A Personal History of Animals

A Personal History of Animals
Eyewear II (1949) by William Wegman

This essay chronicles the author and her family’s relationship with animals and how it has evolved in the last three generations. She connects this theme to the larger issue of urbanization and pet ownership of ‘pure-bred’ pets. 

The year was 2006 and a series of coincidences was going to turn a family of four into a family of five. My uncle and aunt were visiting us for Diwali. Not wanting to abandon their newly adopted puppy amongst the bangs and booms, they were to bring him along. The hubbub of  Diwali was mixed with the mayhem of welcoming guests. Do we have enough mattresses?  What is on the menu for five days? Soon the preparation to host human guests was outshined by the preparation to host the puppy guest. Should we get pedigree? Is our house puppy safe?  

All this preparation sowed the idea in my brother’s mind that we should have a dog of our  own. Thus began the greatest family debate of our times. Papa and Dada were for the motion  whereas Amma and I were against it. I am convinced that the ‘for case’ was easier because  every argument was accompanied by pictures of my uncle’s outrageously cute Labrador Retriever. Unfortunately, my teammate was very susceptible to such sensationalist tactics. Alas, the  motion was passed. We adopted a puppy. It is the only debate that I don’t regret losing.  

My first meeting with Tango has become a staple in my father’s arsenal of anecdotes. In his  words, “as soon as she saw Tango, she was sold!” Now, I frequently lament about how an animal’s cuteness drives us to extremes, but back then I was not burdened with any such knowledge. Tango was very cute and took an instant liking to us too. We prepared extensively for an  anxious puppy but he came, pooped in front of the puja room and went to sleep. 

I often think back to this deliberate act of bringing an animal into our lives. My parents, on  the other hand, grew up with animals around them. John Berger talks about the peculiarity  of increasing pets and decreasing animals in all other aspects of life in his seminal work, ‘Ways of Seeing’. He observed that in the past, families of all classes kept animals based on their usefulness like guard dogs or mice killing cats, whereas pets, animals sans any utility, are a  modern innovation. Although Berger wrote about the United States of America, I see many similarities between his statements and the evolution of my own family. 

My father grew up in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. They were surrounded by animals. Cows were a staple around many houses, they rode in tongas with horses and there were plenty of guard dogs to protect the independent houses. Papa’s extensive family was spread across the city and each house had its fair share of animals and stories. My great-grandfather and other men in the family hunted, so even the most regal tales were about animals. When the family moved from Allahabad to Delhi, Papa decided that the family needed a pet and brought over the neighbour’s puppy and named him Shera. His brother who was not a fan of dogs (at the time) declared it was either the dog or him! Legend has it that Papa pointed him towards the door. 

This move from Allahabad to Delhi was characteristic of many families in the 1960s and 70s.  According to the Indian census, the population of Delhi went from 23,59,408 in 1961 to  36,47,023 in 1971. As the population surged, the number of families living in apartment  buildings instead of independent houses also rose. This transition resonated with what Berger calls the “universal but personal withdrawal into the private family unit, decorated or  furnished with mementoes from outside the world.” Pets are such mementoes. We have heard more stories about Shera than any other animal in the family because he was brought  into the family unit in the limited space of an apartment. So when my brother wanted to do  the same, it was no surprise that Papa was the first to hop on board. 

Much like most women, my Amma is inherently environmental. Everything that becomes the  latest environmental fad, Amma has been there and done that. Amma grew up in Gwalior  with big open spaces and in later years a garden of her own. She spent hours in that  garden and perhaps that drew animals towards her. She says the same thing about her mother, animals just come to Nani, a gift I am hoping has been passed on to me. 

One of my favourite stories of Amma is the time she hand-raised a squirrel kitten that fell out  of her nest. Amma says that she tried to release Gillu back several times but she always came  back; going to the market in her bag and for walks on her shoulder. Similarly, a puppy followed Amma’s neighbours home and they could not keep her as they already had a dog so they thought of Amma and Nani. Nani said that if she drinks milk then we can keep her, the puppy  lapped it all up and became theirs. They called her Kitty. 

Nani’s family also had a dog, he belonged partly to the family and partly to the streets. Amma said that when the dog died, no one in the family ate for two days. Perhaps Amma and Nani have an intuitive sense that owning animals deprives them of something. That is why Amma needed convincing about bringing a pet into the limited space of our apartment. 

Berger also understood that pets end up being shells of themselves in the pet arrangement because they are sexually isolated with a lack of contact with other animals and are wholly dependent on their owners. The growth in the pet industry in India has only driven Berger’s point further. The pet population in India went from 7 million in 2006 to 10 million in 2014. The covid-19 pandemic also ensued a pet adoption frenzy. 

Recently, a close friend’s family bought two dogs, one of them was a French Bulldog. They  went with buying instead of adopting because they wanted the specific breed and a puppy.  But the internet is agog with how our obsession with pets’ cuteness is grotesquely deforming them. French bulldogs are unable to breathe because breeders use horrific practices to get  that perfectly squishable face. The practices of local Indian breeders are abysmal with plenty  of inbreeding, horrific conditions and illegal sales.  

The sight of a husky or a malamute in Delhi’s climate makes my skin crawl. But the advent of  pets as another adornment acquired and paraded around has led to the rise in popularity of exotic breeds of dogs, cats and other exotic animals. The spread of the zoonotic covid 19 awakened the government to the fact that possession of illegal exotic animals can have  apocalyptic consequences. In 2020, the government asked Indians to disclose any and all  exotic species. 32,645 Indians, across 25 states and five union territories came through. I am  very interested in reading the essays of the kangaroo and lemur pet parents.  

In the span of two generations, we have gone from “the dog outside our house is our world” to  “dogs don’t cut it anymore, let’s get a kangaroo?” 

But I am no one to point fingers at others. When we got Tango, we didn’t know any better  and we bought him. We read many books about raising a puppy. But none about getting one  and paid a heavy price for it. At the age of seven, Tango developed stomach cancer. In a  span of two months he went from being a mischievous sibling eating all my peas and bullying  me into giving him my egg yolks to a shell of a being with a shaved and enormous stomach  who could barely move.  

We never could get over the loss and have not had a pet since. Other friends and family have  lost their dogs to sudden but common illnesses that ail many purebred dogs. The loss is  devastating every single time. Adopt, don’t shop, isn’t simply a holier than thou sermon. It can save families years of trauma and regret. People might love their exotic pets, but an African Gray Parrot does not belong in a cage. Government’s clamp down on exotic pet keeping is a step in the right direction because it benefits countless animals and pet owners, endangering  themselves and others.  

Even though as a family we agreed that bringing a pet into an apartment would be cruel. We  take heart in watching birds visit Amma’s makeshift feeder every day, we talk incessantly  about a squirrel who is sneaking into Amma’s garden to accumulate raw material for  something and look for the parakeet that lives in the tree nearby. There are no cows or Tongas and thankfully no one hunts any more, but Tango taught us to look at all animals, even the tiniest ones, with wonder, kindness, and love. We carry his legacy forward every day.

Sonakshi Srivastava

Sonakshi Srivastava

Sonakshi Srivastava is a Community Coordinator with Sentient Media where she focuses on the intersections between animals, politics, history and culture. She has volunteered and worked with different animal welfare organizations in India, South Africa, Hong Kong, USA, UK and Cambodia. She writes mostly about animals and can be reached on sonakshi.tav@gmail.com


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