennels with dogs inside and rolling them around like a ball. Some attacked our van and released the air from the tires,” Nath continued.

“All of this happened in front of two policemen. They squatted in front of the dispensary and did not allow us to operate,” Nath said. “The one dog brought by the municipal van was let loose by these miscreants. We believe the mob was comprised of hooligans paid by the combined efforts of three major political parties. All the news media were there. There was a complete traffic jam from 9.00 a.m. until 2.00 p.m. Police reinforcements came, after frantic efforts to get help from them, two hours after the worst trouble. As most of the police were deployed to a festival occurring on the Visakhapatnam sea turtle nesting beach, at peril to the nesting turtles, few police were available to respond.

“The mob wanted us to stop our operations immediately and move elsewhere,” Nath explained. “Their contention is that if we are going to control dog numbers by neutering, we should fix more than 200 dogs per day.” Nath would like little better than to be able to neuter dogs at that pace, but the Visakha SPCA rarely has the funds and staff to neuter as many as 20. Their two-year total is just under 7,000–which has, however, been enough that Visakhapatnam has conspicuously fewer street dogs than the typical Indian city. Estimating the total dog population of Visakhapatnam at 15,000 to 18,000, Nath believes zero canine population growth is an attainable goal, but only if the villagers allow the Visakha SPCA to work.

“They say that the dogs are let loose in the village after surgery, which is not true,” Nath added. “They are returned to their locations of capture. The villagers also say that their livestock are being eaten by the dogs, which is also not true. “The chief medical officer of Visakhapatnam did come to sort things out,” Nath related, “but we felt very disappointed when he further instigated the villagers against us by saying that the municipality wants to kill the dogs, but cannot because of us. He was seen giving ideas on how to petition the courts and the District Collector,” the highest-ranking local official, “to take action against us. We have suspended operations,” Nath concluded, “and are requesting police protection.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE issued an international alert by fax and Internet.If the mob leaders and Visakhapat-nam officials thought the world would not be watching on Christmas Eve, they got a shock. Responding almost before anyone could look for socks filled by Santa Claus were an electronic legion including (among many others) Kenya Youth For Conservation founder Josphat Ngonyo, U.S. electronic animal protection news distributors Dick Weevil and Susan Roghair, and Maneka Gandhi, the Indian minister of state for social justice and empowerment. At midnight on Christmas Eve, Leo Grillo of DELTA Rescue sent urgently needed funding to enable the Visakha SPCA to buy land for its own clinic.

Already en route after visiting other Indian humane projects, Ahimsa of Texas patrons Bonny and Ratilal Shah reached Visakhapatnam to meet with officials and do whatever else they could on Boxing Day. Nath and colleagues took heart, but their troubles were far from over.

Fighting Navy, too

Nath and Visakha SPCA officer Swathi Buddhiraju, his niece, traveled to New Delhi during the first week in January. They needed to fetch a new veterinarian, who had just come from Yugoslavia, and they had business pertaining to their long legal effort to protect the Visakhapatnam sea turtle nesting beach from incursions by the Indian Navy.

As detailed in the June and July 2000 editions of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the Indian Navy is trying to add a decommissioned submarine and transport ship to the “Victory At Sea” memorial commemorating the 1971 Indian destruction of the Pakistani fleet. The memorial is the main point of visitor interest on the Visakhapatnam waterfront. The Visakha SPCA won a judicial verdict against the Navy in October 2000, including dismissal of spurious poaching charges brought against Nath and two Visakha SPCA employees as a counter-action, but the Navy appealed and has meanwhile continued to disturb the beach.

Nath and Buddhiraju returned to Visakhapatnam on January 8 to find that as Nath reported, “Operations are still held up due to the problems created by the villagers. The authorities are yet to give any kind of possible solution to the impasse.”

As ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press, Nath was finalizing purchase of a site for the Visakha SPCA’s own clinic and a cattery, near the pinjarapole (cow shelter) that the SPCA already runs–which has encountered similar problems.

Hit by arson

“The municipality used to dump stray cattle 90 miles away in a forest,” Nath explained in the January/February 1999 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, “where villagers killed many in most agonizing ways. I pleaded and threatened, and now about 125 cattle have come to us.” Nath set up the pinjarapole, with help from the Animal Welfare Board of India, and set about rescuing more.

