Being here in Tiruvannamalai for a few weeks has given me the chance to do something I wanted to do for a long time: volunteer at the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter, or the dog ashram, as I call it. It’s a place I first discovered when I came to India in 2009 (my first visit back since 1982), and briefly, its mission is caring for street dogs and other animals that are sick or injured, wild animals included. It’s a no-kill shelter: Every animal who can’t be returned to his or her territory, or who doesn’t get adopted by a human family, is allowed to live at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary for the rest of his or her natural life.
Leslie Robinson, an American man staying in Tiruvannamalai, founded the dog ashram 11 years ago when he heard about a planned cull of street dogs. Here’s a history of the founding on the sanctuary website. (You’ll find a lot of interesting facts and figures about the sanctuary in The Better India’s long and informative article.)
Leslie loves dogs, and when he heard about the planned cull, he reached out to political leaders across India to stop it. Once he and other animal welfare advocates succeeded in halting the cull, Leslie decided the only way to protect local dogs was to take care of them. Using his own money, and eventually donated funds, Leslie established Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter, hiring a small staff and a full-time veterinarian, Dr. Rajasekar. With the help of Vishwa, who’s extremely skilled at rescuing injured animals, the sanctuary began taking in and caring for injured and sick animals.
Today, the shelter has grown to the point where many of the dogs around Tiruvannamalai – both street dogs and owned dogs – have received inoculations and other medical treatment at the dog ashram, and been spayed or neutered there. And something remarkable has happened along the way: The sanctuary has transformed the attitudes of people in Tiruvannamalai towards street dogs, to the advantage of both the dogs and the people.
If you’ve traveled around India at all, you’ve seen street dogs. They live in a sorry state: often starving, often suffering from skin diseases, they eat garbage, get into fights with other dogs over territory, and are frequently injured by rickshaws, trucks and cars.
Compounding these problems is the fact that people generally don’t like street dogs. Sure, a family might feed scraps to a dog that’s hanging about the front of the house, because a dog you feed becomes loyal and will protect your home. People usually do this with dogs that look healthy and strong. But I’ve actually seen people threaten dogs with sticks or stones, even throw things at dogs to drive them away.
It’s even worse for dogs with skin disease: They are unsightly, and people are afraid of catching these diseases. And of course, people are always afraid of contracting rabies from a dog bite, even though a number of municipalities and other organizations inoculate dogs.
In Tiruvannamalai, it’s a completely different picture. I’ve seen shop owners feeding dogs, and even putting bowls of water out for them. Dogs in general look healthier here, with fewer looking utterly starved, and I see fewer with advanced skin disease (though I still see some). Many dogs here have the notched ear that shows they’ve been spayed or neutered, which also means they’ve been inoculated against rabies.
So people here in Tiruvannamalai don’t fear dogs as they are feared elsewhere in India. As a Tiruvannamalai official told me, “The dogs behave differently here. They’re not crazy; they don’t run after you.” That’s because the dogs who are taken into the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary get more than medical treatment: They get to socialize with humans and with other dogs.
Love makes the difference at the dog ashram
Every person who works at the dog ashram cares for animals, and expresses that caring with gentle touch, stroking and kind words. Dogs are given names, and their progress is noticed and appreciated – like when a dog who came in with really bad skin begins to grow hair. Or when a dog who arrived in a frightened state, cowering from other dogs and humans, begins to accept attention from humans, and gets friendly with other dogs. Or when a dog who arrived paralyzed and incapable of eating begins to take nourishment, and even begins to toddle around. All these victories are noticed and celebrated.
After learning in 2009 about Arunachala Animal Shelter and how it was founded, and then interviewing animal welfare officials in Tiruvannamalai and Chennai, I went back to Portland feeling that great work was being done here. What I saw at the sanctuary deepened the feelings I’ve always had about animals and animal welfare. But I never did anything hands-on for animals, other than caring for our own cats.
When I returned to Tiruvannamalai a few weeks ago, I went to the dog ashram, petted some dogs and met Elaine, an English veterinary nurse who’s been volunteering at the shelter for the past couple of years. I asked her how I could help out. “Just doing what you are doing right now: giving the dogs some love,” she said. “They need that as much as they need treatment and food.”
So for the past several weeks, I’ve been walking up to the dog ashram every few days. As I go through the gate, a rush of dogs greets me, barking, wagging, jumping up on me and begging to be stroked. Over the din and across the eager ones, I greet the humans in English and my very limited Tamil, as appropriate. (Fortunately, the dogs are ambilingual.) I settle myself down somewhere, and at first, just try to stroke every dog who’s vying for touch and affection. After a while, when they start to settle, I’ll notice one dog who’s shy, or who’s being crowded out by the bouncier ones. I’ll stroke and talk to that one for a while. Or I’ll sit with one of the disabled dogs in their special area, petting and massaging. Elaine has told me that the paralyzed ones need to have their limbs gently moved and exercised, to help prevent their muscles from atrophying, so I do that, too.
