“You haven’t been to Varanasi until you’ve stepped in poo,” my guide told me, as he watched me hastily scrape the faeces from the sole of my shoe. Although highly unpleasant, this incident served as testimony to the omnipresent free roaming animals in Varanasi, India.
Revered by Hindus as a holy city, and popular with international tourists, Varanasi is well known for harbouring an abundance of stray dogs. Free roaming bulls, cows, and monkeys can also be seen throughout the crowded city. With limited government intervention for the welfare of these animals, non-governmental agencies have stepped in to fill the gap.
I had come to Varanasi to visit Varanasi for Animals, one such NGO with a mission to improve the lives of the cities free roaming animals.
Founded in 2014, Varanasi for Animals (VFA) is run by HOPE and Animals Trust, a registered NGO started by a group of animal lovers. The VFA project is also funded by Help Animals India, a USA non-profit that distributes grants to animal welfare organisations in India.
The VFA clinic and rescue shelter rests in a rural area about 15 minutes drive from the infamous Ghats (stairs) along the river Ganges. In addition to the sterilisation surgeries, VFA treats sick or injured animals, both large and small, rescued from the streets of the holy city.
“We will do 13 females today, 10 to 15 surgeries per day on average.” Dr. Deepak explained, as he deftly placed a stitch to complete a spay surgery on an anaesthetised street dog. He was operating on a group of dogs that had been captured on the streets of Varanasi just the day before.
“I focus on only female dogs for spaying. After surgery we keep the dog for 3-4 days then send them back to the same area we caught them from. We also vaccinate every dog for rabies before we release them. Their left ear is marked, so next year we go back to their area and give them a rabies booster.”
Dr. Deepak uses a strict anaesthesia protocol to ensure the safety of each anaesthetised dog. He then uses a spay hook to bring out the uterus through a very small incision, thus decreasing the dogs recovery time.
After he completed the surgeries for the day, I followed Dr. Deepak to the upstairs area of the clinic where he showed me a severely injured dog under treatment. The stray had probably been hit by a car, and suffered paralysis of his hind legs.
“First, we diagnose for a fracture or other injury,” Dr. Deepak told me. “Then we give physiotherapy.”
Interestingly, Dr. Deepak takes measures so the rescued dogs don’t get used to living at the shelter. This is because the dogs are almost always returned back to the streets. “Because they are here for a long time, maybe two weeks, maybe one month, we let them out to play then back in. So they won’t think this is their home.” Dr. Deepak said.
Another important part of VFA’s work is awareness campaigns in the local community. The organisation believes this effort is important to develop community support for the humane treatment of animals.
To accomplish this goal, representatives from VFA visit local schools and give presentations on how to care for street dogs. Other topics include first aid for a dog bite, symptoms of rabies and the importance of the rabies vaccine. Reportedly, this outreach campaign has been very well received by students and community members.
Throughout my visit I was impressed with the professionalism and care the staff showed while working with the street dogs. “I prefer to do this,” Dr. Deepak said. “I prefer to help animals because they are helpless.”
If you would like to support Varanasi for Animals and their work in India you can donate here.
Images by Ralph Quinonez.