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Amidst a cataclysmic barrage of socio-cultural and medical issues, the pandemic also saw a very high rise in both pet adoptions and pet abandonment in our country. During the early onset of the pandemic, many households abandoned their pets for fear of contracting COVID, even though there are no credible studies to suggest that humans can actually contract the virus through their animal companions. Although, it has been observed that humans can transmit the virus to their pets, in a few cases. After the initial lockdown, when people were getting acclimatized to the idea that isolating and working from home may be the new status quo, India saw a steep rise in pet procurement. Unfortunately, a lot of these were impulse purchases of breed cats and dogs from pet shops or home breeders, instead of adoptions from shelters. People, especially in the cities, sought out animal companionship to battle loneliness, and counter the depression brought on by being disconnected from the larger society around them. When shelters across the cities started seeing a steep rise in adoption requests towards the end of the first wave, they noticed a pattern and preemptively strengthened their adoption parameters to ensure that the animals only went to genuine homes that understood the long-term responsibility, and financial & emotional commitment that came along with the adoption of a pet. This happened to turn those who were looking for a quick fix to the pet shops and illegal breeders, in search of a “breed pet”.

Many articles were published in early 2021 by petcare brands, talking about how the rise in pet ownership has led to a boom in their industry. Petex shared data in 2021 stating that India was the fastest growing petcare market in the world! It projected an estimated growth of 14% annually, to become a $490 million market by 2022. However, the narrative shifted drastically by the end of the second wave. Many animal welfare organizations started getting as many as 10-20 calls per day, about pets found abandoned on the streets, or people wanting to relinquish or “donate” their pets because they were no longer able to take care of them. A lot of pedigree animals like Persians and Golden Retrievers were found abandoned in street corners or parks, barely able to fend for themselves or defend themselves from the herds of territorial stray dogs. Most of them were found severely injured or malnutritioned, with flea & tick infestations. Some even had life-threatening infections from drinking contaminated water in a desperate struggle to survive. It’s important to mention that pet dogs and cats are sensitive animals who form close attachments to the family they live with. They don’t have the skills required to survive on the streets, and most abandoned pets meet with tragic deaths. Even the ones that are rescued and rehomed, suffer trauma, heartbreak, and behavioral issues due to their abandonment. Rescuers and future adopters have to work very hard, and spend a lot of time to even get them ready to cohabit with humans again.

Today, our country has the highest number of abandoned pets in the world. According to the Pet Homelessness Index (PHI) report of 2021, pet relinquishment levels are highest in India when compared to a global scale, with 50% of current and erstwhile owners stating that they have relinquished or abandoned a pet in the past, while the global level of relinquishment stands at 28%. Surveys throughout major Indian cities showed that 34% of previous owners have abandoned dogs on the street, while 32% have abandoned cats. Our country currently stands at a score of 2.4 overall, on a 10 point scale on the Pet Homelessness Index. This factor has only added to the alarming number of stray animals in our country. An article published in the Economic Times on November 25, 2021, stated that India has an estimated 8 crore homeless cats and dogs. While this article talks both about abandoned pets and strays that have to resort to living on the streets in search for sustenance, data shows that there are around 6.2 crore stray dogs and 91 lakh stray cats in India - the term “stray” here, indicating animals who were born into the ecosystem of city streets. Additionally, there are about 88 lakh abandoned, or street dogs and cats that are currently living in shelter homes due to a variety of health related ailments & other issues. Let’s take a moment to compare this data to the global statistics. As per the PHI report, there are 7.5 crore estimated homeless cats & dogs in China, 4.8 crore in the USA, 20.6 lakh in Germany, 20 lakh in Greece, 74 lakh in Mexico, 41 lakh in Russia and South Africa, and 11 lakh in the UK - placing us highest in the list of countries affected by this problem.

A rise in the number of street dogs in our country engenders the threat of Rabies in the uncared for street dogs, and also the threat of death by Rabies to humans. With roughly 20,000 people a year dying of Rabies, India has the second highest number of Rabies cases in the world, after Congo. This stands for about 35% of all global deaths annually, due to Rabies. In the last few years, there was a rising demand in the USA for the adoption of stray dogs from India, who were valued for their resilience and their lack of genetic health disorders. However, in July 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped the import of dogs from higher risk countries - which includes India - fearing the risk of a Rabies contamination, as America had already eliminated the disease from their country back in 2007. Needless to say, Rabies is a very deadly disease and has a 100% mortality rate, if the anti-rabies injections aren’t administered on time. When it comes to our country, there seems to be a lack of coordination and comprehensive national strategy to address the issue of Rabies and strays. To add to this, cats and dogs have a gestation period of only two months, and happen to breed multiple times a year if left unchecked. An unsterilized female dog can give birth to approximately 78,000 puppies in a span of 7 years alone! When we take all these statistics into consideration, it becomes vitally important to have proper laws and targeted programs in place to prevent pet abandonment, and tackle the issue of increasing stray animals in our country. There seems to be mixed and misinformed reactions among the people and our government about how to handle strays in urban areas. Much of the concern among people is driven by the fear of disease or biting, and outdated cultural beliefs.