Now it’s time for a confession: I am kind of a finicky person. Even though we had a dog when I was a kid – and I have always loved cats – I have always found certain things about animals less than pleasant. I didn’t much mind cleaning the litterbox, or cleaning up after our dog’s puppies. Cleaning wounds didn’t bother me, and I have always actually enjoyed flea-combing (including the perverse satisfaction of drowning captured fleas in a bowl of water. It’s like with mosquitos: No mercy.)
But there’s something about the oiliness of dog fur I’ve never liked, even when touching dogs I really love. And though I do love cats in general, stroking any cat other than my own has always made me want to wash my hands right away. When we had a houseful, I didn’t let myself think too much about the cleanliness status of any cat allowed to sleep on (or actually in) our bed. I particularly wouldn’t allow myself to think about where those paws had recently been.
So, coming into an environment where there are lots of dogs with oily fur, and where those dogs jump on you all at once, and where someone is always eliminating (even though the sanctuary staff members are pretty fast about cleaning it up), wasn’t the easiest. It’s not a mental thing; it’s a physical response, an inward recoil, and it’s something I can’t control. But I really wanted to get involved physically, to help with the care of these animals. So I just dived in.
Over the few visits I’ve made these past weeks, I’ve crossed the line from finicky recoil to a different place. Now I readily pick up a tiny, cowering dog who’s afraid to come near me (even if his paws are wet with you-know-what), and I hold him firmly, stroking and talking to him, until his little body begins to let go. He buries his nose in the crook of my elbow, and when he lets out a big sigh, I know he has fully relaxed. After some time, the little dog raises his head, and looks up at me. There is a moment of stillness as we look into each other’s eyes. I stroke his nose with one fingertip, and after a bit, he settles himself back in my arms again, with another deep sigh. I know he’s finally had his fill of cuddling when, after about half an hour, he raises his head, gets interested in another dog, and makes a move to get off my lap. As he trots off, happy, I reach for another dog.
People at the dog ashram
It’s not just the dogs who draw me to Arunachala Animal Sanctuary; I also love spending time with the staff.
There’s Elaine, who tells me the stories of the animals: how long they’ve been resident, the state they arrived in, the improvements they’ve made. She admits, sadly, that the sanctuary can’t save everyone. Despite all the care they get – surgery if needed; wound care; painkillers if needed; being hand-fed with milk, or even ice cream, whatever it takes to get them eating – some dogs are just too sick or injured to live long. But whatever their state, and however long they do live, “They all just want love, really,” Elaine says. She pats Sunny, the dog she rescued in Mamallapuram when he was completely bald from skin disease. Or she’ll pick up and cuddle Masala Chai, a dog who arrived at the shelter completely paralyzed. (His name pays tribute to the first food he would accept: milky tea. The dogs love it.)
I spent a chunk of one morning sitting with Shoba as she removed ear mites from a batch of puppies. One by one, she took each puppy into her lap, wrapped its little body in a towel, and stroked its head gently for a few minutes, to reassure the puppy. Then, after asking me to hold the puppy’s head firmly against her leg, she would use her fingers or a tweezers, whichever worked best, to remove ear mites one by one. In between removing the mites, Shoba would talk softly to the puppy and stroke it soothingly. I got absorbed in watching just how carefully and delicately she worked with each puppy, and how she cuddled each one before putting it back down on the ground to run around again, free of those annoying ear mites.
Chennamal has a loving and sure touch with the tiniest puppies, the ones who are just two or three weeks old. She brings a tiny puppy out from its nest, wrapped in a cotton towel, cuddles the puppy for a few minutes, then hand-feeds it with milk from the kind of medicine dropper you use for human babies.
The look on Chennamal’s face as she tends to each puppy is tender and loving. She hands me a puppy who’s been fed, showing me where it’s wounded so I can avoid that spot, and gestures for me to cuddle the tiny pup. These little ones are so young, it’s amazing they are even alive. They have been rescued from the street; their mother was injured by a car, truck or rickshaw, badly enough that she died. This kind of thing happens again and again, so the shelter staff have hand-reared a lot of puppies. And these shelter pups can never be returned to the street: They would never survive among the more experienced and highly territorial dogs already living on the street. So these puppies will remain in residence until they are adopted – if that ever happens.
Vishwa, the chief animal rescuer at the dog ashram, spends quite a bit of his time these days traveling around the local villages, looking for people who’d like to adopt a puppy. A family that can provide a good home gets a healthy, vaccinated pup, one that will be neutered for free at the appropriate age.
