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Indians bit off more than they can chew. Many pandemic pet dogs homeless now

From an average of five adoptions a month in 2020, new homes for pets have fallen to just one or two now. Adoption agencies are toughening clauses.

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After feeding around 500 stray dogs across Delhi NCR for several months, when two young women — Mansi Rautela and Malabica Chakraborty — got their animal adoption organisation, the Wagging Tales Foundation, registered in October 2020 and forayed into the virtual world of animal adoption, little did they know that it would turn out to be the biggest stumbling block in their journey.

Since the NGO — or ‘medical boarding for animals’ as Rautela describes it — was registered during the peak of the pandemic, it worked in their favour at first. With people confined to their homes, there was widespread interest in providing a home to several homeless animals. The ones who could not go the extra mile to adopt were willing to foster. Shelter dogs were not just a big hit in India but also across the world during the initial years of the pandemic, shows a study. However, from an average of five in a month in 2020, the rate of adoption has now considerably fallen down to one or two a month, notes Rautela.

Just as the pandemic facilitated the surge in adoptions and fostering, its decline has pushed many to surrender or abandon the animals. “People came forward with good intentions [to adopt and foster] but did not think it through in terms of long-term prospect,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder and managing trustee at All Creatures Great and Small (ACGS), and founder of Naz Foundation. ACGS is a non-profit organisation based in rural Haryana, which provides shelter to several animals including dogs, cats, horses, pigs, birds, buffaloes and even emus.

“In Delhi itself, many people bring in dogs to compete with neighbours or to show off — not sure if there is love involved because I cannot imagine anyone wanting to abandon their dog if they really cared about it. As a society, we need to get our act together,” Gopalan adds.

Another trend that blossomed during the pandemic was the number of adoption and foster pages on Facebook and Instagram. While the intentions behind the pages may be genuine for most, an absence of any regulation over such adoptions has, unfortunately, done more harm than good.

Resident dogs being fed at the medical boarding of Wagging Tales Foundation in Ghittorni, Delhi | Mansi Rautela

Also read: Modi govt has a new mission: Conserving desi dogs and cats & exporting them as pets

Good intentions or God complex?

Street Life NGO, a rescue organisation based out of Haryana’s Sonipat, was

born out of the ‘good intentions’ of Pardeep Garg, who runs a mobile repairing shop in the same area. After two stray dogs whom he used to feed passed away due to lack of facilities, Garg decided to launch the non-profit organisation.

Of the five dogs that have been adopted from the shelter so far, one pup got adopted, abandoned, and re-adopted four times. After three failed attempts, Garg got the organisation registered with the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) in August 2021. Getting a rescue shelter or animal adoption centre registered aids the rescuer to hold those who adopt and then abandon accountable and, if need be, take legal recourse to tackle the situation. Without any authentic verification and documents, the animals given away for adoption or fostering are often left to their own fates.

“Anyone can create an account on social media and set up an adoption centre. In such a scenario if you are not a registered organisation or if you have not taken the preliminary precautionary measures going in, you can’t do anything if the adopting family abandons or gives back the animal. You have no power,” says Manaswita Sachdeva, who spearheads the social media handles for Street Life NGO and is an integral part of Garg’s 15-member team.

Mansi Rautela of Wagging Tales Foundation also emphasises the need for a thorough verification process before the animal is sent in for adoption. “We send a preliminary questionnaire and paperwork to anyone who shows interest in adopting a dog to screen them if they can meet the needs of the animal. We interact with them over calls followed by house checks. If it is rented accommodation, then we check with the landlord too and ensure the house is puppy proof,” she says, explaining their 15-day ‘foster to adopt’ process. If the family comes through at the end of fostering exercise, a notarised contract is signed that also includes a mandatory sterilisation clause after the pup is 7-8 months old.

To evoke a sense of fear and accountability among adoptive families, Rautela’s organisation has also incorporated a ‘surrender clause’, which makes the person adopting the pup legally bound to pay a certain amount if they are returning the animal. “Till it does not hurt people financially, they do not learn a lesson — that is the only reason for a surrender cost,” she says.

But many rescuers online, according to Rautela, have no checks and balances involved during the adoption process. Any paperwork without them being registered with the AWBI holds no credibility. “We have heard horror stories where the pup goes missing after a month and they have no idea about what the family did with the animal. There is no accountability,” she adds.

According to Gopalan, the advent of social media pages for animal adoption has become a means for people to “promote themselves and a source of income”. “They are not registered and do not understand what the care of an animal entails. I am very puzzled by what has happened,” she says. However, she does acknowledge that the initiative may have germinated from a good intention but “many of them have not thought it through”.

“People feel there is a God complex attached to this [rescuing and putting animals up for adoption],” says Rautela.

Visual of the rented accommodation of Sonipat-based Street Life NGO that houses over 50 dogs | Manaswita Sachdeva | Street Life NGO

Also read: How rescue of Bengaluru’s Buddy whose owner, 87, died of Covid shows plight of pets in pandemic

Not every animal needs rescuing

Weighing in her years of experience as an animal activist, Gopalan says that she always urges people to take care of the animal where they are, feed, sterilise and medicate them when needed, underlining that not every animal needs rescuing or adoption. The moment they are taken out from their environment, animals cannot readjust to a foreign space. “You can not just dump them anywhere.”

Rautela agrees with Gopalan and suggests that until and unless there is a visible threat to the animals’ lives, there is no need to relocate them. “We always urge rescuers to not put up healthy pups for adoption. If they have the mother dog around and people to take care of, they do not need rescuing. I do not think people understand the meaning of that,” she says.

Rescued dogs being fed at Street Life NGO in Sonipat, Haryana | Manaswita Sachdeva | Street Life NGO

For anyone interested in setting up a rescue shelter or adoption page, Gopalan’s first cautionary advice is to think, and then think it through. One must get the organisation registered but also be very sure of what you are going to do if these animals are not adopted, she says. She further makes note of the other necessary checks involved such as pre- and post-adoption house checks, mandatory sterilisation to avoid breeding, adequate medical care, cleanliness and abiding by the rules of AWBI.

Garg, who has been taking care of dogs around his locality much before the NGO came into existence, says, “Agar log apne area ke stray dogs ko sirf khana bhi khilane lagenge or cruelty nahi karenge toh kisi NGO ya shelter ki zarurat nahi padegi (If only people take care of the dogs around their area, there won’t be a need for any NGO or shelter centres)”.

(Edited by Rachel John)

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