By Malika Bhavnani*

COVID-19 pandemic has not only impacted human life, but it has also had a significant impact on both stray and pet dogs and cats. During the lockdown, these harmless strays that usually depend on local shopkeepers, restaurants, and small eateries for food and water were left with nothing. Starving strays had complete freedom to roam around streets and dig into waste bins, but even those scraps were no longer available with restaurants and shops being closed. With empty streets and no public disturbance, we’d imagine animals roaming free and enjoying on roads, but unfortunately, that has not been the case. With limited sources of food and no leftovers or waste to feast on, stray dogs and cats are struggling and even getting into fights for food provided by some kind feeders and NGOs. What’s worse is that there’s been a surge in road accidents being reported over the past three months of lockdown, causing severe injuries and in several cases even immediate death. During initial days of lockdown, roads were completely empty giving people an opportunity to speed and race. In most cases, drivers have just sped away without hesitation as most people don’t consider it their personal responsibility to help an injured animal. To add to their misery, due to inflicted fear of stray dogs and cats carrying COVID-19, many residents are trying to shoo them away from their territory.

With a host of NGOs across the country taking it upon themselves to initiate feeding programs, several volunteers and animal lovers joined and did their part to help stray animals and abandoned pets. A lot of renowned celebrities too joined the movement and took this opportunity to spread awareness and counsel their followers that strays or their own pets will not transmit Covid-19.

On March 25, our honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the nation to feed stray animals and also stated that medical help for such animals should be treated as an essential service. This gave birth to what I like to call – The Lockdown Warriors. Local communities were formed to fight animal cruelty, location based feeder and rescue WhatsApp groups were created, and animal lovers came together to help one another.

As lockdown kept extending, unfortunately, the number of people abandoning pets kept increasing. First, there was a lot of misinformation surrounding how pets and stray animals can carry and transmit coronavirus. Despite there being no evidence of cats, dogs, or other companion animals becoming infected with COVID-19 as per the World Health Organization, there was a steep rise in the number of dogs, especially pedigree dogs, being abandoned by their families and in turn rescued by NGOs and independent rescuers. It is important for animal lovers and community to play their part and make efforts to help more people understand this, so that we can protect our companion and community animals from these baseless myths.

The situation was worse for stray animals. From infant kittens being abandoned in cartons and gunny bags to pups being dumped in trash cans, there was tremendous rise in such cases. In fact, over past three months, our rescue helpline has got calls for rescue of animals that have been found severely injured. Nobody cares to look after their injuries initially; it is only when the situation is aggravated that it is brought to our notice. One such case was of a dog that was allegedly stuck in a ditch for over 10 days before it was brought to our attention. During lockdown itself, we have tended to over 2000 cases of injured animals and over 900 admissions to our centre.

The silver lining in this situation is that even in these trying times of lockdown and limited supplies, there have been a few families that came forward to give shelter to abandoned pets. Additionally, with people working from home, it has been motivating to see many of them turn to fostering animals for companionship over these lockdown months. This has also led to an encouraging rise in pet adoptions. We’ve, in fact, also introduced virtual adoption camps for potential pet parents to actually get an opportunity to interact with animals virtually and also with feline and canine behaviourists to help address adoption related queries. This is indeed a great time to foster/adopt, since families and individuals have adequate time to establish a relationship with new animal. At this time, when it’s not possible to be around friends, new furry ones are helping fill the gap.

The important thing to do is to guide new parents on what this responsibility is likely to be, once this lockdown is lifted and life goes back to normal. The last thing that any NGO/adoption agency would want is for the animal to be returned once normalcy resumes. After all, it is a lifetime commitment. While the virus rages on, states are lifting restrictions and more people are returning to work. Your pet will still be at home and it is likely to have grown accustomed to you being around all the time. It would hence be better to get your pet used to spending some designated time alone even in these times so they do not end up suffering from separation anxiety when we return to our regular routines and go back to work. Also, it is very important to schedule virtual training sessions when you bring home a puppy early on itself to curb undesirable behaviours, which could set in in the long run.

Honestly, will the challenges and struggles of our streeties ever end? We seem to have no answer. They now have to brace monsoons and with that there come bigger responsibilities for the animal welfare community. We can only hope that this pandemic teaches us all to be compassionate and to co-exist.

* The author is a Feline Adoptions Coordinator with ‘World For All’ and currently, she is working as a Brand Communications Manager with Madison PR. She has been working with World For All for over 8 years now. Working with a motto, ‘In a perfect world, every dog would have a home and every home would have a dog’ (extending that philosophy to fit in our felines too), she is primarily responsible for finding loving forever homes for our rescue kittens and cats.

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