When the lockdown for preventing the spread of COVID-19 was announced last month, many of us hurried to shops to buy essentials. With most of the businesses shut and lives coming to a standstill, the streets bore a deserted look. While most of us confined to the safety of our homes, the stray animals that found a home in the streets had nowhere to go. Without the people to feed them, the poor animals were left starving on the streets.
However, a bunch of corona warriors from Oneness Foundation in Kochi, Kerala, are stepping out every day, for hours straight, to ensure that these homeless animals don't starve.
"At Oneness, we follow the concept that whether it's a cat or a dog or a human, we all are one. All forms of life are one, there's no difference," Ashwini Prem, the founder of Oneness, an NGO that conducts adoption drives and rescue operations of strays, tells The Logical Indian.
On day one of the lockdown itself, Oneness sought permission from the police station to feed the strays. Once the feeding passes were received, every day, the volunteers of the NGO spends three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening feeding strays across Kochi. They carry a mix of dog food and wet food prepared by Prem and other volunteers for feeding dogs, cats, birds, and even rats.
Prem says that the police have also been cooperative with their initiative. They also ensure that the volunteers stick to the allotted time and designated routes.
While Prem largely focuses on coordinating between volunteers, arranging the funds, and cooking the food for the animals, Shibin Mathew and Krishnapriya S - who Prem describes as the 'pillars of Oneness' - lead the volunteers out on the streets.
"We have got feeding passes for around 15 vehicles and have around 24 volunteers feeding the animals across Kochi. Krishnapriya and I collect all the food materials and other necessary items and supply it to the rest of the volunteers," Mathew tells The Logical Indian.
Meanwhile, the stray animals, being used to feeding on garbage and leftover food from hotels, took their own time to adjust to the volunteers. While some barked, others kept a distance; but only for a while.
"It's the natural behavior of strays to start barking when they see people. We faced the same when we initially started feeding them. Once we give them food, they would stop barking and stay at a distance. Only when we left would they eat the food. This was how things were during the first 8 to 10 days," says Mathew.
"But now, the moment we reach the spot, all the dogs surround our vehicles, and sometimes won't even let us out. They show such immense love whenever they see us. Even those dogs who were unfriendly, they now eat straight from our hands," he adds.
Recalling a hilarious incident, Prem says, "As I cook only vegetarian food, some dogs did not eat it. This one time, a dog smelled the food and peed on it! Can you imagine their attitude after we painstakingly cooked all that food for them?"
"But now they have all changed. I think they were just used to eating non-veg food on the streets. Now, they eat the food we give them and whichever dogs were unfriendly earlier, they have all changed," she adds.
While out on the streets, Mathew and Krishnapriya ensure that all the volunteers take necessary precautionary measures.
"All the volunteers wear masks and gloves when they are out feeding the animals. And when they return home, they remove the clothes, wash it, and take a shower before interacting with any of the family members," explains Mathew.
Prior to the lockdown, Oneness largely focused on conducting adoption drives and rescue operations in and around Kochi. They have conducted three adoption drives and have got more than 300 animals adopted in the last one year. Every summer, they also distribute water bowls across the city.
"We rescue the animals from the road and take them to the hospital. Once they heal, I release them back on the road, after vaccination. If need be, I get them sterilised also. The dogs that won't survive on the road, I ship them to Tamil Nadu. There's a Thangam memorial hospital in Tirupur run by a person called Asha. There they have a specialised doctor to take care of only strays. She also has a shelter for 500 handicapped dogs. So, she takes in handicapped ones that can't survive on the road," she explains.
In the case of abandoned dogs, the NGO conducts adoption drives. While they used to feed a few strays earlier, the number substantially increased after the lockdown. Today, a lack of funds is a major problem they face.
"When the lockdown was announced, we had nothing in our account. Just because we didn't have money, we couldn't say no to helping the animals. So, I shared a message to all the groups, stating that we don't have funds, and we need support. Thus, I managed to raise 50K. With that, I bought sacks of rice and dog food," explains Prem.
While they are happy that they are able to help the animals during these testing time, Prem says that more needs to be done.
"Although we are serving 1000 animals per day, it's not enough. There are 10,000 animals in Kochi and we are only doing a small bit for the animals. Mainly, we want people to start doing this. It's not possible for some NGOs to do everything," says Prem.
When asked how individuals can help, Mathew explains, "To take an example, Krishnapriya cooks around 10Kg rice, 3-5Kg chicken, etc. It would take nearly 4 hours. So, for a single person to cook so much and then go out and feed gets exhausting. So, the best way for people to help us is to cook food for us. We can provide materials and even collect cooked food from them."
Others can also donate to Oneness or similar NGOs to help them in procuring food for the strays, says Mathew.
"People can also put out food and water for the animals in their locality, in a manner that it doesn't cause a public nuisance. They should take precautions like wearing masks and gloves and just leave some food outside their home, if they can't travel. The strays will come eat," says Mathew.
Once the lockdown ends, Prem is planning to set up feeding units across the city to help feed the animals. Once she's able to raise enough funds, she also plans to start a shelter home so that all the animals can be brought under one roof and cared for.