One of the lesser considered aspects of the pandemic-inspired lockdowns was its effect on stray animals. With citizens isolated in homes and restaurants closed, most were unable to scrounge for food. But it wasn’t just hunger that was killing them. Why do we, as a society, continue to mistreat animals?
If you’ve spent any time living in Karachi you won’t need to search your memory with much effort to unearth images of limping dogs, bruised donkeys, cats with tails missing, and tiny mangled bodies by the side of busy roads. The pain of animals is a fact of this city, like concrete. And smog. And traffic.
The very last time I drove my car to work a month ago, right before the (now-eased) lockdown, I stopped at a traffic light in Gizri and saw what was left of a pigeon next to my car. It was smashed flat and bloodless, like an angry scribble on paper a child might have drawn, two-dimensional except the marble round eye fixed upward to the sky. This is the best kind of dead animal to see; you don’t feel anything because you can trick yourself into believing you’re looking at a piece of cloth or trash or something made-up. It was never alive in the first place.
When we see a hurt animal, we don’t take the time to register that what we are actually witnessing is the aftermath of human indifference or a conscious decision — fuelled by boredom, frustration or sadism — to use physical force against a creature that cannot fight back.
I’ve been able to think of little else since the beginning of the lockdown in Sindh even though this is not how I want to spend my time, being chased up and down the corridors of my mind with images of dead and dying animals. Healthcare systems worldwide have disintegrated into chaos, the global economy has crashed and thousands don’t know where their next meal is coming from. But a lesser talked about reality is that the lockdown was a death sentence for animals, too.
During the flurry of civil society’s relief efforts for the poor, I would see occasional recommendations on social media to leave bowls of water outside homes and dry food on the streets since closed restaurants and markets (now partially opened) meant less waste for animals to dig through for their next meal. My cat’s vet Dr Shehla Hayat tells me that the number of starving strays being brought to her clinic has been overwhelming, especially newborn kittens, whose mothers must now wander farther than ever to scavenge for food and sometimes lose their babies in the process.
In the early weeks of the lockdown, vets’ clinics overflowed with animals rescued from pet shops and markets across Pakistan that were shuttered and closed without a thought about their inhabitants. Animal rescue teams found cats and dogs and rabbits lying filthy and emaciated in cages next to other dead animals.
It was impossible to make sense of the apathy and brutality that led to this outcome, so my sister and I decided to start small in our own neighbourhood. Every evening, we walked through the streets armed with bags of cat and dog food. The first week of the lockdown, I crossed a street in traffic to feed a limping dog who was both thrilled and terrified to see a human come towards him, wagging his tail frantically one minute and cowering the next. Another evening, a cat peered out through a bush and looked right at us, seemingly on the verge of speech. She stumbled in our direction with one paw bent inward at a horrible angle and her eyes said she needed more help than a meal. A fist of guilt threatened my throat — that same shameful constriction you feel every day in Pakistan when the abstract becomes real, when the numbers and graphs that map hardship coalesce into the beggar’s face outside your car window, or the hand into which you press 20 rupees while avoiding eye contact.
We sprinkled a small hill of food in front of the injured cat and left.
I saw my first dead cat in Karachi when I was 14. I heard a piteous mewling coming from a flowerbed outside the gate while studying for an exam that would determine whether I made it to class 10. I was an anxious child, devoid of confidence and terrible at exams but steadfast in the false belief that my success was directly proportional to how hard I studied. So every year, I studied ferociously and then the fact of the exam terrified me into forgetting everything I needed to know to get anything above a C. This year would be no different but I didn’t know that, so every fibre of my attention was stretched taut to a single point on my notebook when I heard a kitten’s cries. I went out to explore and there she was, teetering blindly in the flowers and mud. Her fur was a thin pale orange and she couldn’t have been alive more than a week. I went back in to study and hoped her mother would return soon, but hours into listening to her howl, it was clear she’d been abandoned.
By this point, my ironclad concentration was in pieces. I couldn’t bear the sound of what I imagined was her fear and confusion. I covered my ears. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to study because studying seemed the only way to quell the growing thrum of anxiety in my body.
I went back out to get her, and tried unsuccessfully to answer sample exam questions while holding and feeding her, and letting her prowl the length of my body with a desperate need I couldn’t satisfy. Several hours later, I saw it was hopeless. I was getting nothing done, so I lined a box with soft blankets and a stuffed toy, put it in my bathroom, and placed the kitten in it. The moment my hands left her body, it began again, that ear-splitting scream of misery. I felt awful, but closed the bathroom door while reassuring myself that as soon as I’d been sufficiently productive, I’d go check on her. When I finally did, though, the bathroom was quiet and as I reached into the box to scoop her up, I felt her body rigid and cold against my fingers, curled up next to the stuffed toy.
