Dog Eat Dog World: Animal welfare and working with disabled rescued dogs
By Anoopa Anand
Growing up, I watched my mother take on the role of primary caregiver to both her parents, as they went through debilitating illness and death. In all the months and, collectively, years, that she spent cleaning, bathing, medicating, and playing nurse to them, no one asked her to take a break and she never did take one. In the months after my grandparents passed, one when I was a little girl and the other, an 18-year-old, I saw her silently suffer what I now know to be caregiver’s fatigue and depression. In her role as daughter, this immense experience, the emotional and physical drain, was considered normal. After all, she was already performing her roles of sister, wife, and mother.
Today, half a lifetime later, I work with animals. While I have worked with rescue, rehabilitation, and rehoming, my work as a rehabilitator for particularly sick dogs is recurring and what I see as my core competence. I finally understand what my mother put herself through all those years ago, but I see something else as well: a distinct lack of understanding and acceptance of my specific kind of caregiving. As a caregiver to a family member, there is unspoken and unquestioned acceptance of the role; it is a ‘duty’. As a caregiver to an animal out on his/her luck, questions abound regarding the nature and necessity of this caregiving. The internal process of caregiving – the actual actions involved – can be draining and emotionally overwhelming enough, without the added weight of the external process: explaining your actions to those around you who have scant understanding of the concept of equal rights for all species.
In my years of working towards rehabilitating my canine rescues, a few stand out for the depths of horror, the intensity of rehabilitative work, and the degree of heartbreak involved. Over the years, I found myself drawn to the physically injured and broken. Perhaps it reminded me of what my species was capable of. Perhaps I was just more useful as a caregiver to physically and mentally scarred dogs. Countless trauma cases come to shelters and welfare workers, as a result of bad accidents or natural ailments like Canine Distemper, Parvo Virus, and Leptospirosis. There are, however, those that come to us because of human intervention, a term I’m using loosely here to define abuse, neglect, abandonment, and greed. The stories that follow all fall under one or more of these categories.
In May 2013, I got a call about two rescued Labrador Retrievers, a mother and son pair. This was a rare case when neighbours got together and approached an animal welfare worker to seize the dogs. They were both tied up from morning till night, when the ‘man of the house’ was away at work. Their mouths were tied with rope to prevent them from barking and their legs were tied together, to prevent them from jumping. If they barked or ran around when set free, they were beaten.
I called the mother Serene. She was six years old when she came to me and had been beaten till she was blind in her right eye.
Her son, Jo, had three out of four of his legs beaten out of shape. Jo was young and boisterous and quickly found an excellent home, one that ensures he gets the special care he will need for the rest of his life, because of his misshapen legs.
Serene was another story. She was terrified of everything including her own shadow. If I so much as stood up to get a glass of water, she would run to a corner and hide with her face as close to the wall as possible. Besides this, she was malnourished and had an infection that ensured she was ill for a long while. Here physical as well as mental trauma needed a key ingredient, for the healing to begin: patience. I let her be and didn’t crowd her. She didn’t have to come to me, she didn’t have to cuddle, and she didn’t even have to look at me if she didn’t want to. I trained myself to consciously slow down around her as sudden movements scared her. As for her physical state, she needed food, she needed to know it would come at regular intervals through the day, and she needed the kind of food that would make her body strong enough to recover. No more packaged food, for her protein requirements; she would get freshly-cooked meat. I taught myself to cook meat (I’m a vegetarian) and consulted multiple experts on what the best diet should include. Slowly, her body got stronger and, with it, her spirit. After weeks of walking around on tiptoe and letting her be, one day, I returned home from a meeting and she ran up to me and nuzzled me. This was her first big step towards trusting a human. In the months that followed, she got better physically, widened her circle of trust, and started becoming the cheerful 10-year-old she is today. Along the way, I realised I had come to depend on her as much as she depended on me. I adopted her and she now lives with my family. Serene is almost completely blind in her right eye and cataract is slowly taking over her left one. She cannot be approached without warning from her right side, she has some issues with resource guarding, and a bit of a temper with men carrying tools. But she’s in a stable environment, implicitly trusts the people around her, and lives with a family that respects her individuality and accepts her idiosyncrasies. We work around her dislikes and ensure that they’re out of her way, and will continue to do so till the end of her days.
Farida was rescued off the streets of Bengaluru as a 9/10-month-old puppy. This is her in her initial days. She was malnourished, her coat was dreadlocked and covered in burrs, and she had a maggot wound on her left forepaw so vicious, her leg had to be amputated. The first few days were very hard on her. For a large dog, it took her some effort to find her balance on three legs, while she still suffered physical post-surgical pain. The malnourishment ensured she was too weak to even try. I’ve always maintained that I have a heart of stone, and this is where that kicks in. It would have been easy to pick her up every time she fell or console her every time she faltered. But she’d come such a long way on the strength of her own will to live and this would have been the worst time to make her emotionally dependent. So, when she fell, I let her find her own feet. When she had trouble negotiating the stairs or getting on and off the bed, I let her figure it out. In the beginning, it was torture, watching her whine and struggle. It took time, but it worked. She knew I was right there and she trusted me. A healthy diet meant the rest of her body was getting stronger with each passing day. She also had a large reserve of gumption to draw from, and draw she did. Things got easier for her, as the days passed: she wasn’t falling as much, she wasn’t faltering on the stairs, and that massive tail of hers showed that there was wag left in it yet.
