Stray animal feeders of Mumbai possess many skills, not least among them the flair for responding to irate, often violent critics. The arguments they suffer are predictable and uninformed:

  • If you like stray dogs so much, take them home.
  • There are so many humans who need your help, then why run after animals?
  • Because you feed them, they become a menace.
  • We’ll complain to the police (for any variety of reasons).
  • Let them have puppies/kittens – it’s natural.

All feeders have rational, calm, educational responses to these. “I tell them ‘I am making your area cleaner, safer at no cost to you’,” said 61-year-old JennyLou Bhiwandiwalla, who has been feeding animals since 1994.

The feeder community in most cities is largely self-financed, self-organised and self-driven. It usually starts with that one starved kitten or dog following you home, like in the case of Deepak Nichani, and switching on the empathy. Soon enough, you notice all the animals who have no food and water source in your street, then area, then suburbs.

Feeders befriend the animals by providing them food, vaccinating them against animal-to-human infectious diseases such as rabies, conducting first aid, co-ordinating sterilisation with NGOs or vets, and controlling their population. When there is a violent crime against a stray dog or cat, feeders usually collect evidence and follow a legal path to justice.

They are the archetypes of compassion at a time when others among us frequently display unbelievable cruelty to animals. Last month, a 24-year-old engineering student was arrested for stabbing three strays near a Metro station in Delhi. In Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai, an unknown man assaulted a stray in a police colony, leaving the animal blind in one eye.

Structured like organisations

There are estimated 30 million stray dogs in India, arguably the most in any country. According to a 2015 study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, of the 59,000 rabies-related deaths in the world, India accounts for 20,847 – the highest rate of rabies globally. According to the Indian Journal of Medical Research, 17.4 million dog bites are reported every year.

Until 1994, Mumbai’s municipal corporation used to cull stray dogs to control their population. Dogs were collected and hanged, electrocuted, poisoned, beaten to death or released as prey in national parks. The method proved ineffective and was finally replaced by the ABC, or the Animal Birth Control, method that opted for mass sterilisation. It also stipulated that the sterilised dogs should be released back into their area.

This is where feeders proved a great help. The municipal body and NGOs can undertake the sterilisation, but capturing the dog becomes much easier (and less traumatic for the dog) in the hands of a friendly feeder. Feeders also co-ordinate the programme, keeping an eye out on new dogs and provide post-operative care.

Another facet is the controlling of the cat population which is largely invisible due to the animal’s secretive nature. They are not covered under the Mumbai municipality’s ABC Act, but reproduce twice as much as dogs. Their sterilisation costs are either personally covered by feeders, subsidised by NGOs and vets or met through donations. It can cost between Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per cat.

Feeders’ days start early and they function like organisations. There is a network of designated feeders in smaller areas; a supply chain of meat scraps brought in from butchers; chunks of hours set aside for cooking and distribution of food; and friends and staff who will take over the duties when they are absent.

Constitutional protections

Businesswoman Rita Vazirani has been feeding strays from Chembur Sindhi Society to Vasant Park in the city’s east for 25 years. The number now stands at 86 dogs and 54 cats, who need 4 kilos of chicken, 12 kilos of rice and 10 litres of milk every day. The provisions cost around Rs 30,000 every month. Vazirani personally feeds the animals from 8.30 am to 11.30 am at 17 designated feeding stations, while a maid and three volunteers take over the evening feed in places she cannot reach.

“I used to see the BMC catchers put a noose around the animal’s neck to catch it,” said the 60-year-old. “I realised that to catch the dogs for sterilisation, we had to... befriend them. I started feeding them. I have studied psychology and sociology and use that to talk to people who want to stop me. I explain that the dog is hungry and ask, ‘Do you see any food nearby? Or water? How is he to survive?’”

The trauma of witnessing municipal corporation’s crude culling methods galvanised most of the feeder force into action. “As a child, I saw them douse a dog with water and push him on an electrified plate,” said JennyLou Bhiwandiwalla. She started 22 years ago with feeding 10 animal, which have grown to 300, covering Bandstand at Bandra and the Reclamation area from Mahim to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. So far, she has had about 3,000 dogs sterilised and vaccinated.

Her rounds are thrice a week, lasting about four hours where she stops to ensure the dog has finished the food, check if it would like more and then picks up the stainless steel bowl. She keeps an eye on those who might need medical treatment for an accident or mange, and looks out for those who appear lost.

Knowing the law helps greatly. “The Indian constitution is the only one in the world that allots rights to animals,” said Bhiwandiwalla. “I remind people that what I am doing is not against the law; in fact, they are going against law by stopping me. Littering is an offence and we ensure that we clean up after feeding the animals.”

Article 21 of the Constitution protects all forms of life, including animal life, and its Article 51A (g) imposes that all Indian citizens have a fundamental duty to have compassion for all living creatures.

Help from the police

A universal observation of most feeders has been that there is more empathy and compassion for animals among daily wage earners, slum dwellers and household help. “Stall guys and those who wash cars will tell me if a dog has been injured, or gone missing,” said Dr Jyotsna Changriani, who feeds 8 dogs and 90 cats in Bandra. “The complaints usually come from cowards living in buildings who will send down a maid or watchman to tell me to not feed dogs.”

The empathetic force branches out the feeding system. Kiran Shekhar provides food to two feeders in Danda, near Bandra, and one senior citizen in Kalina. “They don’t want money for the task, so I just provide them with food. In fact, someone from the Danda chawls gives me a donation when they hand over a cat for sterilisation.” Fifty-eight-year-old Shekhar drives around a van filled with food and medical supplies. This van is an animal magnet, and when dog catchers from NGOs have trouble getting hold of an evasive dog, Shekhar will drive them in her van, drawing the dog out.

Working with other feeders and training staff, such as the driver and the maid, helps keep the operation running when the main feeders need time off. “In 22 years, we never took a single family holiday together,” said Mohana Dutt, who fed animals for 28 years and recently retired to Karjat in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. “I am 64 and have back trouble. I only feed the animals around house now.”

Known as Doctor Aunty in her area, Mohanna goes after animal abusers. “There was a very friendly dog in our area, who was strangled and thrown down from an under-construction building. The watchman tried to say the dog tripped and fell, but the injuries did not collaborate that. Kids in the area informed me, but unfortunately, they buried the dog before we could take pictures.”

Deepak, a businessman who spends about Rs 70,000 a month feeding cats and dogs in the western suburb of Khar, has acquired an Animal Welfare Feeder card to ease police matters. “I believe in flashing the card around so people and policeman know its value.”

Not that the police are not helpful. However, there are daily squabbles. “A few years ago, some ladies verbally abused and almost physically attacked me for feeding the dogs,” said Deepak. “We had a very animal friendly officer in the area in those days, who called the ladies to the police station for a warning.”

Kiran Shekhar has been assaulted for a stranger reason. “Some people want puppies and kittens just to play with them. They forget about them when they are older. The ladies grabbed my mangalsutra and said, ‘You are married, no? You have children. Why shouldn’t they have theirs?’”

Deepak had a closer call last week. He stopped a drunk man from hitting a dog who was barking at him. The man turned on Deepak, leaving the generous feeder with internal injuries.