In 1999 an animal shelter and a veterinary dispensary were built opposite Aurorchard, off the Pondicherry – Tindivanam road.
Marion Courtine with the animal ambulance
Ferocious barking greets the sound of the doorbell. Five minutes later a bespectacled woman carefully opens the big metal gates. Inside, a three-legged dog competes with others to first growl and then sniff this intruder who dares to enter their territory. This is Dayakara, a haven for dogs and other animals.
“He was found on the road with a mangled leg,” says Marion Courtine who runs Dayakara together with her husband André. “There was little we could do. The leg had to be amputated, otherwise gangrene would have set in and he would have died. Ever since, he lives here.” Pointing at the other dogs that wander around freely, she says that all have similar stories. “Neglect, indifference, cruelty – these dogs have experienced it all.” Calling to her a German Shepherd, she explains that it was abandoned by the police. “It had met with a motorbike accident and was operated upon. But they found it too cumbersome to give her the necessary follow-up treatment such as changing bandages and ensuring she received the necessary injections. They just left her, and we took her in.” The dog yaps cheerfully, a testimony to a job well done.
Marion and her husband André first came to India in 1976. “We felt instantly at home, we knew India was to be our place,” says Marion . “André was working as a banker in Switzerland , I was an honorary worker in an animal welfare organisation, primarily fighting vivisection – research experiments on animals.” At a conference in Geneva Marion met Maneka Gandhi [the widow of Sanjay Gandhi, the son of former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi]. “She was also very much interested in promoting animal welfare. We became friends. When we finally came to India in 1997, she offered us a place in New Delhi . But we preferred the south. When we started Dayakara Trust in 1999, Maneka agreed to become its patron.”
The choice for Dayakara's location opposite Aurorchard has nothing to do with Auroville. “It was purely by chance that we found this place,” says Marion . “When we came to the south we first started to work for Blue Cross of India, a Chennai-based animal welfare organisation. But I wanted a place of our own where in the evening, before I went to sleep, I could see if the animals were all right. We got an offer from some people in Bommaiyarpalayam. That fell through, but as we like the French culture of Pondicherry , we decided to look around in this area.”
They even contemplated joining Auroville, but their talk with the Entry Group was disappointing. “We are not attracted by Auroville's spiritual ideals. So we decided to remain separate. We have since built contacts with quite a few Aurovilians, but never worked together with Auroville's animal welfare groups in a big way – we had some conflicting approaches.”
So what is Dayakara's approach? “Let me first explain what we don't do,” says Marion , “or rather, what we can no longer do: we are not a shelter for abandoned or unwanted animals. In the beginning, we took in many uncared-for animals. We now have twenty dogs, three horses, nine cats, one cow, a small flock of geese, some turkeys, chicken, rabbits and guinea pigs. For all of them this is their home and they will remain here till they die. But now we have the maximum number of animals we can look after. So if someone has an unwanted litter of cats or dogs, we can no longer accept them.”
Then what does she do when she finds a litter left on her doorstep? “It's very difficult,” she admits. “We won't euthanize them, that's against our principles. We neuter them as soon as possible and then try to find them a home. But that is getting increasingly difficult. Nowadays, most people, including the Aurovilians, prefer breed dogs such as Labradors , German Shepherds, Pomeranians and Dobermann Pinschers. Even the village people are no longer interested in the typical Indian dog. Finding a home for those puppies is a problem. It's the same for cats.”
Dayakara's main purpose is to increase public awareness and prevent cruelty to animals. “Each year, thousands of unwanted animals are killed because there aren't enough homes for them,” says Marion . Dayakara promotes spaying the females and castrating the males. “These are very simple operations. At the same time, the animal is vaccinated against rabies.” This so-called ABC/AR (Animal Birth Control/Anti Rabies) programme is done free of charge in the villages. To be effective, at least 70% of the animals of reproductive age have to be sterilised. Even then, says Marion , the reduction in the number of street dogs is slow. “That is why we are planning to increase our ABC programme. So far, Dayakara has neutered over 2000 dogs and cats.”
In some villages the effects are very noticeable. “In Edaiyanchavadi village, for example, we neutered so many dogs that it is difficult to find unneutered ones. We also did a lot of awareness building. Initially, many villagers had no knowledge about animal health – some didn't even know what it means when a bitch bleeds. There was also little concern about how to interact with dogs. Many dogs are never touched and are thrown scraps as feed. So when you need to vaccinate it, the dog won't accept being held and will bite. People should touch them. Then the dog won't be afraid and illnesses can be more easily treated.”
Dayakara also provides normal veterinary treatment, such as giving vaccinations against canine distemper, a lethal and contagious viral disease. It operates a small animal ambulance – a Bajaj 3 Wheeler – to collect animals, treat or neuter them and, in the case of strays, afterwards releases them back in their area. The work is done by an Indian vet employed by Dayakara. “The dispensary is temporarily closed as some months ago our vet found another job and we are now looking for a new person.We need someone who shares our enthusiasm for animal welfare, who can speak to the people and explain why we care about animals.”
Dayakara in Sanskrit means ‘showing compassion'. “It's not only our compassion we want to highlight,” says Marion, “we also want to remind the people that they should show compassion to uncared for animals. If you do not have a place in your home, we ask you to make room in your heart and sponsor an Indian dog or cat.”
In conversation with Carel
Dayakara can be contacted at email@example.com