For just $40 a month, Indians can beat lockdown blues with a long-distance pet

Image: Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate
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Raghav Chabra, a 28-year-old chartered accountant in New Delhi, has been anxious lately as he juggles work from home and household chores while implementing a laundry list of precautions to safeguard himself from Covid-19. But at 7pm each day, he’s all perked up for his “stress buster.”

Chabra spends about an hour every evening watching his virtual pet, a golden retriever named Franny, via Skype. Franny lives in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi and is looked after by a volunteer of an Ummeed Social Welfare Society, an Uttar Pradesh-based NGO. Chabra pays for his food and shelter, among any other needs.

An ardent pet lover, Chabra does not have the option to keep a pet at home due to his work-related commitments, but virtual adoption has come as a boon.

Image: Raghav Chabra

“I am glad that I got lucky with my timing,” he said about his decision to virtually adopt Franny just a few days before India went into lockdown on March 25. “Talking to Franny and knowing that he is healthy and happy gives me the assurance that at least something is normal. Whenever it’ll be safe to go outdoors, I am planning an entire weekend with him.”

Virtual adoption is emerging as a growing trend in India as the Covid-19-led lockdown and the need for physical distancing lead to a heightened sense of isolation. Adopting a pet can offer a sense of purpose as it becomes a responsibility that you need to work for, experts said. This can go a long way in making an individual feel less lonely.

“For many individuals, loneliness can be debilitating and affect mental health and wellbeing. In such a scenario considering adopting a pet, even virtually can be helpful. It allows one to feel loved and also be well engaged in caring for another,” said Dr Kamna Chhibber, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Gurugram-based Fortis Healthcare.

How does it work?

To adopt a virtual pet, one needs to choose a pet from an NGO or pet shelter and commit to providing financial support for its upkeep. The animal is taken care of by volunteers, and the provider is updated about its well-being. The provider can also visit the pet at any time.

“Sponsoring a pet remotely will cost you minimum around Rs3,000 ($39) monthly,” said Vikram Kochhar, member of the People For Animals (PFA), one of India’s largest animal welfare organisations, founded by parliamentarian Maneka Gandhi.

Having a virtual pet is far less time consuming than bringing home an animal. But it does involve a commitment because you are responsible for the animal’s entire lifetime. “The shelter homes and the pet boardings are usually under financial distress and incase a pet parent decides to stop paying or steps back from the commitment, it can put the future of these voiceless beings uncertain,” Kochhar said.

Kochhar thinks the trend is still in its nascent stage but will be popular in the long run.

The long-distance commitment

The growing virtual pet adoption trend is coming to the rescue of India’s stray animals, who have been particularly distressed during the lockdown.

With people staying indoors for nearly two months, thousands of street animals were left unfed for days. In addition, many Indians abandoned their pets on the streets during the lockdown after reports of a couple of dogs and a cat testing positive for the virus in Hong Kong.

As per India’s Livestock Census in 2012 (pdf), India has over 17 million stray dogs.

“The queries (for virtual adoption) have definitely increased (since the lockdown),” said Manoj Menon, owner of Gurugram-based animal boarding Gracias, which is currently housing 40 dogs. “People are coming ahead to help Indie pups, too, but we make sure we educate them about the lifetime costs that are involved.”

Menon’s boarding includes a two-acre garden with a swimming pool for the dogs and various spa facilities. But these facilities come at an additional cost. “On a monthly basis, if you want your adopted pet to have these sorts of comforts then you have to shell out at least Rs10,000,” he said.