Armed with her love for food and stoic determination, she got up each time she fell, she learnt to trust me more each day, she charmed a friend who was visiting, and, some weeks later, she went to her permanent home bounding up the stairs on three. She now lives in a home with another disabled St. Bernard, a feisty young rescued English Bulldog, two flightless birds rescued from illegal bird trade, and two nonchalant rescued turtles.
Durga was found rummaging for food in a dumpster and taken off the streets in October 2015. At approximately two years of age, she weighed in at 23kgs: about half the weight of a normal female adult Great Dane. She had a condition called Demodecosis, which is a kind of mange that is less common but more deadly than regular mange. The first couple of days after her rescue, we assumed her to be blind since birth. We couldn’t see her eyes at all and she crashed about my house, completely disoriented in her new environment. We cleared out a room for her, so she would do less harm to herself. One evening, as I cleaned her face, I looked into her empty eye sockets to find bright eyes peering out at me. Here is an unimaginable fact: she was so malnourished that the fatty membrane surrounding her eye sockets had disappeared and her eyes had simply sunken into her skull! I thought I’d seen it all, yet here was this gentle giant seeing me for the first time as I peered into her sockets.
Durga’s recovery was slow, as it should have been. She needed to put on 22kgs to be a normal-sized Great Dane, and she had to do it the right way. She was on a combination of freshly cooked meat and rice, and puppy kibble, which is high in good, nutritious fat. A few weeks later, she gambolled out of her room and didn’t crash into anything. Her eyes had finally emerged from their sockets.
Durga was the happiest dog I’d met in a long time, and it confounded me. She needed medicated baths twice a week, a fistful of medication, regular cleaning, and lots of rest. She bore her treatment with such grace. Along the way, her story caught the attention of a family who knew they were the right home for her. She now lives in a large house with a couple of other rescued dogs and three rescued cats. No longer “blind”, no longer a dumpster dog.
Of all the dogs that ever crossed my threshold, Nawab was the most heart-breaking. Dumped on the streets of Mysuru for being “abnormal” and “not good enough to sell”, Nawab came to me as a four-month-old. He was a Saint Bernard, which meant he was supposed to weigh about 20kgs at his age. Nawab weighed all of 2.5kgs. He was affected by dwarfism, fused joints, partial-to-full paralysis in all his limbs, and he had an undershot lower jaw and a tiny tongue that ensured he couldn’t eat on his own. Every veterinary doctor and welfare worker knew that it would take a miracle to save him, but hoping against hope is something we’re really good at.
He was on hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, and laser therapy from the first week of his arrival. He had to be hand-fed four times a day, to manage his dangerous undernourishment. With treatment and regular meals, he got a lot better and I thought that miracle was underway when he finally stood up and took a few steps one evening. He was so tiny and so dependent, that I took him with me in a little bag, wherever I went.
There was to be no miracle here. Nawab got a lot worse. Some parts of his body improved, while others deteriorated. His constricted oesophagus could no longer take in any food and he would choke and spit up everything he tried to eat. Nawab was euthanised after six weeks of rehabilitation, a shining example of the horrors of backyard breeding. The heart of stone didn’t help. I realised only after his death, what he had done to me in those six weeks. All the other disabled dogs I had worked with had several things already working for them. Nawab stood out in his 100% dependence on me. I was his life support and he had become something of an extra limb that I had grown. Without me, he didn’t work. Without him, a limb had been taken away from me after weeks of my single-minded dedication to its care and upkeep.
With every new rescue that I work with, it becomes more and more obvious to me just how little respect we have for other species. Almost every dog that I have tried to rehabilitate has been the result of rampant commoditization of the species. Humans buy, sell, and breed dogs with little concern for the very specific and alarming congenital health issues that we have knowingly and unknowingly bred into them. We “discard” “unsellable” “specimens” with casual ease. The problem isn’t going to go away till we change the mindset of a very large section of society that simply doesn’t believe in the concept of the basic right to acceptable standards of quality of living for all species. This, perhaps, is the abiding and overriding reason to continue to work towards the welfare of animals: at a micro level, with the rehabilitation of one life at a time and at a macro level, with working to implement humane policies in the massive system of animal welfare the world over.
Anoopa Anand is a writer, editor, and animal welfare worker based in Bangalore. She primarily works with the rehabilitation and rehoming of ailing and abandoned dogs and cats.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.