In a city like Mumbai, every square inch of space is a prized possession. Residents will illegally extend a balcony for three steps of extra room and families will kill over possession of a 10X12 kholi. No one shares; there isn’t much to go around to begin with.
Still, when it comes to abandoned or injured animals, some Mumbaikars willingly make room – in their homes and hearts. They share their tiny spaces with cats and canines. They rescue, adopt and shelter birds, turtles, horses, hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, creepy crawlies, and even bats. They’re not much different from you and me – they have day jobs, gruelling schedules and family commitments. But for them, a prized possession isn’t always four square feet of floor space; often it’s the four-foot animal thriving on top of it.
Saviour in the suburbs
Anand Siva, Adman
This 40-something, affable man has seen over 150 animals pass his threshold in his six years as an rescuer. He lives with his wife and two kids in a Kharghar home with a 2,000 sqft terrace that’s like a mini farm. It houses, at any given time, dogs, cats, herons, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, caterpillars, pigeons and owls. “It’s a riot in here and we love it,” says Siva. He never buys or sells animals because “they are not my property”.
Even though Siva puts in a 14-hour workday through the week, he never goes out on weekends. That time is meant solely for his “buddies” – his animals. “When I am at work, my wife takes care of them and boy, does she do a good job!”
The Siva family doesn’t just care for the animals on their terrace, they love all living beings. They are vegan – which means no honey, silk, not even medical capsules. “I don’t understand how some animals are pets and others dinner! It’s bizarre” he exclaims.
Siva has never refused shelter to any animal, not even caterpillars! He has a separate enclosure for them, away from his hyperactive cats. He’s even taken in a horse. “Someone once informed me about one on the loose in Kharghar. I left work and found that poor fellow with his hind and forelegs tied,” Siva recalls. “I was scared because I had never rescued a horse. But I found a noose, put it around his neck gently and walked him home. I gave him shelter in a garage. But the next morning, he was gone and I suspect the villagers must’ve taken him.” Siva spent the entire day looking for him but he could not find him. “That’s the problem. People don’t respect animals. I often wonder who is more beastly, us or them.”
It especially annoys him when people feed on his weakness for animals. “They tell me that if I don’t take the animal, it will die. But why can’t they care for it instead?”
Little bat girl
Aakanksha Hejmadi, School student
People told me that if I touched a bat, my fingers would get stuck to it and I would have to chop them off,” says Aakanksha Hejmadi with a laugh. At 15, she has rescued several bats and still has her nimble digits intact. “They look scary but they are harmless.”
Hejmadi has the usual teenager’s life: school, tuition, games and friends. But she also makes sure that she finds time to take care of the bats she rescues. “I was playing once, when I saw a commotion around a fig tree,” she recalls. “I saw a badly bruised baby bat lying on the ground with crows piercing and puncturing it. People just stood and watched. So I ran to my house, got a shoe box, picked the bat up and gave it food and shelter.”
Her mother, obviously, didn’t let her keep it in their Worli house, so Hejmadi made a safe shelter for the bat in her building’s terrace. She cared for it everyday till it flew away. “But I was very happy because I knew it had regained strength to fly again.”
Hejmadi believes she was born to help animals. Her first rescue was of a kite who’d become entangled in a maanjha and had fallen on to her grandparents’ parapet. “My parents handed her over to me in a blanket to take care of. I knew that day that I would do this for the rest of my life.”
Over the years, Hejmadi has sheltered cats, dogs, rats, bulbuls and pigeons. She dips into her pocket money to care of them. But budgets are not her biggest enemy, the neighbours are. “Some aunties have complained to my mother about the ‘menace’ I create.”
The 15-year-old plans to take a gap year between school and college to learn animal rescuing professionally and become a vet. She’s well on her way. The colony people already call her Bat Girl. “I love it!” she exclaims. Who wouldn’t?
Wardha Bhide, Hairdresser
Wardha Bhide clearly remembers the time she rescued an injured donkey. “He was lying with one of his hooves dangling by a shred of tissue,” she says. “I knew that I couldn’t lift him alone so I called an ambulance. But they wanted to negotiate payment before even starting the engine. I risked picking him up and took him to the hospital. His hoof was stitched back on and he started to recover. But two days later he died. Why? Because he caught tetanus at the hospital. That is how careless they are with strays.”
The Powai resident doesn’t put much faith in the city’s animal care systems. Survival rates are low. “Either way, I have to bribe someone to save a stray. And don’t even get me started on people. They will look at an injured animal, take pictures, but no one will help them. Even the ones with Labs on a leash walk past a parched street animal.”
So Bhide does what she can. Her car is filled with rescue paraphernalia – food, a first aid kit, tarpaulin sheets, gloves, etc. “It stinks in there,” she admits. “But I didn’t get a car for its beauty. I got it to help with my rescues.” She explains that despite there being a few animal ambulances in the city, “like any Hindi movie, they amble their way in. If I was to leave it to that, the animal would definitely die.”
