As I’ve traveled throughout India over the last week or so, I’ve seen that the lives of people and animals are as intertwined as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Dogs live, in enormous numbers, on streets and sidewalks choked with people. Stray cats roam in great number as well. Cows, pigs, goats and chickens live on the same streets, too. In the rural areas, water buffalo. All the creatures, including the people, generally seem conditioned to the presence of others – an attitude that reflects, on the part of the people at least, both comfort and indifference.
A goat in the rural village of Peragi.
With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we are announcing the official launch of Humane Society International – India this week. We’ll have our campaigns office in Hyderabad (focused on factory farming and ending animal testing for cosmetics), our veterinary training center in Jaipur, and our Asia-wide street dog management program grounded in Ahmedabad. With the religious and cultural inclinations of the Hindu and Jain populations, there is a strong foundation for acceptance and application of animal protection principles here in the world’s largest democracy.
Evidence of that is everywhere. There are dedicated animal advocates throughout the country; I had a chance to visit with many of them in Goa, at the national conference of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations. I also visited the Blue Cross of India in Chennai, the Blue Cross of Hyderabad, and Help in Suffering in Jaipur. There are an estimated 2,000 animal welfare groups in the country, but they are, as a general matter, underfunded, locally focused and hands-on. There’s no dominant national animal welfare organization, as in the U.S. with The HSUS, and neither does there appear to be any groups covering an entire state. But that would be no small task: The largest of the country’s 28 states, Uttar Pradesh, has nearly 200 million people, and each of the top 17 states by population has more than 25 million.
Per capita meat consumption in India is the lowest in the world, but it’s growing, and that’s a disturbing trend. Eating beef is banned in most states, since the cow is viewed as a mother and caretaker. But there is a tremendous amount of milk consumption, since it is an ingredient in so many Indian foods. With so many cows here – perhaps 300 million – there is a great deal of illegal slaughtering of cows. At the same time, there are roughly 20,000 cow shelters, or goshalas. Unfortunately, my visit to one in downtown Hyderabad was deeply troubling. In what appeared to be a repurposed three-tier parking structure, cows were packed into pens, with a dark paste of water and manure and hay covering the concrete floors. I saw one cow near death and in obvious distress. Because Hindu tradition calls for cow protection, nobody wanted to euthanize the poor creature, so she languished for I don’t know how long.
Industrial agriculture is gaining ground in India, not for cattle, pigs or turkeys, but for laying hens. With our India director, N.G. Jayasimha, we conducted walk-throughs at three battery cage operations for egg production, and all were just appalling, with hens crammed into cages so small they could barely move and the air thick with flies, ammonia and fecal dust. To turn around this disturbing trend, we are networking with non-governmental organizations who participate in cooperatives that provide free-range laying hens to rural people, who in turn provide cage-free eggs to food retailers.
There are some dog pounds and other shelters in India, but they are a world away from the ones so familiar to us in the U.S. The operational strategy for managing dog populations here is to capture street dogs, sterilize and vaccinate them against rabies, hold them for three or four days in a shelter, and return them to the streets where they were originally picked up – commonly known here as ABC, or Animal Birth Control. In Bhutan and in the Philippines, HSI is eliminating one step in that process. Rahul Sehgal, our HSI Asia director, has pioneered a technique making it possible to release dogs into the streets immediately after sterilization, allowing us to avoid the overcrowding, disease and captive dog management issues that crop up at shelters everywhere.
Rahul and the head of our veterinary training center in Jaipur, Dr. Sunil Chawla, are teaching veterinarians how to properly sterilize animals, since so many have never learned basic surgical procedures. India’s national government is soon to embark on a massive dog management and rabies control program in 30 cities, and we hope to see authorities here take our lead in applying the humane and cost-efficient street dog management practices we’re so successfully using in other countries.
We have more than a dozen staff in this vast country, but we’ll need so much more help to tackle the enormous problems in the world’s second most-populous nation. There are four times as many people in India as in the United States, living in one-third the space.
It’s not like we don’t have our hands full with animal issues in the U.S. But animal suffering knows no boundaries, and we cannot dismiss our obligations to help tackle problems here, too. Please support our campaigns to end animal testing, factory farming, and street dog pain and suffering here, by joining our effort in the weeks, months and years ahead, and making it possible for us to expand the geographic reach of our life-saving work.
P.S. If you’re interested in seeing more photos from my trip, check out the album on my Facebook page.