“We recently raided five illegal cow slaughtering sites in and around Visakhapatnam, filing two sets of criminal charges and arresting eight people,” Nath mentioned in a March 2000 update. “In one incident I came across a cow being skinned alive. Even more horrible, in Anandapuram we saw cows being killed with heavy stones, the reason being to not allow blood to flow out, to insure that there was more weight in the beef. I am sure that gradually this kind of mad menace will stop,” Nath opined, “but because the killers are part of the Noe religious minority, there is now a political row kicking up over this issue.”

Nath underestimated the butchers’ thirst for vengeance. “On April 2, at two a.m., our cow shelter was completely destroyed by fire,” Nath wrote in his next letter. “This is undoubtedly the butchers’ work.” Since then Nath has had staff living fulltime at the pinjarapole. It has not been attacked again–but in early December the Visakha SPCA and People For Animals seized 130 cattle from illegal butchers. Those cattle brought hoof-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious bacterial disease.

Having hoped to have a second vet to assist Visakha SPCA chief surgeon Saidou Nacambo with the ABC program, Nath was instead obliged to have both vets treat cattle. Fortunately Nacambo, from the small African nation of Burkina Faso, has treated hoof-and-mouth disease before. Eradicated from the U.S. long ago, it remains common in Africa, where–although it can be cured, with much dilligent effort and expense for drugs–the usual government response is whole-herd massacre.

The Visakha SPCA might have been able to cut costs by killing all the cattle in the name of disease control. After all, the non-observant Hindu, non-Hindu tribal, Islamic, and Christian
minorities in the Visakhapatnam area routinely kill cattle for beef, often in gruesome ways, as Nath described, because there are no legal slaughterhouses and few Indians have any knowledge of modern slaughter methods.

But a lethal response was never acceptable to any of the Visakha SPCA key people. And, Nath reported on January 12, their effort to cure the hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak seemed to be successful.

Family effort

Nath and his wife Mallika, his sister-in-law Sarada Buddhiraju, and Swathi Buddhiraju founded the organization from their old-city home in 1996. They had always loved animals,
rescuing as many dogs and cats as the household could absorb– and they are devout Hindus, to whom helping animals is among the highest forms of prayer. They are proud of a reputation for stubborn incorruptibility. The strength of the Visakha SPCA is their strength
as a family. They are quiet, gentle, cheerful, do their animal work in mornings and nights after putting in full shifts at responsible jobs in finance, and have attracted a small corps of
like-minded workers who are both personally loyal to them and unafraid of mobs with clubs and torches.

They have all learned to deflect adversity. Nath, who earned a law certificate prior to starting the Visakha SPCA by studying nights, has seen many people promoted ahead of him at the bank where he works, who were once his subordinates. He declined
promotions in order to have the time and opportunity to continue to help animals. Swathi Buddhiraju recently quit her job to become the first family member to devote full time to the SPCA.

The Blue Cross

Outstanding humane organizations in India often grow out of the commitment of individual families, in some cases going back generations. Blue Cross of India vice chair Chinny Krishna recently encountered a hint that his family has been involved for perhaps hundreds of years. He was at an archaeological dig with his wife Nanditha, who is a distinguished art historian, anthropologist and author as well as a member of one of the oldest and best-documented families in Tamil Nadu. The diggers uncovered a stone tablet. The tablet bore Krishna’s own formal name, in Sanskrit script. With the name was the same cross-within-a-circle symbol that Krishna and his parents chose as the Blue Cross of India logo in 1964, to echo the symbol of the Red Cross. Around the symbol were carvings of animals.

Krishna describes Nanditha as the brains of the family, “and beautiful too,” he always remembers to mention. Apart from her scholarship, Nanditha has served on a variety of panels and commissions pertaining to wildlife, and is known for her semi-successful effort to turn the World Wildlife Fund’s Indian branch away from the support of sport hunting and other lethal “sustainable use” that characterizes WWF positions elsewhere.

Krishna meanwhile is the electrical engineer whose satellite dishes brought Indian telecommunications into the space age. He is a successful entrepreneur in a nation whose bureaucracy and corruption have long stifled entrepreneurship. His factory staff are also the
leading and perhaps only makers of modern animal care-and-control equipment in India. They turn out catch-poles, humane traps, and cages, between doing the jobs that pay the bills. The equipment is donated to nonprofit animal protection societies.

The Blue Cross of India, Krishna’s favorite project all his life, is by most accounts the best-managed, biggest, and most ambitious humane society in the nation.

