Living in Chennai, one is never too far away from an animal of some kind. Whether it’s a street dog or an animal more common to a farm than a city, the city is teeming with local fauna.
Every day, Darwin’s survival of the fittest plays out as disease, competition for food and danger from other animals all look to weed out the weakest.
In particular, the animals tend to be at their most vulnerable when they have a new born litter to look after.
All this means that for the observant city traveller the opportunity to happen upon newborn puppies and kittens is very high.
My wife and I go on daily walks in the evening and have adopted virtually every dog and cat along the way. About a year ago we were walking down the street as normal when the unmistakable meep of a kitten came from the bushes. Rescuing that kitten turned into the tale about Socks.
A few months back, we were walking in a similar area and once again, there was the unmistakable call sign of a kitten. This one didn’t need any coaxing out from her hiding place as she dashed out, looked up and implored us to keep her safe. That kitten turned into the tale about White Kitten – which was adopted via an OLX ad.
The other week, we had barely left our apartment when a tiny puppy waddled across the road. It was so young it still had trouble walking. The local people, who sit outside the apartments day and night, told us that some kids had taken the puppy from the main road, brought it to the interior road and left it there. That puppy turned into the tale about Waddle.
The point of the above is to illustrate that when it comes to rescuing kittens and puppies, my wife and I create exceptions to Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory because he didn’t account for two people interrupting mother nature.
Although we love both cats and dogs, my wife leans more towards cats and I lean more towards dogs. Despite strong feelings otherwise, we both know that we can never have either in our current circumstances. It has got to the point where my wife has agreed not to bring home a kitten on the condition that I don’t bring a puppy home.
Last Thursday was a Thursday like any other. It was 6pm and the working day was coming to an end. My colleagues and I that take the train were heading to the station, talking about nothing in particular.
As we turned down the dirt track that constitutes the road leading up to the station, my erstwhile team mate and resident crazy-dog lady who has a built in puppy-radar for spotting puppies where no normal human can, shouted “Puppies!”
We turned to look to where she was pointing. We didn’t see anything but that puppy-radar has rarely failed in the past.
Now you know about my soft spot for puppies. If there was even the remote opportunity to pick one up, I would. We got out the car and followed the crazy dog lady.
As I said, day or night, rain or shine, that puppy-radar hardly ever fails.
In a small clearing there were two small puppies, maybe around 5-6 weeks old. It was very clear that all was not well and the smell soon confirmed it. Lying next to them was their dead mother, covered in flies. Rigor mortis had set in and her legs were splayed out. Aside from being dead, she did look healthy and there were no visible injuries so it was difficult to say what she had died from.
The puppies made a feeble attempt to get up when they saw us approach but they were so emaciated that they didn’t get far.
My dog loving team mate is on a one lady mission to adopt all of Chennai’s 170,000 street dogs and was the subject of an earlier post about the dogs of Taramani MRTS station. Every evening she comes to the station with biscuits for her dog pack in the station and she was already opening this packet up for the puppies.
At first they didn’t know what was happening but when they realized their meals on wheels had turned up all wariness was forgotten and they started tucking into the biscuits with relish.
At that point one of their siblings who had been hiding in the bushes decided that the need for food overrode the need to stay hidden. That puppy was joined by a fourth that appeared out of nowhere (a rare failure of that puppy-radar) and soon there were four puppies demolishing a pack of digestive biscuits.
It turns out that my team mate has the same weakness as me and my wife in that she has an inability to let nature take its course and allow the young pups to fend for themselves.
It didn’t look like the mother had been dead for too long, yet the puppies were so skinny we had to assume the mother wasn’t able to feed them in the last few days. With all the other dogs around and the fact that they weren’t in a position to forage for food, it was doubtful that they’d last for too long.
Blue Cross is an animal rescue shelter in Chennai that does some sterling work to rescue sick and injured animals. Their Facebook page is constantly updated with various heroic stories of cows, monkeys, dogs and horses being rescued from various ditches, wells and sewers.
We called them up but were told that four young puppies wasn’t enough of an emergency to make them come out and take them back to the shelter.
While the phone call to Blue Cross was going on, my team mate picked up one of the puppies and it immediately proceeded to fall asleep on her arm.
