When they found him in an East Delhi locality towards the end of February, the tall, dark, and handsome labrador was hungry, weak, scared, and depressed.
Apparently abandoned by his owners in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the well-bred dog had taken shelter inside a building under construction. Noticing his plight, someone called Ummeed Social Welfare Society, an Uttar Pradesh-based NGO that took him in.
“Stray dogs had begun attacking him, he was in a very weak condition,” says Nidhi Sharma, Ummeed’s co-founder. “We call him Buzzo now,” Sharma told Quartz.
Buzzo now lives with his new family in Meerut, some 80 kilometres north of Delhi. “He is a happy child who loves to go on bike rides, not realising he is a little overgrown for that,” Sharma said.
Not every abandoned pet is as lucky as Buzzo, though. “We just lost a beagle pup, whom we suspect was poisoned by his owners before he was left on the streets,” Sharma said.
While the streets of India emptying out over fears of the novel coronavirus and the lockdown announced in its wake, many localities are witnessing the emergence of a new set of residents: stray pedigree pets.
What’s fuelling the fear among the pet owners are news reports of a couple of dogs and a cat being tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong.
However, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in its research, has said that these pets are likely to have been exposed to the virus from their owners or other people.
“There are some coronaviruses that infect cats and dogs but do not infect humans,” explained the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website. “Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some cause illness in people and others cause illness in certain types of animals. The virus that infects animals can become able to infect people, but this is rare. We do not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread Covid-19.”
The AVMA further assured pet owners that these reported cases were no cause for alarm.
“A lot of this is happening because of misinformation that went viral earlier about pets being carriers of the virus in China. It turned out to be fake, of course, but a lot of damage has been done now,” said Vikram Kochhar, member of the People For Animals (PFA), one of India’s largest animal welfare organisations, founded by politician Maneka Gandhi. “Besides the few exceptions, it is quite rare for the virus or any other kind of disease to be transmitted to humans directly from the animals.”
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) had denied such claims.
Yet, there is no let-up.
“The situation is very frightening,” says Sharma. “We are exhausted explaining to the families that their dogs will not spread coronavirus but nobody listens.”
Abandonment happens all year long, according to Aparna (uses only her first name), who is a part of the adoption team at the Animal Hospital and Shelter in Noida near Delhi. In the past few days, though, there’s been a spike—her organisation has received two starved dogs and a labrador pup with a tumour.
“People just leave them at the gate of our NGO, or bring them to the OPD and quietly sneak out claiming they found the dog elsewhere,” Aparna said.
Last month, the Maharashtra state health minister had to appeal to pet owners to not abandon them after the state witnessed hundreds of pets being left on the roads by panic-stricken people. In Odisha’s Bhubaneshwar, too, fake news took its toll on pets.
Domesticated animals find it hard to survive abandonment.
“The first thing they do is to stop eating…depression is very evident on their face and reflects on their health as even a seemingly healthy looking pet catches infection immediately,” explained Aparna.
The situation is worse for stray animals.
“It’s like people do not want animals around them. My family just rescued five kittens yesterday (March 27) who were packed in a gunnie bag and dumped in a trashcan,” said Saawli Mehrotra, a 20-year-old animal activist in Lucknow.
The complete shutdown has left these street animals unfed for days since people, their only source of food, are now mostly staying indoors. Roadside vegetable sellers are no longer permitted to feed cows and bulls either, according to Aparana of the Noida shelter.
On March 25, prime minister Narendra Modi appealed to the nation to feed stray animals. His government has also asked states to ensure that medical help for such animals is treated as an essential service and shouldn’t be suspended during the 21-day lockdown.
“Despite the prime minister’s appeal, people just do not listen. When we go out to feed them, the police ask us to return home,” Sharma said.
Unfortunately, the resistance of the police towards the strays isn’t just limited to sending the activists back home.
“A cop once even asked us to stop wasting food on animals and instead share the eatables with them,” Sharma told Quartz.
Earlier, parliamentarian Maneka Gandhi appealed to police personnel across India to allow such volunteers to feed animals.
The animal welfare board of India has also issued an advisory to all chief secretaries of states and union territories in India to care for animals during the lockdown.
However, in a country of 1.3 billion people, animals are rarely the priority.
Animal lovers are trudging on, though.
“Our volunteers are going out every day to feed the animals,” Kochhar said. “We are also educating people that the strays or their pets will not transmit the Covid-19.”
Mumbai-based NGO Wockhardt Foundation has launched a fundraising campaign to support these animals. Bollywood stars, too, are chipping in.
Companies like PetPal, which provide doorstep delivery of pet food and accessories, are also trying to educate anxious pet parents.
“We are ensuring regular dissemination of emails/SMS’s with the latest information to avoid any misconception and keeping our pet parents updated,” said Srivatsava Gorthy, founder of Petpal. “We have also begun an initiative of feeding stray dogs and cats by our delivery executives.”
The forgotten animals, it seems, are hanging on to this thin ray of hope.