Stray Dogs Started Turning Blue. Then the Street Mobilized

India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country.


Mumbai turns out to be a pretty good place to be a dog.

The poorest people living on the streets barely have enough food themselves, but they feed strays. And the rich, well, some go completely overboard.

One Bollywood actress provides steaming vessels of chicken and rice every morning for dozens of neighborhood dogs. Another woman drives around in a specially outfitted Honda delivering meals to more than 100, sprinkling in special spices depending on the season. (Turmeric is good during the monsoons, she says, to help boost the dogs’ immunity.)

India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country. Packs of dogs trot through the parks, hang around restaurants for scraps (which they usually get), and sprawl on their bellies inside railway stations as rushing commuters leap over them.

Volunteers with a group called The Welfare of Stray Dogs, which offers treatment and the transport of sick animals for care, help a dog in Mumbai. Photo: Atul Loke/The New York Times

That is not necessarily a good thing. It is no coincidence that India also leads the world in deadly rabies cases. In the state of Kerala, vigilantes saw strays as such a threat that they began methodically hunting dogs down until last November, when the Supreme Court ordered them to stop.

More typically, though, the dogs are widely cared for. Some people will not even call them strays, preferring the more respectful label of “community dogs.” And within India, Mumbai is considered something of a sanctuary city for them.

But that reputation briefly hit a bump a few weeks ago, after some dogs took a dip in a Mumbai river and came out blue.

Photos of the “Blue Dogs of Mumbai” went viral, and initial news reports speculated that the dogs’ fur had changed because of some weird pollution effects.

Upon close investigation, it turned out that a dye company had released products into a drainage ditch that flowed into a Mumbai river where the dogs liked to play. Coloring for clothing had stained the dogs’ fur, and the monsoon rains soon blasted it off.

What was interesting — and moving — was the community efforts to rally around the blue dogs and help them.

“India is pretty unique,” said Ingrid Newkirk, the British-American co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who grew up in India. “Maybe it’s a karmic sense, this idea that the dog could be you, and if you don’t watch out in life it could be you again.

“Or,” she wondered, “maybe it’s just that the poor have greater compassion because they can relate to other individuals who are having a hard time trying to survive.”

The neighborhood where this happened, Taloja, about an hour’s drive east of central Mumbai, is heavily industrialized. Trucks carrying rolls of steel rumble down the roads. Big plants grow out of the sidewalk. Factories stretch to the horizon and smokestacks spew out who-knows-what, leaving a rotten-egg taste in the air.

As Dilip Bhoir, a contractor here, put it, “No matter how expensive the perfume you wear, you’ll never be able to get rid of that stink.”

Still, Taloja is teeming with canines, and the line between a stray and a pet is blurry. Factory workers and villagers feed certain dogs and even buy shampoo to wash them. But the dogs do not live inside homes and are free to roam around.

A pack of stray dogs at the Churchgate railway station in Mumbai. Photo: Atul Loke/The New York Times

Most of India’s street dogs are about 2 feet tall, short-haired, curly-tailed, trim but not scrawny, and descended from an ancient breed related to the Australian dingo.

After some factory workers spotted a pack of dogs that were bright blue, Taloja sprang into action.

Workers called a neighborhood human rights activist who then called a neighborhood animal rights advocate who then called a nearby animal hospital. An ambulance was rushed to the scene.

A few days later, in another incident near a factory, villagers waded into a ditch coursing with nitric acid and rescued a dog that was trapped.

Niharika Kishan Gandhi, the wealthy woman who feeds 100 dogs from the back of her Honda in suburban Mumbai, took a stab at answering the question of why Indians, in general, seem especially friendly to animals.

“It comes down to tolerance,” she said. “We’ve lived under Moghul rule, under British rule. It’s crowded here, it’s diverse, and to survive, you need to be tolerant.”

She added, “The more tolerant you are, the more compassion you have.”

In Mumbai, a dozen robust charities, including one called The Welfare of Stray Dogs, cruise around the city, treating sick dogs and taking healthy ones to animal hospitals for vaccinations and sterilizations before depositing them back exactly where they were found, as the law requires. (It is illegal here to displace a dog.)

Niharika Kishan Gandhi delivers meals to stray dogs near her house in suburban Mumbai. Photo: Atul Loke/The New York Times

India’s government has made a decision not to kill strays but to reduce the population gradually through sterilizations. The result in Mumbai, animal welfare experts say, is a virtuous cycle.

Sterilized dogs, which do not have puppies or prowl around for mates, tend to be more relaxed, which makes people less fearful of them, which makes the dogs friendlier, which makes people even more accepting of them.

Respect for animals is enshrined in India’s constitution, which says that every Indian should “have compassion for living creatures.” Few places are as emblematic of this as the animal hospital in Thane, near Mumbai, where the Taloja residents took the acid dog and the one blue dog they were able to catch.

On a recent day, the hospital’s patients included: 37 dogs, eight cats, six soft-shell turtles, two ducks, two rabbits and a cattle egret with a broken wing.

A commotion erupted when a group of burly men burst through the door, moving through the hospital corridors as one, huddled around a small brown object: a monkey electrocuted while climbing a power line. The vets set to it, calling out for IVs, scissors, medicine and tape.

For the blue dog, all the vitals were checked. After five days of observation, he (the dog was a male, about 8 years old) was discharged in good health.

The acid dog did not have such good luck. The hospital named him Babu, and he is now basically blind.

The other day, Babu did not look so good. He stood on shaky legs inside a cage, a thick worm of red and green mucus hanging out of his nose.

“Don’t worry,” said Madhavi Irani, one of the caretakers, nonchalantly wiping the dog’s nose with her fingers. “Babu just has a little cold.”

© 2017 New York Times

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