On Sunday, as India began to go into a lockdown to battle the coronavirus pandemic, Good Samaritans around the country who make feeding stray animals part of their routines set their alarm clocks a little earlier than usual.

Free-roaming dogs and cats had to be fed before 7 am, when the “janata curfew” to arrest the spread of Covid-19 came into effect. The animals were fed again after 9 pm, when the government-ordered exercise to encourage self-isolation ended.

But not all the animals turned up before the appointed hour. For instance, Aditya Natrajan, who feeds 30-odd dogs and cats at the Worli promenade in Mumbai every day, did not manage to get all of them at one go. Some of the animals usually hunker down in the rocks that abut the promenade wall and don’t emerge until the others have moved away.

With increasing restrictions on the movement of people across India (and a curfew in Maharashtra), these animals are in danger of being cut off from their main source of food.

In Vadodara, Hansa Roy, who feeds close to 250 dogs between 7.45 am and late afternoon over a 50-kilometre radius, left earlier than usual – at 5am. She kept piles of dry food for the dogs that didn’t show up. “I fed as many as I could, and I will keep feeding them, whatever the circumstances,” said Roy, a former geologist with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

Will this activity be counted as an essential service, on par with allowing grocery stores and chemists to stay open? Community carers hope so. “It’s a solo activity, so there shouldn’t be a problem,” said Natrajan, a game developer and who runs the Instagram account Gully Bois. “We take precautions in any case – I wear a mask and gloves, for instance. If you feed animals regularly, they wait for you.”

Hansa Roy has written to Vadodara City’s District Collector and Commissioner of Police requesting “a daily time slot, for the lockdown period”. She has provided details of the vehicle she will using and has assured them that she will “follow all good personal and public hygiene practices while feeding and tending to stray dogs on the streets” and “promise zero human contact”.

The feeding of strays is as much a part of urban life as traffic jams and malls. The arguments against this practice – that it destroys the primordial hunting instincts of animals and encourages them to cluster in congested neighbourhoods – is counterbalanced by the observation that undomesticated creatures are gentler and friendlier towards strangers when their stomachs are full. Feeders, who work independently of government agencies and municipal corporations, also perform other important services. They report and treat injuries and help to vaccinate and sterilise these animals.

“When animals are well looked after, they will stay calm and happy,” said Samir Bhatia, who feeds at least 200 strays in Mumbai’s Worli, Prabhadevi and Lower Parel neighbourhoods. “We also work on sterilising the animals and vaccinating them. If we can’t move out at all, there will be starving animals all around, and that isn’t good from the perspective of both the ecosystem and humanity. Hungry animals will go outside their territories and start looking for food.”

Restaurant closures

The closure of restaurants and the crackdown on roadside stalls have robbed the animals of another fount of food. Many of them survive on scraps from eateries, Bhatia told Scroll.in. He has “doubled down” on feeding the animals in his area who have lost this vital source.

Bengaluru resident Bismi Anil, who runs the Dumas Bakes N Meals pet food catering service with her husband Anil Prasad, is already seeing an increase in hungry animals. The couple used to feed about 150 dogs in and around Bengaluru’s Whitefield six days of the week, secure in the knowledge that on their day of rest, restaurants would support the animals.

“But ever since the corona scare started, local eateries have closed down and our feeding numbers have increased,” Anil said. “Free-roaming animals have been affected. Even with regular feeding, only one time of their food needs is covered and they are dependent on roadside eateries for another meal. The number of starving animals has increased. In our daily feeding itself, we are seeing an increase of 40-45 dogs daily.”

A sustained lockdown will not only make it difficult for the feeders to move about, but will also affect their ability to buy the supplies needed to prepare the meals, Anil noted.

Greater restrictions might push the animals into foraging in garbage dumps, which could intensify the spread of disease. “I hope that, while following protocols, the feeding of animals is permitted as an essential service, just like the feeding of humans,” Samir Bhatia said. “People or reputable organisations could be given identity cards, for instance, that allow them to be identified as feeders.”

The Animal Welfare Board of India has been demanding that feeders be allowed to be move about. Member of Parliament Maneka Gandhi tweeted a letter by AWBI chairperson OP Chaudhary to the chief secretaries of all states and union territories, which pointed out that “feeder and fodder for large animals and food for stray companions and animals is an essential service and may be kept operation during lockdowns”.

Non-government animal welfare organisations such as Welfare of Stray Dogs are also gearing up to tackle the lockdown. Apart from running a kennel for rescued dogs in Mumbai, staffers and volunteers visit close to 12,000 animals in their habitats, ensuring treatment in the case of injuries and providing vaccination and sterilisation services.

Abodh Aras, who heads the organisation, said that activities around animal rescue and care are now being carried out with fewer staffers. “We have anyway been educating our staff, about masks, about the importance of washing their hands,” Aras said. Animal nurses – who look after injured or ailing strays – are being told to go out in ones rather than twos. The kennel staff is being rotated to ensure that fewer people are on the premises.

“Perhaps something needs to be done wherein feeders are allowed to continue with certain protocols in place,” Aras said. “Even in countries with lockdowns, you are allowed to take a walk and take your pets out for a walk. Perhaps something similar can be done here too.”

Eco India: Meet the champion of stray dogs in Mumbai.