Tuffy limps up to the front of the open-topped cage, his left front leg encased in a thick, plastic purple sheath, and chatters away in a sing-song voice while I scratch him behind the ears. “He was brought in two weeks ago with a fractured tibia,” says Adarsh Vijaypur, a graduate of Bombay Veterinary College.
‘Here’ in this case is the Youth Organisation in Defence of Animals, or ‘Yoda’, one of Mumbai’s largest animal shelters and charities. Entirely reliant on funding from private citizens and a few NGOs, including Peta, the US animal rights group, its light shines from the city’s suburbs like a beacon: an oasis of calm and loving care.
Yoda is not easy to find on a cold afternoon in July at the height of monsoon season. The rain lashes in off the Indian Ocean while my cabbie drives around in circles in the Pali Hills south of Juhu beach, clutching a damp paper map. Finally, a man wearing a yellow slicker, wheeling a bike and clutching a cage filled with chickens, stops and points up a narrow lane between crumbling apartment blocks.
To walk into Yoda is to be transported into another world. From the epic mayhem and humanity of Mumbai, memorably captured in Suketu Mehta’s book Maximum City, you emerge into a place filled with dogs and other animals, all of which were, in literal and figurative terms, born on the wrong side of the fence.
It’s the smell that hits you first, a mixture of urine and faeces and chemicals, the sour-sweet odour most of us encounter only when we are rolled into emergency wards, or ushered in to the play the role of stricken, passive bystanders. A few smallish dogs are lying on the stone floor in soft-lined beds. Most of them carry on sleeping; one gets gingerly to its feet, limping over to sniff at my hands and trouser hems, staring up at me with big, questioning eyes.
Word gets around that a journalist is here, and Adarsh kindly puts his lunch to one side and comes down the steps, a large Golden Retriever called Alpha by his side. A wry but tired-looking man in his early thirties who works ten hours a day, six days a week, to mitigate animal pain and suffering, the chief in-house veterinarian reckons around 15 dogs come to Yoda each week. Most are brought here by ‘feeders’, the small army of local citizens who cannot afford a dog, but who go out of their way to feed a few favoured strays. When one is found ailing or injured, they make a beeline for Yoda.
Each room is an assault on the senses. Behind the main door lies a metal operating table, covered in faeces and syringes. A dog lies in the corner in a cage, swathed in white bandages, sleeping. Beyond that is the recuperation room – it’s too basic to call it a lounge – where dogs recover from the ordeal of operations, which range from spaying to wound cleaning, to amputations. The city is full of cars and stray dogs, many of which take little notice of the city’s mostly slow-moving vehicles until they get side-swiped. Relying only my own observations, based on 15 years of living, working and travelling here, I’d say a third of Mumbai’s dogs are partially lame.
The biggest room in Yoda is also the quietest. Ten kennels, little more than plastic and metal-fronted crates, tacked together but sturdy and effective, house a single dog in its final stages of recovery.
Each, as we all know from living with and around dogs, is different. Some, like Tuffy, engage, hobbling around his pen and chitter-chattering away. Taylor, a white short-haired mongrel, raises himself from the floor when Adarsh slides back the bolt, and grins, a wolfy smile laced with pain. He was brought in 12 days earlier, having been found on the railway lines that cleave the city east to west. His front left leg had been smashed, and had to be removed. A few dogs lie in the farthest corner of their stalls, silent as a stone, their faces haunted. One licks at a terrible wound.
This is a place filled with suffering and tragedy, but also hope. Yoda is clean and well ventilated and blessedly quiet. Every dog is walked twice a day, and fed a pretty good diet of chicken, vegetables and rice. Yet it is also a place of starkness - the shadow, to misquote TS Eliot, that falls between the idea and the reality.
As Yoda’s Facebook page attests, many of these dogs are adopted by loving families. Take Bailey, adopted by John Abraham soon after she arrived. Rarely is the leading man, a famous name in Bollywood movies, interviewed without Bailey’s goofy grin and waggy tail getting in on the act. She has nearly 15,000 Instagram followers, and Abraham does much to promote and financially support the charity that has given him - and Bailey - so much happiness.
A Facebook post from Sanjukta Nandy, a local architect, highlights how important Yoda is, and how two lives can be changed, just by one of them walking through the door. “Disney has crossed the rainbow bridge,” Yoda wrote in a heartfelt homily to Sanjukta on July 14 after he had passed away. Diabetic and blind from an early age, Disney was “well looked after and loved. Thank you for choosing to adopt and staying committed to your words when you adopted him”.
Not all stories have fairytale endings. Every dog is on a clock. Staff do all they can to find good families, but if a dog fails to find an owner within a month, it goes right back on the streets. It may sound hard, even cruel, but finance and kennel space is tight. They are always carefully returned to the streets they’ve known for their entire lives, but it must be a sour, rather than a sweet homecoming.
Co-founders Priya Agarwal, Pooja Tash Sakpal and Abhishek Soparkar do all they can to raise money and awareness. Yoda opened its doors in 2010 after Priya, keen to get a dog, saw first-hand the brutality of local ‘puppy mills’, where dogs are stuffed into cages and released only to breed, and where the ‘faulty’ ones are left to die.
Yet their means are limited. It costs 600,000 Rupees (£7,000, $8,700, €7,800) a month to keep Yoda going, Adarsh says, most of which is spent on rent, medicine equipment, and a few meagre salaries. Like other private charities in the city, including Animals Matter to Me in Navi Mumbai, and Save our Strays in Lokhandwala, Yoda relies on private funding. Every little matters: Dudley & Co, for its part, donated 200 Rupees.
Adarsh is keen to get back to his sandwich, and then to work. There are dogs to be cared for and saved, and then, in an ideal world, delivered into the hands of loving, caring families. Asked if he ever gets weary of it all, his frown, literally and rather endearingly, turns upside-down, and a broad smile replaces the worry lines. “No, never,” he says firmly.
Yoda on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/yoda.mumbai
Save our Strays is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/saveourstraysmum
Animals Matter to Me is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Animals-matter-to-me-mumbai-133174593529235
John Abraham’s dog Bailey is on Instragram @abraham_bailey
To donate money to Yoda, you can transfer funds directly to the following account:
Account number: 00121450000052
HDFC Bank Prabhadevi Branch
IFSC Code: HDFC000012
Savings (TRUST) Account