To properly understand and hold a dialogue on Indian cultural attitudes towards pets & strays, we have to take a deeper look at the onset of human-pet relationships, and the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). Dogs were the first species domesticated by humans. They were first fed and tamed about 23,000 years ago, to fulfill utilitarian purposes like guarding and hunting. Cats came into the picture much later, about 8,000 years ago. Humans, having moved on from hunting and gathering to farming, domesticated cats or rather, formed a symbiotic relationship with them. The cats would hunt down rodents, keeping plagues, and the destruction of crops in check, while humans would provide them with food and shelter. These early relationships were based completely on the ideology of these animals being useful to humans. However, with the passing of time and the evolution of human society, the human-animal relationship too has moved into a space of emotional value, rather than utilitarian requirement. While this fact certainly doesn’t stand true for all humans, the broader evolution in the human mindset can be attributed to the Second Demographic Transition.

The SDT is a theory that tries to capture and explain the socio-cultural changes that a group of people or a country may be typically undergoing. SDTs are marked by economic growth, decreased total fertility, increased educational attainment, & the desire to opt for new or non-traditional types of households. If we take a very hard and honest look at the Indian cultural mindset, it’s easy to see that a large number of our compatriots don’t share a modern or compassionate outlook towards pets and strays. As per the EPH Index data for India, 82% dogs in the country are street dogs. 53% of people feel that dogs present a danger to humans. 65% of our population fears dog bites, and a staggering 82% believe that dogs should be removed, terminated, or put in shelters. Given that a contrast between rural and urban attitudes towards strays has been observed in societies with similar historical backgrounds, it seems probable that the SDT in cities and urban areas changes the perception of strays to a more sympathetic and humane outlook. Even the presence and affiliation of pets with reduced utility and Increased emotional bonds, is symptomatic of cultural changes representative of societies that are encountering, or are well into their Second Demographic Transition. In Indian urban spaces especially, an increasing need to consider pets and animals as fellow sentient creatures who share this planet with us, has been observed. This outlook is more prominent among the Millennials and Gen-Z, who see pets as social participants with whom humans navigate the concepts of space and relationships, in a stride towards personal evolution. It has also been observed that families who don’t have children, whether by choice or circumstance, often choose to apply their parenting instincts and emotions towards pets. Most of these families are either entering their SDT, or are well past it. Regrettably, this mindset is prevalent among only a small percentage of our population, as is evident from the alarming rate of pet abandonment seen during the pandemic.

As mentioned earlier, a lot of people purchased pets without any in-depth understanding of the financial, medical, and emotional responsibilities it would entail. Once the lockdown started relaxing, and offices, social spaces, etc started opening up, they started herding to relinquish their pets in a fit of buyer’s remorse. The excuses given for relinquishment ranged from return to office, inability to find a full-time caregiver, housing limitations, to allergies, moving cities, and the arrival of a newborn! To add to this, a lot of home breeders, and backyard breeders also abandoned animals due to the lack of sales. Not wanting to continue incurring the expenses of their upkeep, they chose instead to abandon the animals on the streets. Apart from this, a small percentage of pets lost their primary caregivers to COVID, and were left without a home.

