Two and a half-year-old Linda is a healthy-looking Indian mongrel with coffee brown eyes and a shiny brown coat of fur. About a year ago, she was found tied to a tricycle on New Avadi Road and looked like she had not eaten in days.
Three-year-old Reethu, a white Pomeranian with her tick-infested mane, was abandoned near a dustbin in Vepery around the same time Linda was. A pedigree breed, Reethu was possibly abandoned by her owners for this very reason, muses Sumathi, who rescued both Linda and Reethu last year.
48-year-old Sumathi, who shares her home with several animals, decided to bring Linda and Reethu home because she just couldn’t find it in her heart to leave them on the roads. The dogs have since been living with Sumathi, her mother, seven cats and another dog in their house in Ayanavaram.
If you thought that was the happy ending to their story, you’re in for a surprise. Sumathi and her pet animals are being constantly harassed by their neighbours: “You’ve got too many pets and they are a nuisance to our peaceful living,” they tell her.
Early this October, Sumathi was publicly shamed by one of her neighbours who physically and verbally assaulted her outside her house even as people watched. “No one came to my rescue. Everyone stood around watching, while the woman hit me with a broomstick and her husband and her son pulled my hair and slapped me. I wanted to file a complaint but the police suggested I compromise. They never registered a FIR. I was only given the complaint copy,” says Sumathi, while trying to feed milk to the one-week-old kitten at her home.
The house that Sumathi presently lives in is one that she owns along with her friend. “We bought this house together. If my friend finds a tenant for this house, then I’d move out to my small thatched-roof house that’s a few streets away from here. I’ve got animals living there as well and I juggle my time between two houses,” she shares.
The story is similar with Almas Malik who has been living with her many cats and one dog in an apartment complex in Kilpauk. Almas, who lost her husband in 2009, has been taking in abandoned stray cats and admits that her pet animals have helped her overcome depression.
As someone who owns her house and has been living in it since 2008, Almas says her neighbours turned hostile only in 2012. “Then the insulting, mocking, verbal abuse, the screaming started. They claim my cats are causing them health issues,” she says adding all her cats, including a few born with physical deformities, are in healthy condition.
“They are all perfectly healthy but I do have a cat that’s deaf, one that’s blind and another that is partially paralysed. Recently two Persian cats were abandoned by their owner who had them for five years. I’ve now taken them,” she says.
Almas prefers not to reveal the number of her cats in her house. However, it’s only because her neighbours have tried to enter into her premises forcibly, she says. “Once they had asked the corporation officials to visit my house. I refused to let them in. As a woman who lives alone, I have to right to decide if I want to let them in or not,” she argues.
Of the many things she had to face, Almas shares her neighbours have sprayed pesticides and other such chemicals outside her door on two occasions, the most recent being 20 days ago. “I’ve lost 20 cats because of their actions. Who would do such a thing? I make it a point to keep all my doors and windows closed. My cats are very well behaved and yet we have faced only hostility from our neighbours,” she rues.
Though she has learnt to turn a deaf ear to all the ‘cat-lady’ taunts and complaints, the unrelenting harassment from her neighbours has forced Almas to take the decision to give up most of her cats to an animal shelter. “I haven’t decided where but I’ll have to give them up. But I cannot give up the blind, the deaf or the paralysed cats. They simply cannot survive in a shelter,” she says.
Be it a thatched roof house or an upper middle class neighbourhood, the harassment animal rescuers face from their neighbours remains the same. Such instances are not restricted to women either.
18-year-old Sai Vignesh confirms that being an animal rescuer comes with its perils. “In the past two years, we have changed 10 houses. I’m presently living in an independent house in Alapakkam with my parents and 14 rescued animals,” he says.
He shares that while organisations like Blue Cross and Besant Memorial Animal Dispensary have been of great help, the city requires more such places that can provide for animals.
“Mostly I try to give away the animals I have rehabilitated for adoption. On occasions when they do not get adopted, they end up living with me. People too need to be kind to these animals. As little as adopting a stray will be of great benefit,” he says.
Is there a rule against the number of pet animals a person can live with?
TNM got in touch with the Chairman of Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) SP Gupta who points out that there is no hard and fast rule on the number of pets allowed in a person’s house. “Although, the space available in the house for the animal’s free movement and its health are to be taken into consideration. No resident welfare association can ban pets,” he says. “As long as pet owners take care of their pets and make sure they do not cause inconvenience to other residents,” he adds.
Gupta also tells us that pet owner are required to have a license for their pets. Corporation of Chennai, Public Health Department issues aluminium dog (or cat) license disc for pet owners who register their pets. The yearly license costs Rs 50 and has no upper limit on the number.
Sumathi tells us however, that she has been able to receive license only for four of her dogs. “They refuse to give any more for the same address. No one has any clarity on that. I am willing to get a license for all my animals.”
As per the guidelines issued for Resident’s Welfare Associations, Apartment Owners’ Associations etc., it is not permissible for them to object to people having pets as companions. The circular also lists that intimidating pet owners into giving up or abandoning their pets is abetment to violation of the law.
In spite of these guideline being in their favour, pet owners who house more than three animals often receive no help from corporation authorities or the police.
What has been helpful to their rescuers is Women and Child Development Minister animal welfare and rescue organisation, People for Animals (PFA). Almas, who preferred not to file a police complaint about the harassment she faced, says, “I’ve been supported by PFA on three occasions. Law agencies do not understand animals.” Sumathi agrees. “Only after I called PFA did they pay heed to my request at the police station. Until then I was made to stand outside,” she says.