It was love at first bark for the Singhs. The farmhouse at Lonavala doubled as a puppy farm and when a tumbling bundle of brown and white fur bounded towards them with a happy yowl, they knew they had found their dog.
Their other bundle of joy, seven-year-old Rohan had requested a dog for his birthday and in their eternal wisdom, the Singhs had decided that a Saint Bernard would be the perfect fit. After all, didn’t their neighbours have one and how cute was Gia? They wanted one just like that and in a fit of inspiration, they decided theirs would be called Kia.
Back in Mumbai, their windswept bungalow on Carter Road was soon home to the pup. The kids adored her and she was the centre of attention at Rohan’s birthday party. All of them wanted their own baby Bernards.
Mrs Singh was bursting with pride as she waved her finger at them. It was a big responsibility to take care of expensive dogs like Kia, she lectured, and that they should only keep one if they were committed to care for them. In the midst of that joyous birthday party, Mrs Singh truly believed that Kia was going to be the best-kept dog in the world.
The Singhs’ bungalow on Carter Road, one of the toniest pincodes in Mumbai, smelled of the sea on most days. But that day, a deep funk pervaded its grounds – a mix of rotting flesh and faeces. And the neighbours had got a whiff of it.
The rescue team followed the stench, through a well-appointed living room to the lawns and a small shanty. The source of the debilitating smell was a barely alive dog, a Saint Bernard. The matted coat could not hide her bony frame, which was covered in oozing boils. An excreta-caked plastic container, filled with rotting table scraps, and a leaking tap seemed to be her only sustenance. This was Kia, the family dog. The Big Responsibility that Mrs Singh had lectured the kids about.
When the rescue team called out her name, she limped out. They did not even need to leash her; Kia just followed them out. The worst was over.
The leashed Saint Bernard, panting and pausing through a walk on burning-hot paved streets, is now a familiar sight in cities. Like an expensive car, a foreign breed is a symbol of affluence for India’s urbanites, another expensive hobby to spend their disposable income on. If that includes a distressed animal, then so be it.
Kia is a happy dog now but she will never be completely healthy because of the years of abuse suffered by her.
Nobody knows exactly when the St Bernard, a breed meant to survive only in cold climes, became a fixture on the promenades of Mumbai, the city of perennial summer. They were originally bred to be rescue dogs by the Augustinian monks of the Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland, where they continue to occupy popular imagination. In that Alpine country, there’s a two-year waiting period and a stringent background check before you can bring home a furball. At home, though, we might have spotted an Indian celebrity toting one and unleashed a sadistic revolution.
“The very act of keeping a Saint Bernard in this city is an act of animal cruelty,” says Dr Umesh Karkare, a veterinarian whose roomy clinic in Khar is crowded with expat cats and hand-bag dogs. A 2014 Euromonitor report pegged the number of Indian households with pets at 12 million, a leap from 7 million in 2009. But what Euromonitor does not capture is how many of these pets double up as status symbols.
The key to what makes a status-symbol dog lies in the price tag. Toy breeds like Lhasa Apsos, which can be toted in “It” bags are ₹10-12,000, while prices for Saint Bernards and Siberian Huskies hover between ₹50-80,000. The latest breed to join the most coveted list of Mumbai’s swish set is the Alaskan Malamute, a furry hulk of a dog which retails upwards of ₹2 lakh. With that kind of money tied to the end of your leash, the trendy dog-owner is letting you know that not only is he or she a lover of fine animals, but a lover of the very latest fine animal in town. It’s a pity she can’t take a purse for a walk. It would spare the animal a lifetime of misery.
And it is a life of misery. Taking care of a breed like Saint Bernard is a full-time job and very few are up to the task. In addition to the constant air-conditioning, there are the long, mandatory walks, the daily brushing, the diet, vet consultations, and vaccination updates. And this is when the dog is healthy.
Come illness or rains, the work doubles up. When a cute little puppy comes home and does nothing but chase his tail adorably all day, everyone loves it. But when the same puppy becomes a full-grown dog, demanding attention, needing care, covering the carpet with fine dog hair, the story changes. The offending animal is relegated to the corner of a house, or a shanty on the compound, and if you’re a real heartless sonofabitch then it’s just dumped on the road, left to make his way in the sweltering heat of a clogged, unkind city that will show it no mercy.
Pooja Sakpal of YODA – Youth Organisation in Defense of Animals, rescues these castaways. She was the one who saved Kia from her agony. Her shelter in Mahim is overflowing with other Kias who came home with large price tags and cute bowties but were soon left for the dead. She rescues up to 15 animals a month, with the number increasing daily.
Pooja goes to work every day not knowing which unfortunate, unloved animal will wash up at her gates and in what state. Her entry into the shelter, a crowded shanty on the beach, is met by eager barks as the animals crowd around her. They’re all victims of an unforgiving city, but Kia, she tells me, is one of the worst cases she’s seen.
The skeletal dog with internal organ failure nearly didn’t survive. Kia was rushed to Dr Karkare for emergency care, but in her fragile state, she was in no condition to be put in the shelter with the others. Foster care at home was the only option until she found another family. Pooja took Kia to her two-bedroom flat in Prabhadevi. The plan was to nurse her back to health and then put her up for adoption.
But there were no takers for the prized breed. Kia was no longer an adorable puppy but a sombre dog, wrecked by years of abuse. She no longer made the cut as a status symbol and would win no awards at a dog show. Pooja added Kia to her family and never looked back.
Despite her harrowing story, Kia is lucky. She is one in a hundred that found a second home. The other 99 who’ve been unhooked from their Hermes leashes, will not.