Mumbai Memoirs: Slums & Street-Dogs
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” chirped Noel Coward way back in 1931, although it seems that in the last eighty-odd years even piping-hot pooches have learned to stay cool in the shade.
The infamous slums of Mumbai play a major part towards making India’s most populous city and its proud commercial, TV and film hotbed too.
So perhaps it was no surprise that when invited to volunteer recently with the charity Welfare of Stray Dogs India (WSD) – I’ll admit I did attempt a bit of a home-made Bollywood dance of content.
Mumbai (the artist formerly known as Bombay) is the capital of the western Indian coastal state of Maharashtra and the core of one of the most populous urban regions in the world, boasting an astounding population in-excess of 22 million people.
The city’s thousands of stray dogs mostly belong to an ancient canine race known as the Pariah Dog which has existed all over both Asia and Africa ever since human beings started living in basic settlements, i.e. for perhaps 14,000 years or more.
These Pariahs are (and have always been) experts at scavenging – thriving on the rubbish thrown out into the streets by humans.
Indeed, much of the urban stray population consists of mongrels or mix-breeds–descended from pure-breed dogs who have been allowed by their owners to interbreed with the Pariahs.
It’s true that the size of any stray dog population in the world will always correspond to the size and character of the human population of that particular area, and Mumbai is certainly no exception to this rule; for urban India possesses two features which create and sustain its large stray dog populations.
These are the large amounts of exposed rubbish which provide an abundant source of food, as well as a huge population of urban, slum and street-dwellers who often keep these supreme scavengers as their own free-roaming pets.
In fact in this, the richest of all India’s cities, over 500 tonnes of rubbish remains uncollected daily providing near-perfect conditions to support this particular population of hungry strays.
So I was intrigued to see how WSD could even attempt to touch the surface of any issues concerning so many stray dogs, as well as attempting to tackle or try to control overpopulation and/or disease transmission (e.g. rabies).
On my first Mumbai morning I had to find WSD’s main-man, a Mr Abodh Aras. Sure, I was clutching a sweaty scribbled address on a scrap of hotel-room notepad, but anyone who’s been to India will sympathize that your destination address is more likely to feature at the beginning of your journey than at its end.
So after knocking on countless doors, dusty shutters, opaque window-panes and climbing endless flights of wonky stairs linking run-down office blocks that made up a small district of Mumbai, I met Abodh sitting below the big wooden blades of a proper movie-style revolving fan that was struggling to cool an air temperature rapidly climbing into the 40s.
Sitting opposite the hugely charismatic Mr Aras, our conversation was constantly – and pleasantly – interrupted with countless volunteers phoning in offers of their precious time and resources to help WSD; and it dawned on me that this man’s passion and clear love of all animals once was – and very much still is – the ultimate starting-block in creating change and resulting order in this crazy potpourri place of so many different communities and cultures.
Abodh first explained how the obvious stray dog’s description ‘slumdog’ is in fact quite derogatory, with Mumbai’s strays referred to as ‘street-dogs’ instead; and how in January 1994 (the year before Bombay was renamed) the mass stray dog killing programme had been found to be totally ineffective in controlling both overpopulation and rabies, so was replaced by mass-sterilization instead.
A programme now carried out by non-government organisations – like WSD – in collaboration with Mumbai’s municipal corporation.
So it was very fitting for Abodh to next show me WSD’s clinic where all the sterilizations are done, located in the Chinchpokli Slum in the shadow of the notorious Arthur Road Jail (incidentally on the day of the trial of the Mumbai hotel terrorist).
En route to the clinic Abodh treated me to a specific story matching every street dog we passed and even some old deceased favourites too.
Street-dogs sleeping on the cinema steps named after movie-stars past and present, or how about the dog that wanders in and out of the local restaurants with his ‘girlfriend’ close to Mumbai waterfront’s breathtaking colonial Gateway to India monument.
There was even a street-dog shot and killed by the terrorists in the tragic 26/11 terror attacks that unsurprisingly never made the World News.
Plus fondly remembered street-dogs ‘Rhythm House Kali’…‘Fashion Street Rocky’…the ‘‘D’ Road Moti’… all affectionately named and once lovingly looked-after by one or more Mumbaikar (Mumbai residents), although they all technically lived happily here on these hectic streets.
On entering the clinic I was immediately greeted by another canine character ‘Kali’ (literally ‘Black’), a twelve year-old bitch whose fore-leg had been fractured years ago and had successfully healed on its own – albeit at completely the wrong angle.
But as Kali bounded up to, and jumped up at me, it was already glaringly obvious by looking around the clinic that WSD is entirely dedicated to the health, happiness and welfare of not only dogs, but all animals.
Every male or female dog arriving here from Mumbai’s surrounding slums and suburbs via the government’s official (and scary-looking) Dog Vans is sterilized; because while the females actually give birth to more dogs, the males can be more aggressive, and tend to have a much higher ‘nuisance’ value. Any complaints from the public are almost always about males.
WSD employs two full-time vets, whilst two more visit the clinic for neutering duty only – taking time out from their own busy private clinics.
After examination on arrival, any dog regarded unfit for general anaesthesia is immediately blood-tested for liver and kidney function, as well as Erlichiosis – a common tick-borne bacterial infection that destroys white blood cells. They are then kept in the clinic and given the relevant treatment (both medical and homeopathic) to make them healthy candidates for neutering.