The look on her face was clear, there was no way she was going to leave them here.
“If Blue Cross won’t come to the puppies, I will take the puppies to Blue Cross.” She proclaimed.
It was a silly idea. I’ve had experience taking one very small but very determined kitten to the vets in an auto and here she was talking about taking four frightened puppies by herself. My wife and I could barely keep one kitten contained in a box, one person keeping hold of four scared puppies would be impossible.
However, given the number of animal rescues I’ve been part of, it would have been rather hypocritical of me to try and talk her out of it, no matter how crazy or impossible it was.
“How are you going to do this?” I asked.
“Pick them up and give them to me, I’ll hold all of them.” Yeah, it was an insane idea. She turned to our other team mate, “Can you find me an auto to get to Blue Cross?”
I set about coaxing one of the puppies closer so I could pick it up while an auto was being hailed. The puppy was suspicious and backed away. I lunged, the puppy dodged. I stood back, the puppy sat down. I moved in behind it, the puppy eyed me warily. I picked up a twig and moved it about, the puppy gingerly came over to investigate. “Gotcha!” I picked it up where it struggled briefly but after a moment it realized its world hadn’t ended and it settled down.
I handed it over to my team mate who deftly shifted the puppy she was holding to the other arm and embraced the one I was holding. It looked up at its new surroundings, smelt its sibling and the decided it was time to sleep.
While this was going on, the auto driver who agreed to drive to the Blue Cross shelter decided to get involved. The other two puppies, the ones that were originally hiding in the bushes when we first came over, watched their siblings getting kidnapped and decided to bug out and make for the bushes again.
The auto driver stalked them stealthily and managed to separate the two. One puppy ran into a corner where it realized it had no escape so it rolled over on its back and started screaming as the auto driver approached.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a puppy scream but it’s ear piercingly loud. It’s clearly designed to get the mother to come racing back to her litter and fend off whatever danger was there. The auto driver paid no heed and he picked it up and off loaded it on to my team mate. As with the previous pup, its moment of panic subsided, it smelled its siblings, yawned and went to sleep.
The final puppy clearly felt it needed to make a last stand to avoid being kidnapped. It started screaming as we approached and bolted away every time we came close. Emaciated it might have been but it was very determined not to get caught. Up and down the track we ran but the puppy was able to remain just out of grasp.
By this stage, we had started to build an audience as other commuters arrived at the station. Another auto driver came along to offer his assistance too. Cars rolled by with people staring out the window, jaws half open as they took in the scene of three grown men, including a foreigner, running around the dirt track.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that stalking and grabbing weren’t going to work so one auto driver picked up a big tree branch and tried to pin the puppy down. This sent the screaming to another level and I was convinced that a dog pack was going to arrive on the scene to investigate these puppy botherers.
Eventually the puppy was pinned down by a branch and I moved in, my ears ringing from the shrieking. However, although he was down he was not out of the fight just yet. As I tried this way and that to wrap my hands under him, his head would snap around and try to bite down on me. I knew I had to immobilize his head and made a few deft moves to distract him and dived in to grab its head and jaws.
My ninja skills were weak. I wasn’t quick enough.
Its head snapped back nearly 180 degrees and its teeth, like tiny razor blades, sank in to the index finger on my left hand. I recoiled and the puppy wriggled out from under the branch and set off again making a beeline for freedom. From the sidelines, office workers watched on, perhaps out of amusement, almost certainly knowing that they were going to have a story to tell that evening.
The auto drivers gave chase again and I looked at my hand. Claret began oozing out.
“Umm. Ouch” I said, to no one in particular.
Over to my left, the auto drivers were having more luck than me and they were able to quickly grab the puppy and clamp a hand over its jaws. It wasn’t done though as it contorted its body to try to break free and get away from the driver’s grasp.
As it twisted and turned, the auto driver brought it over to my team mate who was sitting in the auto with the other three puppies. His expression one of concern about whether he should hand over this angry little wolf cub to a young lady.
“Give.” my team mate commanded, and the auto driver carefully placed the angry puppy on her arm before pulling his hands away with some super human speed. The puppy blinked, sniffed his sleeping brothers and sisters, looked up at my team mate, acted as if he was shrugging his shoulders and then fell asleep.
