Alternate Life | Puppy love

Alternate Life | Puppy love

Burges Dandiwala, 26, Zahir Wallani, 25, and Neville Mehta, 25, set up—a social networking forum with a difference

Find my Lab a mate," requested Nauheed Cyrusi, the actor and a friend. Till then, we were just three guys who had found a subject of our affection in my Rottweiler, Omi. Like teenagers in love, all that Zahir, Neville and I, Burges, could talk about was Omi’s first handshake and Omi’s first effort at sitting up. Omi had created a huge bond between us and other pet-owners as well and we would find ourselves holding long conversations about breeds, trainers, vets and the like.

Around the same time, on a late night walk down Cuffe Parade, Omi sniffed out a stray cat that had been very badly hurt in an accident. I considered crushing a few tablets of Calmpose into ice cream and feeding it to the cat to put it out of its agony. Then I thought of giving it another shot at life—I worked the phone lines and got it to a vet, but not before 45 minutes had passed.

That got me thinking. If I, who had lived in Mumbai all my life and knew more about animal rescue services than the next man, had to wait almost an hour in such a situation, what would a newcomer to the city do?

Nauheed’s request came about the time we had concluded that the world was made up of two kinds of people—those who loved animals and those who didn’t. From this realization, and the stray cat incident, was born the idea of a social networking site for pet-owners and animal lovers. At this point, Zahir and I ran a Web branding firm while Neville, who had been in college with Zahir, helped us in addition to pursuing his higher studies. The moment we conceived the idea, we knew it would be big—we just didn’t know how big.

As we started work on the site, it quickly took over our lives. Zahir, the creative guy, trashed his own mock-ups and set out to do something better. Neville, who took care of programming and the back-end work, rewrote umpteen codes. I started accumulating all kinds of data and contacts, starting with numbers and email IDs of all those who stopped by for a word with the friendliest Rottweiler in the world.

Omi, actually, is where it all began. As a child, I used to be very scared of animals. But then I grew to love riding, and horses. In fact, Omi is named after a very dear horse I had, Omar. Neither Zahir nor Neville ever had pets, though they never had the kind of reservations I had about animals.

Despite the fact that we were possessed by Petnopolis—the name came from my reading of historical fiction: Alexander destroyed Persepolis as it was too beautiful to leave behind, and we wanted to create as special a place for pets; besides, it played well on “metropolis"—it took us almost a year to get it going. This was partly because the venture was self-funded; while working on Petnopolis, we had to ensure our other businesses were making money as well. But the day registrations opened, we had more than 100 people sign up, all through word of mouth.

That was not, however, the day when we thought we had made it. That came a little later, when a Bangalore-based member Natasha Diddee found an abandoned one-year-old Labrador. First, she tried tracing the owners but when that didn’t work out, we posted scraps on Petnopolis and I sent out a private message to 300-odd people. All 300 got back, some from as far off as Pune and New Delhi, and a new home was finalized. But by this time, Natasha had become so attached to Snowflake—that was the Lab’s name—that she decided to adopt him herself. The response, though, confirmed that we were on to a good thing.

Since then, Petnopolis has grown by leaps and bounds. We are in the process of adding new features. Besides, of course, pet-owners can create individual profiles for their pets—besides dogs, the site also features cats, rabbits, horses and hamsters—upload photos, “matchmake" and access information on service providers such as vets and trainers. All the information on the site is user-generated since we want to steer clear of copyright issues.

Since 28 June, when went live online, we’ve had more than 2,300 people signing up, with seven or eight people registering every day. The home page gets 20,000-30,000 page views a day.

Petnopolis was born out of a love for animals, not as a commercial venture. But because it is growing so fast, we are looking to monetize through ads. We are in no hurry, though. We have a good feeling about the site, fuelled, I think, by all the positivity at play here: Unlike other networking sites which run sub-forums on animal lovers, Petnopolis attracts only those who have a genuine love for animals. That is our success.

As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Write to