It was a cold and wet February morning. A six-week-old black puppy had been hit by a mini-truck. Blood oozing from her nose and front paw,the puppy lay motionless on the road surrounded by her mother, litter mates, and other community dogs. The puppy was examined by a team of veterinarians from World Vets, a volunteer organisation that works for the welfare of animals across the globe and was in the Delhi-NCR region to sterilise and vaccinate dogs and cats. She was diagnosed with hernia and related complications. She needed urgent surgery,but as she was in trauma the surgical intervention was scheduled for the next day.

It was not easy to access the potholed bylane leading to the People For Animals’ facility in Faridabad, run by Ravi Dubey, on whose invitation the World Vets team was in the Delhi-NCR region. The bylane leading to the facility was choked, the drains overflowing on either side, making the task of wading through difficult for both – the two- and the four-legged.

Inside, a team of over a dozen veterinary surgeons, technicians and support staff – all volunteers drawn from across the globe – was hard at work. Neutering and spaying, one stray dog after another, caught from Faridabad and nearby areas, and around a dozen brought in by pet parents. They didn’t seem to mind the choked bylane or the leaking roof or the sight of dozens of sick, skinny and homeless dogs.

The surgeries were being done in an open area covered with a tin roof, two bulbs randomly hanging, and broken wooden tables steadied over a pile of bricks being used as surgery tables.The surgical procedures were state-of-the-art, in terms of both technique and the drugs used, and the local vets were being trained on the side.

Post-surgery the dogs were placed on the floor and kept warm in flannel blankets. As the temperature dipped, the support staff hurriedly heated discarded Coke bottles on a dented gas stove, and placed it inside the blankets to keep the dogs warm. They massaged the dogs who were shivering with cold, flipped them over, and checked temperatures till they regained consciousness.

It was impossible to not notice the dignity with which the stray and homeless dogs were treated in a country which flaunts its pedigrees. A country where vets discriminate among breeds and refuse emergency treatment of street dogs. They were given the attention they deserved on the surgery tables and also post-surgery. This was in sharp contrast to the way they were dragged in or were being taken back post-surgery – held by the loose skin on their necks and by their tails – an act that would even make a dog hater’s stomach churn.

No amount of cautioning or scolding persuaded the dog handlers to be compassionate, so the support staff did the next best thing – carried the dogs to the recovery area on their own.

The surgeries continued – one dog after another, and occasionally a cat, without a pause. There was no stopping the surgeons even when the deafening sound of rain and thunder, and finally hail, hit the tin roof hard.

The trickle of water from in between the gaps of the tin roof soon became a steady flow and the support staff rushed to move the surgery tables to less damp areas, even as some others fetched buckets, tubs and even dustbins to collect the rain water. They flushed out the water with brooms and wipers, as the local staff assigned to clean up, looked on with amusement.

The six-week-old black puppy, recovering from surgery, was lying in a cardboard box. Her carton was placed safely under a wooden table. The other dogs on the floor were moved to dry corners. A paralysed dog who had just been spayed, was being cradled by a World Vets volunteer. An otherwise cheerful three-legged dog, whose leg had been amputated, was being calmed by another volunteer. Some of the cats, still in a semi-conscious state following their sterilisations, were put back in their carriers to keep them warm and dry.

The surgery camp was spread over two weeks. The venue for the camp in the second week was the National Institute of Animal Welfare in Faridabad, a large campus for the welfare of animals, which is, unfortunately, underutilised.

The second week was a little better for the veterinarians with access to surgery tables and adequate lighting and a designated post-recovery area for the dogs.

The sheer number of dogs brought in for the surgery and occasionally for consultation was overwhelming.However, not once did the veterinarians complaint. On the contrary, they thanked people for getting their dogs or cats to the camp for consultation andcarried out a record 300 surgeries. There was a happy adoption too. The black puppy flew back with a volunteer from Toronto.

The Dog Count

Given India’s largely unchecked population of dogs and oft-reported shortage of the anti-rabies vaccine such sterilisation camps and drives are more than welcome. The World Health Organisation states that India accounts for 36 per cent of the world’s rabies deaths, and the anti-rabies vaccines shortage is said to be as high as 80 per cent.

Following an RTI (Right to Information) petition filed by JS Walia in 2015, it was revealed that a dog bite is reported every six minutes in Delhi alone (East Delhi: 25,721; North Delhi: 17,119; South Delhi: 48,816). There are over 4 lakh dogs on the streets, of which 30,835 have been immunised and sterilised by the civic bodies (East Delhi: 6,358; North Delhi: 3,764; South Delhi: 20,713).

There is little consensus on the actual number of street dogs – while the government records put the figure of stray dogs at 4 lakh, unofficial reports say it’s closer to 7 lakh. In Faridabad, where the World Vets conducted the sterilisation camp, the stray dog population is said to be 40,000.

Around 84 dogs are sterilised a day, but the number of bites each day is three times more: 252! Some other sources put that figure at one bite every minute in Delhi, and 1.75 million dog bites every year across India. There are an estimated 15 million owner-less dogs in India.

There is also confusion over the actual number of bites, as some say official figures are underreported. The reverse argument is that dog bites are overreported – if one derives the figure by the number of anti-rabies vaccines sold. If one person is advised up to 7 anti-rabies shots – the statistics hits the ceiling.

‘We were touched by the sweetness of so many of the street dogs, their willingness to trust’

World Vets had run a pilot programme in Mysore in 2016, but Faridabad was a first of a kind experience for them.

Dr Winifred Neunzig, the head of the World Vets team, said she had prepared her team for the visit.

“India has an endemic Rabies problem so we made sure all of our volunteers were Rabies vaccinated, we made arrangements to purchase Rabies vaccines and vaccinate all the animals we sterilized. We had a meeting on safe and low stress handling of the street dogs in India – how to protect ourselves and to handle the dogs in a manner creating less fear for them.”

Was the India experience then unique – given the sheer volume of dogs and the lack of basic infrastructure that her team encountered?

“We were touched by the sweetness of so many of the street dogs, their willingness to trust; they are clearly treated well by many humans to have this instinct. They appear to often have enough food, many were well fed – unlike in some other countries of Central and South America. They are resourceful. There are so many dogs and this work of sterilization needs to happen daily in large numbers to be able to control the dog population, along with Rabies and the devastating diseases of Distemper and Parvo, that so many puppies face.”

She suggested choosing small ear tags over cutting the ear tip – to mark sterilised street dogs.

“Ear tipping can be hard to see (from a distance), to distinguish from a torn bitten ear and even tags can get ripped off. No matter what method one may use on an ear – a cut, tattoo or tag – the abdomen should always be tattooed as well. This is a universal standard and ensures that anyone will know an animal has been sterilized if it has a green mark near its umbilicus.”

She was happy with her team’s performance.

“Everyone knows generally how the sterilisation programmes work and the specific job they do – then we just come together and make it happen. It is always magical how well we can work together, even if we are all just meeting each other for the first time,” she added.

(The writer is an independent contributor)