Vishwa tries especially hard to place female puppies. Most people, it seems, prefer male dogs. Perhaps they think a male will do a better job of protecting the house. Whatever the reason, the dog ashram has a surplus of healthy, adoptable female pups, so Vishwa has plenty of work ahead of him.
Vishwa also rescues injured wild animals when they’re reported to the dog ashram. He’s been bitten quite a few times. It’s no simple task to rescue a wounded, bewildered monkey or eagle that’s in pain and terrified. The ashram is treating and housing quite a few monkeys at the moment, including some who’ve lost a hand or leg to electrocution (they like to hang from electrical wires).
The clinic at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Shelter
Because word has spread about the great care dogs get at the sanctuary, plenty of people bring in their pet dogs to be examined and treated by Dr. Rajasekar and the rest of the clinic staff. The Arunachala clinic treats street dogs and wildlife for free, but there’s a fee structure for owned dogs. Affluent pet owners, and owners of purebred dogs, pay full price for services (though full price at Arunachala is lower than most animal clinics). Low-income people who can’t afford treatment for their dogs do not have to pay.
As a side note, I have been surprised to see just how many people now keep a pet here in Tiruvannamalai. I did notice this eight years ago, but now pet ownership is even more widespread. I see dogs being walked on leashes, and there are well-fed, well-brushed dogs behind the gates of quite a few houses we pass on our walks. One or two of the grocery stores near the Ramana ashram stock pet food, and I’ve seen leashes and collars for sale, too.
Arunachala Animal Sanctuary is now remodeling an old building on its premises to serve as a new, expanded clinic. This will provide an entrance for owners to bring their pets in, and other people to bring in rescued street dogs, separated from area for resident dogs. Right now there are so many residents, they spill into the clinic entry area. The new clinic will return that space to the resident dogs, giving them a lot more room to run around, or sprawl for naps.
Other animals at the dog ashram
The loving care at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary extends way beyond dogs. In addition to the small group of monkeys, two baby monkeys are being cared for. They are not yet old enough and strong enough to be released, but when they are, they will first be placed with the other monkeys, so they can all get used to each other. Once all the monkeys are ready, Vishwa will release them into the forest as a group, so they can function as a little tribe and look after each other. A few birds are undergoing treatment right now, plus one of the large langur monkeys, and a cat. Every one of these animals gets some loving human attention every day; it’s an important part of their healing, and the staff members clearly enjoy this part of their job.
An ashram for the voiceless ones
I call the shelter an ashram because it really feels like that to me. (Curious about what an ashram really is? There’s a blog post for that.) Just as at any ashram, there are photos of spiritual teachers here and there, and these receive flower offerings every day, plus special decorations for holidays. Devotional songs waft from a CD player, providing a gentle, soothing background. Fans and air conditioners are kept running to keep the disabled dogs, injured dogs and smallest puppies cool in the Tamil Nadu heat. Blanket-covered mattresses are placed here and there, and dogs who can’t walk are rotated on and off these so they don’t get bedsores, or lie too long on a wet blanket. There’s an atmosphere of quiet cooperation and friendliness among the staff; they chat, joke around and help each other.
Love for the voiceless ones, as Leslie calls them: that is the big difference I noticed between the dog ashram and the Blue Cross shelter in Chennai, which I visited in 2009 after seeing the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary. The Blue Cross shelter is huge and well funded, with plenty of staff to look after the animals. There are expansive areas and cages for all the different kinds of animals who are brought there: dogs, cows, donkeys, cats, birds – whoever needs treatment. I could see that the animals were properly cared for and fed, but I could also see that no one on staff at Blue Cross behaved anything like the staff at the Tiruvannamalai dog ashram. They simply fed the animals, watered them and cleaned their cages and areas. There was no extra touching, no hugging, patting or stroking.
It’s very different from seeing Saguna open the door of the container where the two baby monkeys live, take them into her arms and walk around for a while, cuddling and caressing them. The other day, when it was time for me to leave and I couldn’t find Chenammal to put the tiny puppy I was holding back in its nest with the others, I asked Raja (another staff member) if he could do that for me.
Another scene I glimpsed: Dr. Rajasekar bending over a dog on a table, cleaning its wound. Standing up straight for a moment — perhaps to rest his back — he placed a gentle hand on the dog’s head, and another on its hip, just taking a moment for simple warmth and loving contact.
Learn more about the work at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter
If you want to support the loving work of the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary, you can donate here, in virtually any currency.
Want to volunteer at the sanctuary? You will be welcomed. If you have questions about volunteering, contact Leslie Robinson via the contact form on the sanctuary’s website. And if you want to ask me any questions, feel free to do that in the comments section below. Or you can write to me via the contact form on this site (linked in the navigation bar). I will write back.