62-year-old Pratima Devi, a rag picker who runs a small tea stand, cares after over 400 street dogs she has adopted, rescuing them from abuse, starvation, abandonment, and a cruel fate when left to themselves on the streets of New Delhi.
“Some people grab the stray dogs by their hind legs and spin them around, laughing as the dogs cry in fear,” she says, while petting one of the newest puppies added to the fold.
“But how do you look into a new dog’s eyes and not think that this is a long lost friend? An old friend who has been waiting for you all this time, but you never knew it.”
There are an estimated 400,000 stray dogs in New Delhi. Some New Delhi residents have demanded drastic measures be taken to prevent dog bites. But Devi believes each and every one of them deserves a proper home.
“To treat a dog inhumanely is to treat yourself inhumanely. It’s to lose your own humanity.”
While Devi has had a love for animals as long as she can remember, it was one life-changing experience in her twenties that cemented her affection for dogs.
“I was coming home from work late one night down a dark, secluded street. A group of thieves jumped out of an alley and threatened me for my possessions. I yelled for someone to help but there was no one. No one responded, no one was there to care. In such a busy city, a city that never sleeps, it was certain someone had heard me scream. I was so scared that I could not move and they began to attack me. I yelled for help again but again nobody. That is when I heard a dog rushing in, barking so loud it hurt my ears. He jumped onto one of the thieves and took a big bite. The other thieves panicked and fled.
“I sat down on the street and petted the dog as I cried. He saved my life.
“He did not care if I were rich or poor, or if I were of higher caste or lower caste.
“He did not care about being embarrassed in front of other people.
“For he was moved to action, spontaneous action out of a need to protect.”
Devi says she is guided by this spontaneous drive to protect other living things and that what she is doing should not be described as heroic, despite the hundreds of dogs depending on her.
“I am not ‘rescuing’ dogs. I am not ‘saving’ dogs. That implies the extraordinary. No, I am doing what my spirit demands of me. I am listening to their call, and responding. You see, when the streets are asleep, I am listening, and that is when you hear the most. We have been trained not to listen. For it is such a noisy world. But listening is what is needed most in this world.”
While caring for all of them is challenging, Devi remains optimistic about her efforts to help the stray dogs of New Delhi. Devi has gone hungry before in order for the dogs to have food, but fortunately her efforts have moved dog lovers in the neighbourhood to make contributions so the dogs may eat.
“Even in desperation, there is love and care. It is the one constant motivating force through any moment of despair. That is what keeps me moving even when the work is hard.”
She sees her work as something that goes beyond helping her beloved animals. She wants to inspire people who feel just as lost and rootless as the wandering dogs who are burnt by the blistering sun or shunted into dusty alleyways.
“We all have a home, you must remember. It is here, this Earth, this universe. Never feel you do not belong to it, or you belong elsewhere. No, you belong here, with us, among all life, as much as any being, as much as anyone.”