Krishna’s late father, Captain V. Sundaram, and his mother, Usha Sundaram, founded the Blue Cross from their home in 1959. Both were aviators: Captain Sundaram trained British and American pilots during World War II–and trained Usha, then just 17, who became the
first female pilot in India. Post-war the Captain became personal pilot for the Maharaja of Mysore, with Usha as co-pilot. Usha also served as personal pilot for the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Blue Cross opened a separate shelter in 1963, formally incorporated a year later, and is now based at a four-acre site in central Chennai which was donated by a woman who first visited the shelter as a child, when it was still in the Sundaram home. The headquarters includes the busiest dog-and-cat adoption program in India, outpatient veterinary facilities, classrooms, the home base of the oldest and most active Animal Birth Control program, a spacious cattery, a pinjarapole, and an aviary.

But the Blue Cross is also active in other locations. A clinic near Krishna’s factory handles only ABC sterilization work and associated veterinary training. At the western edge of Chennai, beyond a zoo which is considered one of India’s best and the site where former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the Blue Cross has nearly completed a much larger pinjarapole and headquarters for ABC expansion.

The vicinity is almost certain to be swallowed within the next decade by urban sprawl, but Nanditha has averted potential conflict with neighbors by surrounding the new sanctuary with a “sacred grove” tree-planting project. By the time the sanctuary and clinic have many neighbors, they will be walled within a protected forest, including many economically productive fruit trees.

Taj for the animals

While the Blue Cross of India is the flagship humane institution of the Bengal coast, and the Visakha SPCA is a brilliant newcomer, the Compassionate Crusaders Trust of Calcutta also has claims to distinction, partnered with the Calcutta chapter of People for Animals, a national animal protection group founded by Maneka Gandhi in 1984.

Although Compassionate Crusaders and PFA-Calcutta are technically separate organizations, Debasis Chakrabarti and longtime volunteer trustee Purnima Toolsidass are the chief officers of both. Chakrabarti set out to study human medicine, but quit his medical studies in 1976 because he preferred to work with animals.  He became a “dog psychologist,” and over time built a following among local independent animal advocates, including Toolsidass.

There were at least four older humane societies already in Calcutta, but they were not providing adequate help to animals, so in 1993 Chakrabarti and Toolsidas started Compassionate Crusaders to fill the gap.

Among the many Compassionate Crusaders and Calcutta People For Animals projects are managing the Calcutta dog pound and Animal Birth Control program; running an inner city outpatient care clinic; operating a multi-species sanctuary called Karuna Kunj in rural
Bengal; holding weekly horse care camps at Victoria Park, in the central city; and completing the just-opened Ashari sanctuary and rescue center, dubbed by Maneka Gandhi “the Taj Majal for animals.”

Ashari is elegant, rising from low marshes just beyond the poverty and chaos of developed Calcutta. A domed education center rises like a mini-Taj on pillars above a lake. Terraces for bathing water buffalo occupy one end of the lake, descending from barns for hooved stock. Beyond the barns stands a water pump shared with nearby villagers. Compassionate Crusaders also brought electricity to the village.

This cost a lot of money, and will cost much more when fully finished, several years from now. Chakrabarti points out, however, that none of it was ever available for the direct care of animals. The Compassionate Crusaders obtained the land, a flooded pit formerly used for brick-making, through a government program meant to promote education. Materials, skilled labor, and engineering help have mostly come as donations-in-kind.

Chakrabarti believes that an inspirational building will increase public recognition, bring more cash contributions, and draw more help from political leaders–much as occurred after
Compassionate Crusaders built Karuna Kunj, on land near Bibirhat village, another outlying suburb.

The Karuna Kunj site was just a sandbar amid rice paddies when donated by cat lover Majeda Islam, who asked Chakra-barti to build a lifetime care center for cats. Chakrabarti jumped at the chance. Compassionate Crusaders started the cat shelter, and then did more on the remaining land. Chakrabarti developed attractive landscaping through a series of
ceremonial tree-plantings that brought the personal involvement of various donors and dignitaries. He also added a free clinic for the villagers’ animals, a water pump accessible to the villagers, a pet cemetery, care-for-life dog kennels, and as most noteworthy feature of the site, the largest and best-appointed aviary that ANIMAL PEOPLE has ever seen run by a humane society.

