In late September the Rajasthani sun blazes down on the royal city of Udaipur, creating a sweltering cauldron of the Aravali mountain range that circumscribes its limits. A literal evocation of the welter of cultural influences that combine to make it unique, the civilisations contained within the volcanic span of these mountains are as ancient and as various as anywhere else in India. As I cycled along, leaving glistening tarmac for a dirt path baked hard by weeks of relentless sunshine, I passed a chattering group of schoolgirls who ran along behind me, cheering. Their hair was unnaturally red because of the serious protein deficiency in their diets. A little further along four women stopped their work tilling the roadside and waved to me. As I was told on the first night of my stay, Udaipur is a place where toil and hardship always make way for shared affection.
This is never more the case than at Animal Aid Unlimited. AAU is a rescue center, hospital and sanctuary for severely injured and ill street animals, in and around the city of Udaipur. They rescue thousands of hurt and sick animals each year and provide sanctuary to those in need of lifelong care. The rickety bicycle I tottered towards the rescue centre on, more like a ship of the desert than anything mechanical, seemed almost to be voicing my internal trepidation. How much would I be able to help? How worthwhile is life for these severely disabled animals? How do the volunteers cope with seeing scenes of such horror on so regular a basis?
Dust swirled through the sultry air, the heat haze separating me from the foliage of the jacarandas in the fields nearby. As I let myself down into the shade, Raj, one of the many locals with disabilities that AAU employs, greeted me, a wide smile breaking through the lines creasing his face to welcome me into his fold. He ushered me through two pairs of brightly-coloured, though rusted, iron gates into the relative coolness of the leaf-strewn compound; “We wouldn’t want the tortoises to escape” he quips.
Why anyone or anything would ever want to escape was, and still is, a mystery to me. Tucked away in the barren countryside of one of India’s poorest states, this shelter is an oasis of compassionate love. Before I had been there ten minutes I saw a cow with a hernia the size of a small child, an operation on a donkey with a leg horribly broken from a fall in a quarry, and a vet giving a vitamin supplement to a blind monkey. The more often I made the 7 mile cycle into that dark heart of rural Rajasthan, the more I realised that the people working at AAU really love the animals they look after. The incredible respect for life in all its forms was something I had never previously experienced and I truly believe that it is their incredibly nurturing attitude, as much as their increasingly sophisticated medical capabilities, that makes their caregiving so successful.
AAU heal the animals they take into care and then release them again in the same place that they found them initially. In many ways it is difficult, looking from our Western perspective, to see the point of all this loving care and painstaking effort. In fact, it seems almost more worthwhile caring for, cleaning, and giving love to the animals which will never leave, dogs with blindness or severely damaged hindquarters. Though weak to start with, they recover their strength quickly on a diet of moong dahl (lentils), soya bean paste, and rice, mixed into an easily digestible soup which provides them with the full range of nutrients they need. Their quality of life is actually almost certainly higher than when they were scrounging for scraps by the roadside. They still act like dogs to all intents and purposes, licking and growling affectionately when you arrive and rolling over so you can scratch their tummies. There is even a sense of a pack hierarchy, senior dogs quickly becoming jealous when an inferior is receiving all the love.
However, to do so misses the point, that every worker at AAU does so through an incredible sense of love and compassion for their fellow creatures. It is tempting to ascribe this to some, essentially selfish, Hindu belief about reincarnation, in which they are ensuring a better lot for themselves in lives to come. The briefest scan of any one of their blogs will dispel this thought immediately; they are essentially interested in giving help to anything that needs it. As one of the workers said to me over lunch, “It is all about the present moment, when I look at one of these animals it is like looking into a mirror.” Echoing the dictum we tend to think of as morally Christian, that “There but for the Grace of God go I”, he was asserting the equal and enormous value of all life. This kind of profound lunchtime chat is not uncommon; the nature of their work impels a certain amount of questioning into the nature of mortality and they are always willing to engage in conversation with the steady stream of foreign volunteers AAU welcomes through its rusted gates every day.
As I soon learnt, the problems with stray animals in India are manifold. AAU receive over 40 calls a day about cows and donkeys hit by cars, terrible cases of mange or maggot infestation in dogs, or instances when an animal is simply too weak to move. Cows are a major source of the problem as James*, a Swiss vet with a somewhat surprising Boston twang, tells me. “The cows living in urban areas don’t have any grass to eat. Most are critically undernourished. They’re surviving off scraps from rubbish heaps, munching wholesale through wrappers and plastic containers smeared with sweet-smelling food remnants. It wrecks their digestive systems.” In fact I learnt that many cows have so much plastic detritus in their stomachs that they can’t even digest food which would normally be perfect for them. The vets can’t operate because the cows wouldn’t survive the anaesthetic and they can’t give them a lethal injection of pain killers because cows are sacred; a prison sentence is the reward for putting one of these poor bovines out of their misery. Instead, the cows are let to waste away; in the large animal’s enclosure a row of black tarpaulin-clad mattresses with emaciated Friesians, hips jutting painfully into the air, lying quietly waiting to die. In an act of extreme compassion other healthier cows come to offer them succour but, aside from sedation to allay their pain, this is all anyone can do.
There is hope among those I spoke to that this dire situation is starting to change. The Indian government, and the state government of Rajasthan in particular, are beginning a phased operation to clear up the city streets, both of animals and their excrement, which acts as a pungent vector for disease. They aim to relocate the cows to places where they can thrive, while still roaming freely. A long term, carefully graded approach is the key to success here since education and attitude change is as important as helping individual animals. There was optimism that the operations will be conducted in the right way and that in ten years or so the situation should be dramatically improved.
That does, however, mean that there will be a lot of suffering animals for AAU to look after in the meantime. Don’t let the glossy pictures on their website deceive you; this is a place of open wounds and maggot infestations. A commotion in one pen starts a chain reaction and in no time even the blind dogs are snarling and howling to the skies. Severely disabled dogs have to have their own faeces cleaned off them by helpers and the overly aggressive are marked out with red collars. There is a pervading, sour stench of disinfectant that haunts me even now.
For me though, all this horror and suffering is redeemed by the wonderful work they do at Animal Aid Unlimited. As a short-term volunteer I couldn’t help with any more complex caregiving than simply feeding the orphan calves and stroking and loving the disabled dogs. The dogs need love as much as anything else and it was adorable how they hobbled over on their front legs, rears trailing in the sandy dirt, to nuzzle and be near to you. The future may be an undiscovered country, but the present, known in all its pain and squalor, seems, in this poverty-riven little corner of India, more than bearable. I have never known unconditional love like that I saw at Animal Aid Unlimited and that, if nothing else, should give us pause to count our blessings and be thankful.
*Names have been changed.
Photography: Rupert Swallow