“Pete, you’re going to have to get that checked out at hospital.” She said, nodding to my bleeding finger.
“Oh. Crap. Yes.”
I know that rabies is present in India, but the street cats and dogs, while not always the healthiest of animals, don’t generally have rabies. It’s never even crossed our mind as we excitedly pick up a new born kitten or puppy or stop to pet a particularly cute street dog.
“Have you had your rabies shots?” She asked.
“You need to get to the hospital and get the rabies shots now, Peter.”
Something in my brain clicked. “Err, shot-s? Plural?”
“Yep, they need to give you lots of injections for rabies.”
“Oh.” They hadn’t told me this seven years ago when I was getting my vaccinations before I came to India.
I called my wife to inform her that I had just ruined our Thursday evening and that we would be spending the next few hours at a hospital.
We arrived at the hospital and headed for the emergency ward. I was feeling absolutely fine. The puppy’s teeth were like little knifes and had split open the skin from the second joint down to the finger nail. There were a number of other puncture wounds as well but it wasn’t bleeding much and didn’t really hurt. In all honesty, if I’d got this injury some other way I wouldn’t even give it a second thought, just clean it up and put a plaster on it.
Queuing up at the emergency ward, there were many people in far worse condition than I was. Actually, that’s a lie. There was nobody doing better than I was.
“What is the problem?” The head nurse asked, turning to me and then my wife. Clearly neither of us were sick or had any trauma.
I held up my index finger to show off my embarrassingly small wound. “I got bitten by a dog-”
“-Puppy-” My wife interjected.
“-I got bitten by a puppy.”
Before we knew it, a pathway was cleared through the ward between the actual sick and needy people and I was speaking to a doctor within minutes.
He inspected my finger and asked “When did this-”
“-puppy-” my wife supplied, helpfully.
“When did this puppy bite you?” The doctor asked, turning my hand this way and that to see if he had missed something.
“About two hours ago.”
“And why did it bite you?”
“I was bothering it.” I answered, rather sheepishly.
“Did it attack you?” The doctor continued.
“No, I was trying to rescue it.”
“From where?” He’d given up trying to find any more bite marks.
“Umm, from the station in Taramani.” The doctor paused and then glanced up and my wife. He clearly thought there was more to this story. She just nodded her head slightly to confirm my story.
“Because its Mum had died and we were trying to take it to a shelter.”
Somewhat perplexed at my strange hobbies, the doctor moved on to the medical questions. “Have you had rabies vaccinations in the past?”
“Err…maybe?” To be honest, I’d had so many injections seven years ago before I came to Chennai that I couldn’t remember if rabies was on the list.
“If you’ve had the vaccination then I just need to give you one injection and you can leave.” The doctor said.
“And if I haven’t?”
“Then we’ll need to give you immunoglobin now and you need five more follow up injections and it will be very costly.”
There was definitely an incentive to find out if I’d had that rabies vaccination.
I can’t imagine there are many things worse for a mother than to get a frantic phone call one Thursday afternoon from her son who is in a far away land and urgently asked whether he has had a rabies vaccination.
To my Mum’s eternal credit, she took the news quite well but alas, she couldn’t remember if her adult son had had a rabies vaccination.
We went back to the doctor and informed him that we needed the expensive treatment. There was a moment of uncertainty in his eyes, never a good sign when you could be infected with a disease that’s 100% fatal.
“Err, the treatment is, umm, it’s err, rather expensive actually.” He mumbled.
Now I’ve been in India long enough to know that expensive is all relative. I can go to a five star hotel and eat an unlimited buffet with alcohol for £25. I can take a taxi to work every morning for £2.50. My electricity bill is about £20 a month. Expensive is relative so when the doctor said the treatment was expensive, I was thinking by Indian standards.
“That’s fine.” I said, “Just tell us how much and we’ll buy the medicine from the pharmacy.”
The doctor pulled out a calculator. That should have been a sign right there. “How much do you weigh?” He asked and punched that into the calculator as well. “It’s going to come to thirty five thousand rupees.”
I blinked back at him.
“Three, five?” I asked in disbelief.
I looked at my wife. “What’s the problem?” She asked.