The screened enclosure is the tallest structure for miles, surrounding a pond with an island in the middle. Ducks, geese, and peacocks share the lower level of the aviary; above are rose-ringed parakeets, mynahs, and songbirds confiscated from illegal vendors. Parakeets are brought so often that compatible flocks develop. When they are numerous enough to survive on their own in the wild–parakeets rely upon numbers as their defense against
predators–a rooftop hatch is opened and away they go. Only birds-of-prey are isolated.

People for Animals

The Calcutta pound, when People For Animals arrived in 1996, was a charnel house. The former manager killed and skinned almost every dog received, selling the pelts. The building is still grim, filled with diseased and injured dogs, and the ABC program is not nearly big enough to keep pace with canine reproduction. The program has three retired government veterinarians working part-time, and one trained vet tech, as well as several veterinary assistants who are learning on the job–but it would need many additional skilled personnel to fully cope with the dog and cat population.

U.S. shelter workers might despair. Yet the morale of the staff is surprisingly high. Chakrabarti has them believing in what they are doing, convinced that they are at least started in the right direction.

People For Animals is also an important part of the Chennai humane community. PFA runs the municipal pound there; Krishna serves as a senior advisor, but has kept the Blue Cross out of pound operations, to avoid the associated politics. Although Chinny Krishna started the campaign that halted dog electrocutions in Chennai, he credits everyone else with inventing the PFA strategy that keeps them halted: the PFA pound manager set up his office in the former killing room, dismantled the electrocution machine, and hid key pieces.

The machine was originally donated to the Royal SPCA in London, England, circa 1881, as a presumed kinder fate for street dogs than allowing them to be caught for vivisection. The RSPCA decommissioned it and several others like it circa 1926, as inhumane in themselves. However, the machines were dusted off and sent to various cities in India and Pakistan in response to rabies outbreaks during the early 1930s. Until under five years ago they were reportedly all still in use. PFA is now petitioning the city government for permission to sell the Chennai machine as metal scrap.

PFA operates an Animal Birth Control program within the pound, sterilizing all dogs before returning them to their points of capture. Only incurably ill or injured dogs are euthanized.

Pitching in

The Chennai area has a third major ABC program, run by Animal Welfare & Protection Trust cofounders C. Padmavathi and C. Narasimhamoorthy. They are a married couple who had rescued animals for about 20 years, but did not plan to get more involved. Retiring to the Chennai suburb of Santhoshapuram in 1996, they saw illiterate and untrained municipal rabies control workers catching dogs with chains, breaking the dogs’ bones on the spot to
inhibit escape, and then awkwardly drowning them in a garbage cart filled with acidified water.

Padmavathi and Narasimha-moorthy stopped the dog-killing by investing their pensions in renting a house to use as a shelter, starting public education about rabies, and hiring veterinarians to neuter and vaccinate dogs. In their first four years Padmavathi and Narasimhamoorthy facilitated the sterilization and vaccination of more than 3,000 dogs, adopted out 500 puppies and kittens, and learned shelter management by trial-and-error.

A visitor used to standard shelter procedures may be startled to see dogs awaiting surgery in groups of 10-20, nursing female dogs leashed to the walls in the puppy area as surrogate mothers to all, and everything being done in a building which would need extensive renovation to even begin to be efficient for shelter-and-clinic use. Among other missing amenities, it lacks fenced outdoor dog exercise space; any way to drive a dog-catching vehicle into an escape-proof enclosure; double doors to prevent escapes; easily cleaned floors; individual caging for animals who need it; and running water and electricity throughout the building.

A visitor familiar with the difficulties of humane work in India, on the other hand, will appreciate how much Padmavathi and Narasimhamoorthy are getting done, starting late in life, without wealth or connections, just by pitching in and doing it.
Bengal coast contacts
Visakha SPCA c/o 26-15-200 Main Rd., Visakha-patnam, India 530 001; telephone 91-891-564-759; fax 91-891-528-662; <vspcanath@satyam.net.in>.

Blue Cross of India c/o 1-A Eldams Rd., Chennai 600 018, India; 91-44-234-1399; fax 91-44-234-9801; <aspick@kmr.net>.

Compassionate Crus-aders Trust at 1/13-A, Olai Chandi Rd., Calcutta 700 037, India; <animals@satyam.net.in>

Animal Welfare & Pro-tection Trust c/o 788 Kalaignar Karunanidhi St., Santhoshapuram, Chennai, India 601 302; telephone 91-44-227-5224.

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