Pratima Devi has largely forgotten her early history of violence, but she remembers the day she was saved.

It happened 37 years ago, and Devi was 20. That day, she had come home from working in the fields to find her husband with another woman. She went back to the fields without a word, and came home late, determining in that time that she would kill herself. It would be easy. They were farmers, they had plenty of pesticide. Her resolve was strengthened when her husband, drunk, began thrashing her the moment she stepped inside the small, crumbling house. Her three young children wailed at the sight, though it happened almost daily. The beating lasted an hour.

Deep in the night, Devi sat outside the house, biding her time. At some point, resting her head on her knees, she dozed off. She awoke to a wet nose touching her face. Bholu, her dog, was looking searchingly at her, a frown on his face, whining softly. She touched his scruff and he licked a wound on her hand. She hugged Bholu and spoke to him through the night. A few days later, Devi fled her home in the village of Nandigram, West Bengal, with her eldest son, then 6, and the only one of her children fit to travel.

“If it wasn’t for Bholu, I wouldn’t be sitting here today with all my children," Devi says.

“Here" is a shack next to a garbage dump, inside a market complex in Saket, Delhi. Her children, roughly 70 dogs, are sprawled around her. Two sit next to her on her bed, two are prone under. One has the air of royalty and occupies a chair. Six puppies, their eyes yet to open, are in a box with their mother. Devi found them in a gunny sack. “I have all the love in the world," Devi says.

Devi (left) with friends and her large canine family

She has help—Ramesh, 20, who used to work for an animal welfare NGO, and who she now employs. Devi makes some money from collecting and sorting garbage. The shops and restaurants contribute food, other garbage collectors share her responsibilities.

Then there’s Moti, who adopts every motherless pup that ends up with Devi. Moti is rich caramel brown, with large, liquid eyes that look like they’ve been lined with kajal. She has such heightened mothering instincts that she never stops lactating.

Devi arrived in Delhi and started a tea stall in Saket in 1983, after working as a house-help in Kolkata for a few years. She remembers the first movie that was screened at the theatre next to which she opened her shop—Bandhan Kuchchey Dhaagon Ka. “The price of a ticket was 1.75," she says. “Within one month of starting my shop, I had two dogs living with me. Many of these dogs are related to the first two."

An uneasy alliance

A source of undying love for many, a nuisance to others, and a terror for some, the urban street dog is a divisive animal. Developed countries like the US have long-established policies that ensure there are no stray animals in its cities. In India, stray animals are protected by law. But as we get more urbanized, will the stray disappear? Should it?

No, on both counts, concludes a new study on the ecology of urban stray dogs and their interactions with people. The multi-year study published by Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, in March, and based on interviews and surveys with nearly 5,000 people, some 50 organizations and community associations, as well as already-available data, identifies the urban free-roaming dog as a “keystone species", an animal that plays a unique and crucial role in a city’s ecosystem.

“They keep rats, squirrels, and other rodents in check," says Rishi Dev, the author of the study, an architect and urban planner by profession. “Dogs evolved to live with humans, so once they get positive human interaction—someone who feeds them, people who are not threatening them—they settle into peaceful coexistence."

The dogs at Pratima Devi’s shack
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