Bear with me, because this story is long. It is important to me, though, because from it has come not answers, but endless questions — the kind of questions stick in the mind, and can’t be shaken.
What a week it’s been. I can honestly say that this has been one of the most exhausting, ethically-challenging weeks I have experienced in a while. When I called my Dad for advice, he told me, “Sometimes, Sj, there are no answers.” Let me explain.
On Sunday, so about 5 days ago, I was walking past the gates of CRHP toward town. One of the women in our group needed to pay for a sari blouse she’d gotten tailored at the Helping Hands shop to the left of the gates, and the rest of us waited for her, standing on the beaten gravel pathway where rickshaws and motorbikes constantly pass, honking. One of the students in our group gasped, and pointed in the road, where a tiny cluster of puppies laid, their heads pushed into each others’ fur and their bodies shaking. Three were brown, one with a white spot on its back, and the fourth was spotted gray and tan.
What could I do?
I rushed toward them, shooing them off the road but only one of them moved. Other students did the same, and soon the pups were mewling and crawling as if tipsy off the road, back on, back off. I made the quick decision to put them in a bush nearby — I had already been told of the dangers of rabies, and that we were under no circumstances to touch the street dogs on the streets of Jamkhed. Yet I did not think of leaving in the road. The thought just didn’t enter my mind. I chased after one brown pup who had made his way down the road, and other students grabbed other scrambling puppies and we put them in the most comfortable-looking bush we saw.
That lasted perhaps 20 seconds.
A woman stood nearby, watching us. “Someone dropped them off from a motorbike,” she told us, shaking her head sadly. I realized that these puppies had no chance of survival as they were, so thin, with fleas crawling on every square millimeter of skin. Students were already picking the puppies who had wandered back into the road, and I stood still for a moment. My job as the intern is to be practical, and looking back, perhaps I should have told everyone to drop the puppies back in the bush and walk to the nearest sink to wash the dirt from their small bodies from our hands. Yet instead, I said, “Listen. If we take these puppies with us, we are responsible for their lives. I cannot be the only one responsible, we will all have to help.” I don’t remember if I said it then or later, as we were walking back the gravel path to one of the women’s rooms (with the most tile space for easy cleanup), but I explained what I had been told by the director of the NGO. This was a huge breach of what is acceptable, and we, as students mostly from the U.S., were making the conscious decision to do something extremely ethically challenging.
Their faces were so small. They barely made sounds, squeaks peeking out of their throats, resigned to their fates in our hands. I couldn’t make the most practical decision. We brought them into my friend’s room, sitting on her couches and wondering at the immensity of having brought four puppies on CRHP campus — puppies who needed nutritious food, baths, flea treatment… and puppies who would poo and pee all over that tiled room with couches.
A few of us went into town and found small blue-and-white packages of powdered milk. I went up to a medicine stall and used my Google Translate app to search the word for “syringe” in Marathi. The man at the counter peered at me questioningly, and I typed into the app, “for a puppy.” This didn’t necessarily make any more sense than before, but the man stepped into the back of the shop where sat an older man. He spoke to this man, who seemed amenable to what he said; the man pulled a tiny package from a shelf and put it on the counter in front of me. It was a syringe with a needle. “Three rupees,” the man muttered, and I paid him and hastily put the syringe in my over-the-shoulder bag.
We found newspaper at another stall in town, hoping that this would prevent the majority of the mess from permanently affecting the tiled room. With these purchases, we made our way back to CRHP campus.
That night, we decided on a schedule: we would take turns feeding the puppies warm milk through the syringe (we unscrewed the needle) at 9 pm, midnight, 3 am, and 6 am, then whenever we had breaks throughout the day (around 3-5 hours between feedings).
The next night, we all sat down for dinner with the director of CRHP. We chatted comfortably over lentils, okra and macaroni (somehow, a perfect combination of food groups), and eventually I heard the director’s voice saying, “Alright, alright, we have a few things to discuss.” Among these discussion topics was safety. “Do not pet any of the stray dogs,” he told us, “I know it is in your culture to do so, but here, they are dangerous.” He went on to talk about rabies, and how there is no cure once the virus is active in your body. I felt myself go cold. My heart started beating too quickly, and I looked at the young people around me. What if someone became ill with rabies and died because I did not have the emotional will to stop students from picking up the puppies? I heard their small cries in my mind, and imagined them in the tiled room, sleeping with their heads pushed into each other’s bodies for warmth. I felt sick.
After the meeting, the CRHP fellow and I went back to feed the puppies. We sat on the couches and looked at each other. “We have to tell him,” she said, meaning the director. I agreed. The students’ safety had to come first, and if they were exposed to rabies, that was a situation we had to bring to the director.
We walked in the deepening dusk toward the director’s house, fully expecting the worst. Would we be responsible for all of the students having to take a series of injections to prevent rabies? Would we be told to put the puppies back out where they were, on the cold road where they would be impossible to spot by a speeding rickshaw or motorbike driver?
Inside the house, we found one of the professors who had recently arrived. She’s a younger woman, with a warmth in her eyes and words. “Can we speak to you?” She saw our faces, and offered to use her room so our conversation would be more private.
We explained everything.
She listened quietly for a long while, until we had spent our words and our worry in the storytelling. I felt especially responsible because I had known the potential danger, but had been locked in the battle of what should I do?? The woman told us that this was not the first time students had adopted puppies and kept them on campus; before, students had kept them until they were old enough to reproduce, which was even more of a problem because when they left, the campus was full of dogs without vaccinations, and a litter of puppies was soon born. She quieted our worries and told us that she would take care of it. She would speak to the director of CRHP for us. “They will probably be taken to a different town, or dropped off at a farm,” she explained, and I felt the worry pile back on. How could the puppies survive on their own? It was my fault for giving them another chance at life, only for it to be an impossible hope. “You cannot blame yourselves,” the professor told us. “There is only so much you can do.”
This is the concept I have been struggling with for the past few weeks. I am now writing this post a full week after the puppies were taken, and despite their absence from my immediate life, I continuously struggle with the ethical dilemma brought up in this experience. Before I explain, I want you to know that the puppies stayed on CRHP campus for another week before they were taken to the farm — and they weren’t taken to just any farm, but CRHP’s organic farm where Ratna, an incredible young woman living there, has agreed to feed them with the Pedigree puppy food I found in Jamkhed’s market. During that week we tried to keep their presence quiet, with only myself and the fellow tending to their needs and cleaning up after them. Finally, when the men came to drive them to the farm, one of my teachers here saw them. He watched them play together, a complete change from when we found them. They were tumbling over each other, running around, and yipping. The teacher’s face became soft. “Now they will survive.”
“There is only so much you can do.” Since the puppies left, this idea has come up over and over again. It has been a part of our dinnertime discussions about racism in the United States, where the system seems too powerful to break down. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” This quote by Audre Lorde has come hand-in-hand, and I question my role as part of the majority group in the U.S. — can I be part of working toward social justice? When I witness suffering, I want to be a part of changing the system which causes that suffering. But can I resist the desire to stop the current suffering, in order to work to prevent it? CRHP focuses on preventative care, not curative. This is what is most practice in the rural Indian setting, and perhaps on a global scale. This method attempts to change the why, the cause, instead of simply acting as a bandaid. But if we have the time, energy, and resources to alleviate suffering just a little bit, can we? Should we?
I would love to hear any answers you may have.