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Geeta Sheshamani recounts how some migrant workers dropped off five goats at her Friendicoes shelter in Delhi and requested they be taken care of. Then they set off on their long trek home. “It’s a lesson for people who abandon pedigree dogs at the slightest hint of difficulty," says Sheshamani, whose team has been working overtime since the pandemic broke.

Since March, thanks to a toxic cocktail of fear and misreporting that the coronavirus can be spread through household pets, animal shelters across the country have been overflowing with abandoned pets.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that financially well-off owners are the first to dump their animals, especially those that are old and even slightly unwell. Dog rescuers and animal lovers are working hard to respond to this crisis.

“We have been getting bizarre calls," adds Neha Panchamiya, founder of the Pune-based ResQ Charitable Trust. “Someone called to say their dog had a cough, he was drooling. ‘We may also get sick, we don’t want the dog any more,’ they said. Our vet convinced them it was just a common kennel cough."

But many don’t wait to be convinced.

A blind Chou Chou was tied to a tree in a Delhi park and almost died of heatstroke before he was rescued by Friendicoes. A Doberman pup was found scavenging through the garbage in Bengaluru. A healthy German Shepherd was spotted wandering the streets of Pune and is now housed at ResQ. A six-year-old Labrador was found unconscious in front of a veterinary college in Bengaluru. Witnesses say a car stopped and its passengers threw her out. Most of these dogs, and many like them, are still looking for new homes.

Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, who runs the popular Facebook group The Cubbon Park Canines, shares sad stories faster than I can write them down. At one point, she pauses to ask, “How many do you want?"

It was thanks to Bengaluru’s canine activists like Chetty-Rajagopal that the municipal corporation, Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), issued a notice reminding people that it was illegal to abandon pets under Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

“People abandoning pets, spreading false news about covid-19 infection by animals or any other false news regarding animals or harassing those who feed stray animals will be prosecuted," the BBMP said.

In Madurai, The New Indian Express photographer K.K. Sundar witnessed a duo on a scooter abandon their white indie near a garbage dump. He kept clicking as the puzzled dog ran after the two-wheeler before giving up and settling down sadly near the garbage.

Contrast this with the viral image of a migrant worker walking home on the Mumbai-Nashik Expressway, carrying a puppy and a goose, one under each arm.

Sheshamani says most calls for help with larger animals like cows and ponies originate from urban areas. “Farmers are sharing, they are giving animal owners kutty and bhusa (animal feed). That’s the nice thing in rural India."

Panchamiya says covid-19 is just additional justification for abandoning pets. Agrees Sheshamani, “It’s a spin-off from a problem we tackle all the time—the desire not to care for your pet in difficulties and old age."

Panchamiya believes there’s only one reason why people abandon pets: “They get them for the wrong reason. If you got them for the right reason, irrespective of your circumstance, you would not abandon your pet."

The Dhangar shepherd tribespeople she visited recently near Pune were as worried about their dogs as they were about how to feed themselves. Contrast this with owners calling up Sheshamani with excuses like we don’t have food to feed our pets: “I want to ask them, ‘have you all stopped eating?’"

The situation is so bad that canine portal DogSpot’s founder Rana Atheya says they began frequent talks with experts on social media, using channels like Facebook Live and Instagram Live. “The whole point of starting these live shows was to get experts to make people aware they should not abandon their pets."

“No one has a connection with your old dog like you do," emphasizes Bengaluru-based veterinarian Pradeep Rana in one such talk. “They will feel lost if they are in a shelter, they go downhill so fast."

It’s not just pets who are feeling abandoned. Our stray dogs (or streeties as some dog lovers call them) and other animals, usually dependent on restaurant waste and the garbage we generate, are struggling to survive. “Our vehicle goes out with food along the main roads and highways. Dogs are so intelligent, we find them sitting along these roads now, waiting. Every day their numbers grow on our regular routes," says Sheshamani.

In Bengaluru, Cubbon Park has been sealed and dog lovers send in 300kg of food every day. In Delhi, a group of feeders has been taking care of 80-plus stray dogs in the Jahanpanah forest for two months now. They have even rescued three pet terriers who were abandoned in the forest.

Chetty-Rajagopal says the dogs who usually watch the open-air yoga classes interestedly and picnic with the swarms who visit on weekends are desperate for human company. They still haven’t understood why the world changed so suddenly.

She gives me a quick update on some of the park’s canine inhabitants: “Bhupinder sits outside the Vidhan Soudha these days; Beauty is struggling because she thrives on belly rubs; Chardonnay and Chianti don’t know how to make sense of animals crisscrossing their territory; Rover walked across town looking for park regular Rakesh, who reported, ‘He’s inside my house.’"

Some dogs have succumbed to injuries. Among them was Mrs Josef, mother of 14 pups, who was buried near the fountain recently. Three days later, her partner of long, Mr Josef, died in care.

But let’s not end on a sad note.

Prachi Naik and Gaurav Gupte recently fulfilled their childhood dream when they adopted Boba (named after the bubble tea they both love) from ResQ during the lockdown. “It has been eye-opening," says Gupta, adding that though they had read up on looking after dogs, they weren’t prepared for some things, such as sleepless nights. “But then there are times when you wake up to seeing his face…getting that unconditional doggie love is the best feeling in the world."

Clearly, it’s the right time to get a pet for the right reason.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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