It was the story of the staggering street dog with maggots in his head that brought us to Udaipur.
We saw the two-minute video on Facebook once we were already in India and we were lucky enough to be able to factor in some time to visit Animal Aid Unlimited, whose mission is to rescue and treat the street animals who have become sick or injured. An important part of their work is education and inspiring a community to protect the lives of all animals.
Primarily we came for the dogs, but we have been surprised by how much we have been touched, literally and spiritually, by other animals.
One of the first things that most volunteers will experience is bottle-feeding the calves. My first one was a pure white calf, with the softest hair you can imagine. She nuzzled in to me, gulped down her milk, and came back for more. She stayed afterwards for a cuddle, her milky breath in my face.
In the enclosure with these orphans is a fluffy baby donkey and some friendly goats. One day, as I tried to leave the enclosure, one of the goats stood in the way so I stopped to say hello. (You are always saying hello to the animals here.) He promptly put his front hooves on my chest, because he wanted to reach the leaves in the tree.
One of our jobs in the day is to ‘give love’ to the sheep and brush them. Some allow this, but there are two young brown ones who are not so sure. To be honest, sheep have never done much for me. This is probably because I have never got to know one. Usually they are skittish and run away, and their coat is hard and wiry so they are not actually that nice to touch.
But there was my first lesson. While I was sitting amongst the calves one morning, a sheep came over to say hello. It is always nice when an animal comes to you for attention, rather than the other way around.
I duly said hello. And she looked me in the eyes. There is a moment (I am sure other volunteers will agree) when you seem to communicate with an animal, when you acknowledge something special, and you just stay with it for as long as you can. You know it isn’t really personal, but you like to think it is.
The sheep stayed there for a chat and a rubdown. And I loved it. I was surprised by how gentle a creature she was. I also never cease to be amazed by how many animals here are open to trusting a human being again, despite what has happened to them… the donkey who has been beaten about the face (a court case is pending), the cow who has had acid thrown on her, the dog that has been tied up with wire around her jaw for so long that she is permanently scarred…
And then you get another lesson when you find the courage to sit next to a huge water buffalo or brush the flank of a super-sized bull. In the cow and donkey sanctuary in the lazy early afternoon heat, we get to brush the animals. I don’t think most of them really need brushing, but it’s a good way of bringing you closer to them – and they seem to like it.
When a young (but still impressively large) water buffalo comes to you, it is very special indeed. Their skin is tough, on the back of their wrinkly necks the hair is long but thin. They like being brushed, much like I imagine they like having a bird on their back to pick off the bugs.
The one I am drawn to has a small tuft of white hair on her head and she is called Flower.
There is a large bull who is interested in being brushed. At first, when he walks over, I shy away, especially as he tends to shift others out of his way with his horns. Eventually I realise that he is just jealous, so I pluck up the courage to brush him, and he stays there happily until he has had enough and just ambles off.
The sanctuary area for cows and donkeys is a peaceful place. It has plenty of room for the animals to relax. When they are standing still or lying down, you don’t see their disability. It’s only when they move that you notice the amount of limping and hobbling, or where limbs are missing. Most donkeys have one if not both front ankles bandaged from where they have been tied up for too long.
They are still, however, very capable of leaning on those two front feet if they need to give a swift kick from the back, to any animal that mildly irritates them.
There is another area where cattle and donkeys are recovering, it’s still the ‘hospital’ and ‘accident and emergency’ area for these animals. One cow has a lot of bandaging around its head. One day we see the staff changing the dressing. The large hole where the eye socket should be is astonishing but the animal seems not to be in pain when it is cleaned. We understand that maggots have already eaten the nerve endings.
In this part of the sanctuary you can sit with a dying cow. In India, cows are sacred and it is against the law for one to be put down. All that staff can do is ease their suffering with medication.
One black cow is brought in with a badly broken back. She is lying in the shade on a black plastic mat, where she is kept as comfortable as possible. It is only a matter of time.
And, if volunteers have the time, they can sit with her. David sits with her for quite a while, stroking her head, talking gently, reassuring, and batting flies away.
It is a humbling and moving experience.
It seems deliberate on the part of a large black and white horned bull that he sits himself right next to her. At one point he licks her face. We don’t think they were brought in together, we have no idea whether this was empathy, but I hope she felt comforted by his presence.
She is not there the next morning.
Despite having emotional moments with cows, sheep, goats, water buffalo, and even a donkey, my favourite times are with the dogs. You can quickly establish a rapport with a dog and I find myself returning to the same disabled dogs in Handicapped Heaven.
There are dogs who have lost limbs, most of them have lost the use of their back legs and they are either dragging them behind them or they have been amputated. There’s one, Deepak, who has only one and a half legs. He gets about all right. He is a handsome dog, with quite thick rusty brown fur.
Then there are the ‘ugly dogs’. It’s what they are called for identification purposes but everyone knows that they have even more beautiful souls and they are so friendly. But you can see why they might have been rejected by people. They might have a long tooth protruding forwards, or a misfitting jaw, or no lower jaw at all, leaving the tongue to flop out and get covered in sand when they are lying down. I sit with one dog in the corner, who responds immediately to being touched. Her haunch starts moving like she is scratching her ear, though there is no leg there.
I scratch her ear for her. The haunch keeps moving.
Another dog, with longer fur (God knows how they cope with this heat), just rolls over in the sand, inviting a tummy rub. He is so inviting that you find yourself playing with him like you would a normal dog, a bit more forcefully and a bit more fun, and it’s only later you realise his back legs are not functioning.
We have been shown how to give them a lovely soothing back massage and how to rub their shoulders – it’s where most of them will carry their tension from having to lift their bodies and compensate for their disabilities.
Later in the week we are introduced to the area where it is not known for sure yet what, if any, diseases the dogs are carrying. We have had our rabies injections so we are allowed in, but you have to exercise more caution. Somehow the reward here is even greater.
Sitting for ten minutes with a dog who is in a small gated room for his own protection while he heals really feels like useful work. You feel like you are making a real difference to their day. Some wag their tail and you know you can relax with them. Others don’t have a tail that can wag any more.
Some have ‘lampshades’ on, the plastic cone on their heads to stop them from licking a wound. One white dog is so nervous of me that I cannot touch him. But he is ok with me just sitting, chatting. It seems perfectly natural to be telling him about my rescue dog back home. I change his matting and leave him just a bit better than he was ten minutes before.
When you see the progress of most of these dogs in videos on the Animal Aid website, you realise just how resilient they can be.
You go home sweaty, dirty, having sat in the sand, or had a dog in your lap, pee down your front, dried milk splatters from the calf-feeding, a big smile on your face, and your heart bursting with love.
You are in a place of healing, though we suspect that humans get as much as, if not more, healing than the animals. One volunteer described it this week as ‘medication for the soul’.
Personally, I have never been more ‘in the moment’ and present than right here in Udaipur.
To read more about Animal Aid Unlimited, or to donate, please go to their website. You can also read there about their education programmes and how they return street dogs back to the community where they live.
*Deciding to go vegetarian was a decision we made before our visit to the sanctuary but these last two weeks have certainly confirmed that it was the right decision for us.