In October 2018, while I was volunteering at All Creatures Great and Small, an animal shelter run by Anjali Gopalan on the outskirts of Delhi, we were visited one afternoon by a young couple with a story straight out of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. Their pet companion dog, a Pomeranian, had been killed by being thrown from the eighth floor of their building by a neighbour who got irritated when it ran across the hallway into his flat.

The couple was devastated and filed a police complaint. But under pressure from others in the building, and even the advice of the police, they conceded to a token punishment. The neighbour would have to feed 100 dogs in an animal shelter but otherwise face no penalties.

An extreme act of violence was not treated as a real crime, but just bad behaviour, undocumented and soon forgotten. All the heartbroken couple could do was find a shelter where the neighbour could pay to purge his guilt.

No data on animals

Stories like this appear in the media, or on social media all the time. Smartphone cameras, which have enabled citizen vigilance, ensure they come with horrifying or heart-rending images. A dog raped with a screwdriver in Goa.

A monkey hung and beaten to death in Telangana. A street dog beaten, tied to a scooter and then thrown off the second floor of a building in Ludhiana. Sixteen puppies poisoned by nursing students in Kolkata. A pregnant elephant in Kerala died after consuming fruit loaded with firecrackers.

All these are real cases, just five out of an approximate 2,400 recorded cases of crimes against animals compiled by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations and All Creatures Great and Small in a report titled In Their Own Right: Calling for Parity in Law for Animal Victims of Crimes.

This was created in response to what happens in nearly all these cases – or, more accurately, what does not happen. These stories appear in the media and people wince or get angry, then scroll past or turn the page and that is effectively it. The brutalised animals may or may not recover, but even when a criminal case is filed the perpetrators rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist.

What is critical is that these crimes are not collated by the National Crime Records Bureau. Their annual report of crimes in India provides state and district wise data on violent crimes, assault, theft, sexual abuse of women and children and murders across the country. It is an essential policy document for the control of crimes in India – and it makes no mention of animal victims.

A visit to the Delhi office of the National Crime Records Bureau confirmed that in their detailed collation of district and state-wise crimes across India, animals are not a class of victims for which any data is sought. “We have no data on animals”, an official firmly responded. And with no data, there is no compulsion to treat the issue seriously.

While India claims to be the home of ahimsa and a place of compassion to all living creatures, the reality appears to be very different. With no data, the horrific stories are treated as aberrations, rather than a continuous reality.

Representational image. Photo credit: Sivaram V/ Reuters

What we discovered

Animal activists know otherwise. So we set out to collate these reports from the records maintained by animal activists across India. We spoke to over 50 animal activists, animal welfare and protection organisations, independent animal rescuers, veterinarians across 12 states. The collective, overwhelming response was how widespread brutal crimes against animals was their daily experience.

Here is just one example of the kind of cases that we discovered, from Animal Aid in Udaipur: there are lots of cases where animals are beaten to death and it is difficult to think which is the cruellest. However, there was this case of the donkey called Veeru, on whom we made a YouTube video and we have made him a sanctuary animal now.

He was tied and some drunkard was beating him incessantly with a pipe. When we reached there, his whole body was covered with marks and blood. He had been repeatedly hit over his head and body, while he was tied.

One of the blows ruptured his eye. He had 20 deep wounds. The attacker was at loggerheads with the owner of the donkey and out of vengeance, he beat the donkey – taking revenge against a sentient being, which is still a property of the owner. We filed a complaint and we tracked him through his mobile phone and caught him and handed him over to the police.

We did not expect the sheer scale and range of cases of brutal violence that we found. During the period 2010-2020, we documented 720 cases of crime against street animals, 741 cases against working animals, 588 cases against companion animals and 258 cases against wild animals and birds.

Among these, approximately 1,000 cases were of brutal assault including 82 cases were of sexual abuse, 266 cases of cold-blooded murder and over 400 cases were of violent attacks of beating, kicking, torturing, throwing acid or boiling water, maiming a part of the body, attacking with a knife or a blunt object. Twenty of these documented cases were of assault by children.

We found that over 47 different species of wild animals, birds, street, companion and working animals suffered at the hands of humans. Some of these included pigeons, nilgais, donkeys, elephants, pigs, deers, parakeets, snakes, bears, yaks, dogs, turtles, dolphins, fox, bat, doves, hippopotamus, peacock, hyenas and many more.

Additionally, almost 4,230 dogs have been killed by mass culling drives across the country in the past five years alone. Beating animals is reported to be the most common form of assault, followed by their confinement and maiming them. The findings conclude that almost 70% of the documented cases of crimes against animals did not even make it to the news.

We also realised that our data is a mere representational window into the actual scale of violence faced by animals in India. Working and companion animals face their share of brutal violent crimes, but the predominant target of violence are free-living animals on the streets. The culture of violence against them has historic legal sanction.

History of cruelty

Between the 1870s-1880s, municipal laws were enacted across British India, which as a matter of policy and for the first-time, advocated catching and killing any unowned street dogs that could be found.

The caught dogs would be taken to pounds and kept for 24 hours to 48 hours, in case the municipal workers had accidentally caught an owned dog. If unclaimed after 48 hours, the dogs would be killed. This was the first “fatal” distinction between owned and unowned dogs.

The method of killing used would shock us today. Adult dogs were electrocuted on specially designed chairs and high voltage current passed through them. Young puppies were gassed in a closed room with chloroform.

Representational image. Photo credit: Noah Seelam / AFP

On paper, India has laws to prevent crimes against animals. Our Constitution casts a duty on every citizen to show compassion towards animals and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 punishes all kinds of crimes against animals – with a fine of just Rs 50.

Our research revealed that this is a continuation of the colonial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act from 1890, which also punished animal cruelty with a fine of Rs 50. The fact that we have stuck to treating animal cruelty only punishable with a 130-year-old fine only confirms that we do not take crimes against animals seriously.

The story of the brutality that Veeru experienced in addition to his daily chores and his subsequent rescue and recovery, represents both the worse and the best of our relationship with animals. This report while focussing on the worse hopes that we proceed with a determined hope of a better future of co-existence with animals, as human-animals, among the non-human ones.

We dedicate this report to the animal victims of violence across India, with the hope that it will serve as a catalyst for systemic change in our relationship with all animals, away from violence and towards compassion and peaceful coexistence.

Our dominance, over animals, will only be challenged by self-realisation that it is morally corruptible and ethically wrong. We cannot go through this world as silent spectators. The time for that deep reflection is now.

The author is an animal rights activist based in Goa.