Among the creatures that have benefitted from Bhide’s aid are dogs, cats, turtles, fish, buffaloes, donkeys and birds. And if she can’t find them a loving home, they live with her in her 2BHK flat. “My mother’s not too thrilled and fights with me occasionally but she also loves my ever-expanding entourage,” she says. “I work 10 hours a day. Who do you think takes care of my pets? She loves them to death but she also loves to grumble. That’s okay!”
Shrikant Raskar, Businessman
I can probably live without food and water for a few days but I cannot live without the love of animals,” says 24-year-old Shrikant Raskar, the proud parent of 10 cats. They stretch, purr and prowl arou-nd his flat in Kopar Khairane and Raskar has rescued all of them. “I live with my parents who love animals too. So sheltering cats was never a problem. You don’t need space in your house, you need space in your heart.”
But being an animal lover is very different from being an animal rescuer. “If an animal needs to be rescued, you have to be there,” Raskar says. The newest addition to his feline family is a kitten, barely a couple of months old, that he found lying half-conscious on the road. She’d apparently been bitten by dogs, her legs were dislocated and ants were crawling on her body. “I didn’t know if she would make it but I brought her home,” he says. “And today, after a month of care, she is chasing paper balls.”
Raskar has rescued dogs, cows, donkeys and birds and he has done it alone. The one thing that really irks him is how people call themselves animal lovers but don’t even bother looking after strays. “During adoptions, most people want pedigree pets.” But he also understands that change can only be voluntary. “Even if they don’t want to adopt strays, the least they can do is feed them regularly.”
Bhuju Bhandare, Homemaker
Can you give me a second to tidy up the place?” Bhuju Bhandare asks. Some 10 minutes later, I enter her home and I’m dumbfounded. Bhandare and her two daughters are busy cooking kilos of chicken in the middle of the living room. Around them are cats and dogs barking and meowing impatiently. I’m offered the only chair in the room. “We don’t have much space but whatever we do is meant for them,” she says.
And why do they need more room? Because Bhandare’s home isn’t just an animal shelter. It’s a haven for blind, retarded, handicapped and diseased cats and dogs. She’ll take in the odd healthy stray, but she’ll never refuse a disabled one. “How can I say no? I know people will leave them on the road to die and I can’t see that happening,” she says.
Among animal rescuers, Bhandare is known as ‘Saviour Mother’. She lost her husband when her kids were young but she didn’t abandon her love for animals even though they had to move into a smaller dwelling.
Bhandare’s animals love her back. She only has to sit down for a second and they surround her – some lick her face, others purr in her lap, some sit by her feet. “Once I was asked to foster a pup for a month. The owner of the pup sent money for its welfare. But soon, the money stopped coming in and so did the phone calls. I realised that he wasn’t coming back,” she said stroking a brown stray mutt. “What was sad was that he pretended to be such an animal lover.”
Taking care of so many animals is not cheap. But Bhandare says they “manage somehow”. She also feeds most of the dogs and cats in her building compound. And when neighbours pester her to stop because of the menace this creates, she just slams the door!
Abhishek Bhowmick, Copywriter
I threatened to kill myself at the police station if my dogs were not given justice,” says 30-year-old Abhishek Bhowmick, who fosters street dogs. “My dogs were beaten up and thrown out of the society just because they were strays. The police wasn’t listening. So, I threatened to self-immolate. If the system refuses to help you, then you have to threaten the system.”
That was 2004. Nine years later, not much has changed. People fear Bhowmick because they know he means business. But their attitude hasn’t changed. “Even today people complain about me to my parents,” he says. “But they also know that they can’t mess with my dogs.”
The man who almost gave up his life for his animals was terrified of dogs until a decade ago. But when he went to Kolkata to meet his cousins, he was asked to take care of pups. “I realised that animals won’t harm you till you threaten them” he says.
Since that day, Bhowmick has dedicated his life to the welfare of animals. “Once I saw a man walking suspiciously with a bag. When I stopped him, he hit me,” he says. “I snatched his bag to find a star tortoise inside it. He was going to kill it to make unani medicines.”
Today, Bhowmick takes care of over 30 dogs. Since he moved out of his parents’ house in Dombivli, he wakes up at 5.30am everyday, travels from Goregaon (where he now lives) and feeds the hungry mutts. But the moment he steps foot in the society, they all charge towards him. “My dogs are very filmi,” he laughs. And boy, are his mutts hungry. They eat 15 kilos of food, everyday! “So you can imagine how much money is spent on them,” he says. “But I don’t mind. These dogs are my life and their happiness means everything to me.”
From HT Brunch, April 7
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