If we delve a little further into the Indian cultural attitude towards pets, we will also notice a widespread reluctance towards adopting strays or Indie breeds of cats and dogs. Most shelters state that Indies aren’t adopted easily for reasons ranging from elitism, to misconception, or hatred! People often opt to spend ridiculous amounts of money to buy foreign breeds because of their looks, or to establish a status symbol. Due to the distressing lack of scientific breeding regulations in India, and also the lack of repercussions around illegal breeding, pedigree dogs and cats come with an array of genetic health issues that are either perennial, or lead to extravagant medical expenses in the later half of their lifespan. A lot of pedigree pets are found abandoned in their old age, or right after their “cute” childhood phase has passed, because the owners are unwilling to face the realities of the time and expenses that caring for them demands. It is important to point out that a lot of these pedigree animals aren’t ethnically born to the Indian tropical climate. Their temperaments aren’t suited to handling the sedentary confines of a city apartment, and their coats cannot adapt to the sultry Indian summers - leading to behavioral issues, and cruelly curtailing their lifespan. On the other hand, Indies are a very resilient breed! Generations of living off the streets has given them a very sturdy immune system, & has made them very intelligent and highly trainable. Their adaptability makes them ideal pets for both city apartments, and large farms or country houses. If people were to change their outlook and start adopting Indies, it would significantly contribute towards bringing down the overpopulation of strays that our country faces.

In 2020, Netherlands - a first-world country - became the first nation to have no homeless strays. This incredible feat was achieved through their CNVR program, which was a government funded sterilization drive. It stands to reason that changes to our relationship with animals are indicative of broader cultural changes that stride a country towards progress. If we would like to work towards a similar kind of development as a nation, we’ll first have to address & remedy the medieval perspective that a lot of us hold, when it comes to strays or Indie breeds. This means taking ownership of the social responsibility that we have towards them as a community, instead of merely looking at them as a nuisance. It’s important to remember that it’s us humans who have encroached into their spaces and ecosystems, with the constant expansion of our cities and infrastructure. Strays are an integral component of the urban ecology of Indian cities, and if the government, resident communities, & animal welfare organizations decide to work together, they can come up with ethical and humane solutions to the problem of stray overpopulation. Surveys show that most people look at stray animals as the govt or local municipal board’s responsibility, and prefer that they be killed, or taken away from the locality and left elsewhere. India’s animal welfare system struggles with the lack of personnel, experience, capital, and vision to build the infrastructure required to address this issue effectively. Municipalities often face opposition from residents while releasing animals back to their localities after sterilization programs. The root cause of this issue lies in the fact that instead of addressing what hinders humans from coexisting with strays - a process that demands time, effort, and introspection on our part - we want to avoid it in the short-term by demanding that they be relocated or culled.

There are many instances of strays being poisoned en-masse in our country as an easy solution. The most prominent of these being the 2016 stray dogs eradication society being formed in Kerala, which killed over 300 dogs within the span of a year. There was also the poisoning of stray dogs in Hyderabad in November 2017, just preceding Ivanka Trump’s visit for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in order to give the streets a more sanitized appearance. These instances have taken place even though the miaming or killing of stray animals is an offense under the IPC. Article 51A-(g) of our constitution talks about compassion for living creatures. It declares the feeding of strays a legally protected activity. However, many community feeders still face ill treatment at the hands of resident welfare associations. These instances continue to happen in our country because there is no proper awareness or enforcement of animal rights.

If we ever want to bring about a solution to these state of affairs, we need to first and foremost grow a collective conscience as a nation, and start looking at pets and strays with a more humane perspective. National law since 2001 stipulates that strays can only be controlled through the Animal Birth Control policy, which translates to Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs. Sterilization is an excellent way of keeping unwanted stray/pet populations in check. The govt should incentivize pet sterilization, and work with the local animal rescue bodies to come up with free TNR programs for Indies and strays. Even residents who aren’t animal lovers, can take a more humane approach by contributing towards TNR programs at nearby animal shelters, to help reduce the number of strays in a locality. Additionally, there’s a dire need for educating the masses & starting a healthy conversation around animal welfare. People need to wake up to a clear understanding of the motto behind “Adopt, don’t shop”, and how it impacts the resident stray populations of our urban ecosystem. If people, in good conscience, stopped buying dogs from backyard breeders, and started adopting responsibly from shelters instead, it would lead to a drastic reduction in the population of strays in our country. Increasing the adoption of strays requires a slow & gradual attitudinal change, which can only be brought about by educating the masses. To supplement this we also need stricter breeding laws in our country, making illegal and uncertified breeding a punishable crime, along with animal cruelty and pet abandonment. If people are truly afraid of the legal repercussions of mistreating or abandoning their pets, then they will be urged to think before impulse-buying a pedigree dog or cat for the sake of show!

If we are really committed to the cause of evolving as a nation, then it’s high-time we start growing a moral compass as a people, and recognize the plight of our animals. If we expect to be treated with kindness and dignity by our fellow human beings, then we need to extend the same emotional radius towards our pets and strays - only then can we truly start walking towards our Second Demographic Transition. 

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