Furthermore I was so impressed that not only was the exact original location of every dog coming through WSD clinic’s doors meticulously documented, but all patients are kept here under observation for at least 8 days before their sutures are removed and they are released right back to that exact spot.
With at least 30 dogs safely neutered every morning at WSD’s clinic, you can imagine the phenomenal organization and speed of both surgeons and staff here – averaging just 3 minutes per dog castrate and 6 minutes per bitch spay!
But before awaking from their deep anaesthetic sleeps, these freshly-sterilized dogs are vaccinated against rabies and permanently marked by cutting a single notch in their left ear so the Dog Van collectors can tell from a distance that they’ve already been ‘done’.
With their surgical wounds all healed nicely the dogs are finally released back onto their own turf resulting in both the populations and problems originally caused by these dogs being drastically reduced.
Previously each dog had guarded its own territory and would not allow new dogs to enter, and since neutering they obviously no longer mate or multiply either.
What’s more is the main factors that usually lead to canine aggression (migration and mating) have now been successfully eliminated so dog-fights are also reduced dramatically; decreasing fighting and bites to humans also decline. And with females no longer protecting pups this eliminates yet another common source of attack.
I was lucky enough to meet a couple of WSD’s inpatients up for adoption too: One-eyed ‘Hope’ and three-legged ‘Candy’ – both victims of the two commonest conditions encountered on the streets – maggot-wounds and road traffic accidents respectively.
‘Fly-strike’ – every rabbit’s worst nightmare – is sadly an extremely common disease of Mumbai’s street dogs and accounts for an astounding 80-85% of all cases seen by WSD.
Any type of wound will attract flies that will lay their eggs there causing hundreds of maggots to hatch and devour the poor dog’s surrounding flesh causing intense pain, discomfort and infection.
At the clinic I was introduced to WSD’s Field Manager Pooja Mishra, yet another awe-inspiring piece of WSD staff’s jigsaw who’s been working with the team since 1998.
Pooja was to take me under her wing for the week as we attended, treated and were called-out to countless maggot-wounds, dehydrated pets, cats with cat flu, and various abscesses requiring lancing – all over Mumbai and its surrounding slums and suburbs.
And in this massive crazy city of stand-still traffic madness it’s actually far-easier to get from A to B using a combination of buses, trains and walking, than by car.
Mumbai’s buses are hugely popular for commuting short to medium distances and carry over 5.5 million passengers every day, while trains fares are more practical (and far cheaper) for longer distance journeys.
So what better way to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of Mumbai than by its public transport system; to witness first-hand this bustling metropolis that suffers from the same major urbanization problems seen in many fast growing cities in developing countries, i.e. widespread poverty and unemployment, poor public health and poor civic and educational standards for a huge section of its population.
From the slums in south of Mumbai right up to the northern fishing villages of Bandra, Pooja and I covered hundreds of miles together every day from dawn till dusk, armed with rucksacks overflowing with first-aid kits, drip bags, intravenous catheters, antibiotics, and various homeopathic remedies too.
Maggot-wounds are dealt with by applying chloroform, allowing manual removal of the individual now-sleepy maggots using forceps, followed by applying ‘Himax’ – a black tarry lick-proof fly-repellant paste designed to limit cross-infection and prepared from extracts and oils of natural plants – making it an effective broad-spectrum skin ointment effectively relieving any itching and helping to prevent scratching.
Having only seen Slumdog Millionaire the once, I still wasn’t entirely sure or prepared for what to expect when working deep in the slums; but I can definitely say that I was more-than pleasantly surprised at what and who I discovered there.
With any available housing space at a very high premium, Mumbai residents will often reside in cramped, relatively expensive housing close to bus or train stations, i.e. slums, transition camps, commune-style chawls (purposely-built residences for migrants), which are all usually far from workplaces, and therefore require long commutes on crowded mass transit, or clogged roadways.
Not only was this vast array of varied housings stunningly beautiful and intensely vibrant and articulate to look at, but it possessed the highest levels of unadulterated happiness, joy, safety, generosity, and community-spirit combined with pure family-love I have ever witnessed – and I was even sometimes privileged to be at the receiving end of – in every area we visited; and emotionally it was almost as choking as the thick 45 degree shade-free heat that we were working in.
Add to that the phenomenal range of colours, aromas, tastes, sounds and various animals (which also included goats, chickens, horses, inquisitive jackdaws and of course sacred free-roaming cows) in this country whose ancient building blocks include strong religious reincarnation beliefs and mystical superstitious ambiguity, I can safely say that my spice-loving senses have never been more challenged and as a result found the whole experience not only unforgettable but extremely moving too.
WSD’s first-class first-aid service and round-the-clock care are also completely free of charge to the Mumbaikar – funded wholly by generous donations.
And if that wasn’t enough, the charity also pride themselves on yearly booster rabies vaccination schemes successfully coordinated by area-specific volunteers, and educating school-children on both approaching and handling dogs, and an active rehoming scheme promoting Pariah dog adoption as an alternative to pedigree puppy buying.
Welfare of Stray Dogs is easily one of the most impressive and welfare-minded animal charities I’ve ever had the sheer joy to volunteer with and I would like to take this opportunity to thank both Abodh and Pooja for letting me into their professional and family lives, and allowing me to partake in the incredible work they are doing in these extreme temperatures, rainfalls, seasons and environments day-in day-out.
To see more pictures of dogs, WSD clinic, Mumbai and its suburbs and slums please click here.
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