She is buried in the garden of my childhood home where I live again after many years and I no longer remember which patch of earth holds her remains. It’s 22 years later, but I think about her often during this lockdown and wonder if there could have been a different ending, in which I did more than the bare minimum and the kitten had lived.
What is the bare minimum during a pandemic and what is our moral responsibility in the face of constant, relentless suffering? The past month, I’ve been struggling to apportion effort and compassion between the human victims of lockdown measures and the animal victims of the consequent human cruelty. Mahera Omar, co-founder of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), an animal welfare organisation based in Karachi, says that she is flooded with messages from around the city by people asking her to “clean out” their neighbourhood of all stray dogs.
There are three categories of cases referred to ACF through social media: strays on the streets who’ve been physically brutalised in random acts of violence, cases of citizens and the authorities shooting and poisoning strays, and pets that’ve been thrown out by their owners.
Abandonment cases have indeed been on the rise. I wonder if the recent news of two cats in New York testing positive for coronavirus, and a general belief that the cats might carry the virus, could be one of the causes. These fears are not specific to Pakistan alone. According to news reports, pet abandonment is on the rise in countries such as the UAE and Turkey too. Echoing what numerous experts have said in multiple international articles, Dr Shehla explains that while pets might catch the virus from humans, there is no conclusive evidence that pets are transmitters.
But what are we to make of the exponential jump in random street violence against animals and the shooting and poisoning of stray dogs during the lockdown? The city’s inhabitants are suddenly fearful; the news indicates that stray dogs are more aggressive these days and there have been an increase in dog bites across the city.
On April 24, Samaa’s website reported, “around 150 people including children have been bitten by stray dogs in Karachi in the past four days.” Earlier on April 2, The News similarly noted that the 24/7 complaint cell of the Sindh Local Government Department “indicated a large number of complaints regarding stray dogs.” What could be causing this animal, whose whole being strains towards loving and trusting human beings, to be so menacing all of a sudden? Chundrigar has a simple and obvious explanation: it’s because the animals, too, are starving and becoming angry and aggressive. The solution isn’t to kill them, it’s to ensure that they’re vaccinated and fed.
Nonetheless, on April 1, the Karachi local government issued a notification instructing that stray dogs be culled in a bid to control the spread of infectious diseases. Thankfully, a group of concerned citizens, vets and ACF spread the word, protested loudly and publicly, and were able to come to an agreement with the authorities to replace slaughter with vaccinations conducted by the Indus Hospital.
The Deputy Commissioner of Karachi South, Irshad Sodhar, was instrumental in helping animal rights groups save animals from closed pet stores and markets in the early days of the lockdown. He describes to me how important it is to create linkages between the government and local organisations to ensure the wellbeing of animals, and says that the Sindh Livestock Department provided free medicine to administer to sick and starving animals after they were rescued.
Average citizens have emerged as the bigger threat to animals during the lockdown than anything else. They either complain relentlessly to the authorities to kill the strays in their neighbourhoods for being too loud or aggressive, or simply take matters into their own hands and do the job themselves. Is the pandemic making us especially cruel towards creatures least able to fight back because it’s the only way to assert power and control in a world where we increasingly have none? I think about this often on my evening corona-walks, as I’ve taken to calling them. Chundrigar’s comment about citizens rings true when my sister and I feed a pack of eight dogs on an empty plot near our house one day, and a neighbour chides us for creating “problems” by feeding strays.
This family of dogs is clearly traumatised by human cruelty and it takes us days of leaving food for them before they come anywhere near us. Of the four puppies, two still manage to be intrepid, one is shy and one greedy beyond belief. The adults are snappish with the humans, protective of the puppies and then suddenly indifferent to the lot of us. One, in particular, seems to have lost the will to live. He has blank eyes and a body carved lean with need, and in response to the plates of food we leave nearby, he digs holes in the sand and sinks into them with dramatic finality. We don’t know what to do with him.
One evening while we feed the others, a man in shorts walks by with an enormous handsome dog. The strays twitch their noses in curiosity at the posh new smell wafting by them and as one of them advances, the man bends to pick up a rock to hurl. Instinctively, the dog yelps from the memory of pain but runs before he’s hit. We scream at him to stop. Quivering with indignation and shaking his walking stick at us, he shouts, “I’ll throw stones if I damn well please! I have a pedigree dog, I’ll not have these strays come near him!”
I wonder if he will ever realise the deadly accuracy with which his pronouncement laid bare the class apartheid that defines this country — it’s the reason half the city faces starvation in a lockdown in the first place. The inequality isn’t new. But the coronavirus is both mirror and magnifier: it shows us how incapable the state is of effective containment and mitigation while amplifying the socio-economic divisions that are our collective moral failure.
