“We have swum against the tides to build this rescue shelter for animals. The journey was hard-won. It is saddening that we still have to face so many struggles to run it,” says Latha Indira, a board member of People for Animals (PFA), in Thiruvananthapuram.
The journey of PFA, located in the outskirts of the city, in Kondodi, was never an easy one – be it raising funds, sheltering street animals, ensuring they are adopted into nice homes, etc.
And now the organization is facing the threat of closure for some political leaders are allegedly putting pressure on the small staff that runs the shelter.
“They complain of noise pollution and bad odour from the rescue shelter. One really has to go inside the shelter and sniff hard to sense what they are talking about. Any rescue shelter will smell like animals, but that can’t be the reason for them to bully and threaten us,” says Sumita, a PFA member.
According to PFA members, the resistance comes mainly from a local leader Pankajakshan, Congress Mandalam President, and his helpers. They also allege that the local neta has managed to mobilize the residents against them and is now running a signature campaigning against the shelter.
“I was passing by the shelter one day after work and I was stopped by a group of people. They asked me to sign a petition against the shelter, and I refused. They did not even bother to find out who I am. How can they go about a signature campaign in such haphazard manner?” asks Sohan Balachandran, a volunteer of PFA.
He adds that the issue has been obstructing the day-to-day activities of the shelter.
“I have been volunteering with PFA for many years now. We have tried to verbally settle the matter, but we were left disappointed. They sometimes influence the load workers who come with the cages and other infrastructure to demand high fees,” alleges Sohan.
Meanwhile Pankajakshan says that the shelter has not formally registered itself and it did not apply for the requisite licenses from the Panchayat.
“When they bought the land in 2007, they said it was for a veterinary hospital; later we learnt it was a shelter. And it is located barely 50 metres away from residential areas, so the smell of the animals really bothers us. The waste is also dumped near the houses and, when the burn it, it leads to air pollution,” says Pankajakshan.
“They renewed their license from the pollution control board years ago. They don’t even have a door number from the Panchayat. Moreover, they charge an exorbitant rate for vaccinating dogs. What they run here is not an animal shelter, but a business shelter,” adds Pankajakshan.
Maria Jacob, an admin at the shelter, says that people who work for the organization are not here to earn a fortune; they extend a helping hand as they are passionate about animal lives.
“We are not here to make fat amounts of money. We do this because we love animals. It is unfair to ridicule us,” says Maria Jacob. “We are a transparent organization and we encourage people to deposit donations in the concerned bank accounts.”
Maria also alleged that the local group had put up flex boards and posters with messages against the animal shelter near the organisation’s compound walls.
“Are they trying to mentally weaken us through these bizarre activities? I wonder who has time to read all the boards they’ve erected,” says Maria.
The animal shelter has also alleged that members of the staff have been manhandled multiple times. In one instance, when PFA held an adoption drive on Shankumugham Beach, the driver was purportedly mobbed when he came back with the puppies.
“It was sometime late in the evening and I was returning after the adoption drive at the beach. A group of people stopped my vehicle and they demanded that the puppies should not be taken back to the shelter,” says Rajeev, the driver. “They even abused me. And they didn’t soften their stand even at the sight of police officers. We finally had to return with the puppies only at night.”
Meanwhile, Pankajakshan dismissed the allegations, calling them cooked-up stories by the members of PFA.
“How can they bring dogs past 12 in the night or early in the morning? It was the police officers who stated that dogs cannot be brought in after 8.30 pm. One day, the driver arrived at 9.30 pm. And we did not let them take the dogs inside the shelter. We have never spoken to them in an abusive language. These are wrong allegations,” counters Pankajakshan.
Rajeev claims that he was threatened multiple times after this incident as well. And the adoption drive has been stalled for now due to the threats issued.
PFA in Thiruvananthapuram now houses about 150 dogs, two bulls, three kites, and several cats and kittens. The organization also has a doctor, a nurse, a manager, four cleaners and a driver. The crew also owns an ambulance.
“PFA started off as a charitable society in 1996. We didn’t have the sufficient infrastructure or funds back then. We only had few volunteers. Leela Lateef was the secretary then. We struggled a lot to get things going. Our volunteers, including Leela, used to keep the animals at their homes,” recalls Latha.
“In 1999, it was Menaka Gandhi who was asked us to register as a trust and we had seven people in the trust now. We had to take a loan to meet the financial requirements. We were given an ambulance from the Animal Welfare Board in 2001,” adds Latha.
“In 2003, we approached Menaka Gandhi asking for land to build a shelter for the animals. She mobilized funds through a talk she held on animal rights in Oman. The amount was raised by the Keralites in Oman and she set aside the money for us,” says Latha. “That’s how we bought this land and, by 2007, we could build the shelter and we started housing the animals.”
Latha clearly remembers the first inhabitants of the shelter. “It was a black dog and her babies ... I remember vividly.”
“There are no houses within 20 meters atleast of the shelter, except for two large land holdings adjacent to the shelter,” says Maria. “We have a door/building number. As well as pollution certificate and supporting documents. Anybody is free to verify.”
Saying that they are doing a service to society, she adds, “The streets will have lesser number of stray dogs if we can find them a shelter. I want to request people not to abandon pet dogs and help street dogs find a shelter.”
Meanwhile, the local leaders and residents are determined to continue the protest.
“It is we, the locals, who suffer; not them. The trust members can get a good night’s sleep in their bungalows. More than 300 residents participated in the protest,” says Pankajakshan.
Despite the threats and attacks that they have faced, the members of PFA say that all they ask for is a safe and happy home for the dogs and puppies.
"Animals are a defeated lot. Some of us have even put in lakhs of money to improvise this shelter. It’s a struggle every day. As much as people don’t want to see the sights of dogs on the streets and almost wish that they were extinct, we too don’t wish to see dogs struggling on the streets, stoned and kicked by people. We only wish these dogs get happy homes. Live and let live, that’s all we are asking for”, says Maria Jacob.