“Err, it’s just that I had been looking at buying a new camera.”
“I’d been saving up for the last few months.”
I sighed. “It was about thirty five thousand rupees.”
The doctor could see that my mind was seriously considering whether to risk catching a fatal disease so that I could buy the camera I’d saved up for. He had to guide this foreigner away from making a stupid decision.
“Well, look at it as an investment. If you get this treatment now, you’ll be immune to rabies for life so you can continue, err, you know, rescuing. Puppies and stuff.”
It was a very convincing argument.
I breathed out and resigned myself to a life of mediocre camera phone photos. “OK, fine, let’s do this. Is it going to hurt?”
There was an almost imperceivable glance between the doctor and the nurse.
The doctor swallowed. “Let me explain, you don’t have any immunity against rabies and the vaccine takes seven days to start working. We have to give you immunoglobin which will give you immediate immunity.”
“Oh, OK, so why does that hurt?”
This time there was a definite glance between the doctor and the nurse. The nurse was a lot older than the young doctor and she dipped her head to get him to go on.
“You see, we have to inject the immunoglobin where the wound is. The needle has to go in to each place the skin is broken.”
Until this point I had been fairly calm. Needles and injections don’t faze me at all but the thought of a needle going directly into the wound on my finger started to get my heart racing.
The doctor continued. “Your fingers have a lot of nerve endings, so it’s a very sensitive area.”
“So it’s going to hurt?”
I gulped. “OK, let’s get it over with.” I sat on the bed and the nurse prepared the syringe and needle. It was the biggest needle I’d ever seen, as if they’d called up the local vet and asked if they had any needles they normally used on horses or something.
My heart was now in my throat, my stomach was churning out adrenalin and my hand was involuntarily shaking. I sat on the bed and the nurse clamped my hand down on a side table while the doctor held my finger firmly in place. They weren’t taking any chances.
And so it began.
My Mum reads this blog (Hi Mum!), so I can’t repeat the words I may or may not have used but suffice to say I had to apologize profusely to the doctor and nurse afterwards for my lack of decorum.
The injection did indeed hurt like crazy. Beyond crazy. I could feel the needle inside my finger and the liquid immunoglobin flowing through it. Since there were multiple puncture wounds, the needle had to go into my finger multiple times.
After an eternity, which in reality just two minutes, it was over. It felt like I had the finger hacked off. It was throbbing and swelling up by the second. The bite itself only stung a little, the injections were many, many times worse.
“It’s done. The worst part is over. Now lay on the bed and turn over, I need to give you two more immunoglobin shots.”
Pain was coursing up and down my left hand but his words still made me panic. “Wait, you said the worst part is over?!”
“Yes, these ones won’t hurt.”
“But you need to give injections in my…” was there a proper medical word for it? I don’t know. “…bum?” I’m pretty sure the nurse stifled a laugh.
“Just on the fleshy parts, it won’t hurt like this one.”
“But is it really necessary to have the injection in the, err, bum?”
“Actually it’s your buttocks.”
“Yeah, but do you actually want me to pull down my pants?” More than anything I was concerned that I was wearing rather bright pink boxer shorts.
“That’s the normal way to do it, yes.” I felt the doctor was getting a little impatient so I unbuttoned and duly obliged, presenting my caboose for the first time in my adult life. “Now,” the doctor continued, “you might feel a small prick.”
“Said the vicar to the choir boy.” I mumbled.
“Peter!” Hissed my wife who had been listening into the conversation, “No one understands your British humour!”
“Sorry?” The doctor asked
“Nothing, let’s do this.” I murmured into the pillow.
The doctor was right, you really don’t feel the injections in your bum. There were just two more injections to go; a tetanus shot in the left arm and a rabies vaccine in the right one.
Finally we were done for the day. I felt like a pin cushion with the number of needles that had been stuck in me.
I still need to go back to the hospital another five times to get more injections but at least they are all in the arm and don’t hurt so much.
Having spent so much money on this treatment, I’ve got a good mind throw the deal I have with my wife out the window. I will go to Blue Cross, find the puppy that bit me and adopt it whether it likes it or not. I did pay 35,000 rupees for it after all. I won’t be able to take a photo of it though.
Illustrations by Jessie Miller