It’s the same with animals. The cruelty isn’t new but as pets are abandoned to their fate and citizens supposedly roam the streets armed with guns and poison, we’ve fallen prey to a profoundly false binary in which human life depends on the annihilation of animals — in which their welfare and ours is mutually exclusive.
Ironically, emerging research on animal-borne diseases such as SARS, Ebola, and Covid-19 suggests that it’s the horrific treatment of animals in markets and the food industry that causes these diseases to spread to humans in the first place. As David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, writes in The New York Times, “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
In mid-April, there was more bad news. There were reports that the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC), jurisdictionally separate from the local government, had taken to poisoning and killing dogs after 5pm every day. Residents were having “problems” on their walks and the CBC was acting under authority of a colonial law that allows it to kill animals suspected of having rabies. Except, many of the animals being killed were wearing collars, which indicates a prior vaccination. This bloodlust is not about rabies.
Even though some weeks later, CBC agreed to talk with ACF about more humane solutions, the initial news confirmed the suspicion my sister and I harboured: the puppies we’d been feeding had been killed. We’d gone back to the plot several times and found six of the eight dogs missing — all the puppies and two of the adults. We wondered if this was the work of neighbours, who had either killed the dogs themselves or pressurised CBC to do so.
We were first stricken with guilt (was it our fault they were dead?), then bewildered that the current environment required you to consider the possibility that feeding hungry animals might actually endanger their lives, because it annoyed the neighbours. Our rage was a wandering thing with no clear target. We kept going back to feed the final two but after dark, like thieves, to avoid drawing attention to the dogs. Our conversations turned terse and morbid.
“What’s the point, man? They’ll probably be murdered tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but they should die with full stomachs…”
Until finally one evening, the inevitable: the plot was empty and the clay dish we used for food broken to pieces.
I’m done, I tell myself.
I’m not looking for animals to feed anymore. There’s no point. After three days of boycotting my corona-walks, I venture out late one evening towards Hilal Park, earphones jammed in and music turned up as loud as I can stand. Pointedly, there is no animal food in my bag because I want a suffering-free evening, some unbroken solitude. The breeze is playful and cool and the streets deserted. I’m not thinking about lockdowns and hunger and the virus or anything else, and I feel better for the first time in weeks.
After some gloriously pointless wandering, I finally turn my steps towards home. I’m humming under my breath while crossing the street when I see a tiny grey bundle in the middle of concrete, ribs out, eyes wild. It’s a kitten and my heart sinks. So much for my carefree evening. I pick her up and put her on the empty plot next to the road but she waddles right back out, unsteady on her paws and determined to be run over. We do this a few times, me putting her in the plot and her coming back to the road until I finally just pick her up and hold her while searching for other kittens or a mother cat.
Her left eye is swollen and glued shut with infection. She’s overrun with fleas and ants, and tries to alleviate her hunger by gnawing hard on my fingers so I shift her from one hand to the other like a little hot pocket. There are no signs of any cats nearby and I wonder if the kitten’s mother went far to find food and couldn’t find her way back.
Time slips and folds and I’m 14 years old again, wondering what on earth I’m meant to do with this agitated little kernel wrapped in skin thin as paper. I put her down and dial my sister. As I pace the length of the plot while talking on the phone, the kitten follows me obediently, back and forth, never more than an inch away from my feet. And then the second I stop moving, she totters up to my ankle, climbs into the cuff of my jeans, and settles down to sleep as though she’s been doing this her whole life.
I’m done for.
My sister shows up in the car and we do the only thing left to do. We take Kitten Corona home. My mind’s no longer attuned to cruelty and misery and poverty but simply this: how to keep this little heart beating through the night?
We text everyone we know who might be interested in adopting her, because we already have a fussy old cat who won’t put up with a new feline presence in the house. We feed and bathe and de-flea the kitten. Her appetite is voracious and we both nearly lose our fingers to her shark teeth multiple times. She proceeds to pee all over my room and then settles contentedly on to my stomach to sleep. I’m immobilised for hours as I watch her twitching away in her dreams and kneading my skin with her knife-like claws. The night passes, and when the sun comes up, she’s still alive and demanding as ever.
And for once, the morning brings good news: a text from our vet telling us she’s found Kitten Corona a permanent home. We drop her off in the afternoon and I feel that rare lightness you feel when the abstract becomes real, and you find you have the power to better one life, even if it’s just one kitten’s.
We can’t fight this pandemic without examining our relationship with the ecosystems and creatures with whom we share the planet. Our welfare and theirs is linked; caring for them puts us in touch with our own humanity, which we are in danger of losing if we allow our world to shrink to our own immediate needs. And if we begin seeing these needs as giving us the right to torture, abandon or kill animals.