In 2002, someone made the mistake of telling my mother about the animal shelter under the Defence Colony flyover. Worse, they did it within earshot of my 12-year-old self, and, subsequently she was forced to acquiesce to my incessant pleas to take me there.
It was March, and we smelled and heard Friendicoes long before we saw it. While my sister and mother, eyes wide in the face of the horrific assault on their senses, waited at the entrance, I shyly introduced myself to Gautam, the man in the office who marched me right into the thick of the animal shelter. In the rows of cages that lined the gloomy rooms, an army of domestic animals of every colour, breed and constitution raised a din at our arrival. That day, as Gautam poured facts and figures into my head, I walked entranced, oscillating between despair and hope, trying to comprehend the number of animals that the city had rejected. I left the shelter with a sickly, black kitten cradled in my arms, unknowing of how often this scene would repeat itself in the years to come.
It isn’t easy being a teenager. In the unwritten rules of adolescence, caring is just not cool, and I was embarrassed at feeling so deeply for animals. Friendicoes changed that. It became the place where I spent after-school hours, weekends, and long summers with the shelter staff, channelling my energy into caring for the ever-changing animal population, and learning to see my love for them as not weakness, but strength. Slowly, the staff came to trust me too – Gautam would call when the newspapers had run low, Zarina didi would ask for help with bottle-feeding the latest litter of orphaned pups, Ram would tell me to soothe an injured cat as he addressed her open wounds, Geeta would urge me to develop enrichment for the monkeys, Bhupi would crack jokes for my benefit, Tandrali would direct me to orient the new volunteers… and there, at a chaotic animal shelter under a city flyover, I found a family that understood animals the way I did.
Through my Friendicoes family, I witnessed more miracles and heartache than I ever thought possible. There was Tuffy, the Great Dane who arrived in a coma, a lanky bag of bones who was monitored day and night till he made a recovery. There was Mendak, the stunted, bow-legged desi who proved that size doesn’t matter, Caesar the obese golden Labrador who fell in love with Sweetie, a new rescue, at the ripe old age of 10. There was Julius the Neapolitan Mastiff abandoned without a hair on his body, who showed me that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. There was Kanchi, the gorgeous Indian pup who alone survived the trials of Parvo that killed her littermates. There was Jill, the paralysed Boxer, who found her forever home after two years of living in the shelter. There was Silver, Moonshine, Koko, Oscar, Gracy, Dada, Spike, Snow, Sultan, Mowgli, Buddy, Zoltan, and so many, many more whose names are now fuzzy but whose joi de vivre still resonate within me.
Where Friendicoes cemented my love for animals, it also introduced me to some of the most wonderful humans I have had the pleasure to know. Within the ranks of volunteers, staff and management are the kind of individuals that subscribe to old-world virtues of love, hardwork, and loyalty. Working at an animal shelter can be a lot like banging your head against a brick wall – your head gets bloody but nothing else seems to change. The unbelievable bravery it takes to tend to the injured, orphaned and dying, to drag weary limbs out of bed to answer emergency calls, to forego a social life because an animal needs you more than your friends, is so seldom recognised.
In 13 years of being associated with Friendicoes, I’ve played many roles. I have been dog walker, adoption coordinator, fundraiser, foster home, vet’s assistant, PR person, Facebook admin, rescue responder, receptionist and grant writer. Today, sitting miles away from Delhi with a sizeable lump in my throat at the thought of the immense debt that the shelter is struggling to clear, I feel 12 years old again, oscillating between hope and despair. Institutions like Friendicoes comprise the conscience of cities like Delhi, where the injured and weak non-human, are discarded on the roadside.
If the shelter is forced to shut operations, far from being a commentary on its management, it will be a sign of a city that has lost its conscience, and let down its gatekeepers of compassion.
Friendicoes SECA was registered in 1979. Between its Delhi and Gurgaon spaces, the shelter homes over 2,000 rescued animals, including dogs, cats, horses, cows, donkeys, birds, rabbits and more.
Today, Friendicoes is struggling to clear bills of over INR 70 lakh.
To contribute to their cause, please visit their campaign page here.