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As the death tolls in Bangladesh keep on rising due to coronavirus, the deadly disease goes the extra mile to jeopardize the safety of animals as well. Since the disease has been identified as ‘zoonotic’ meaning transferable from animals, individuals from all walks of life have begun conducting themselves in a way that is against the best interest of many domesticated pets as well as street animals.

On the issue of coronavirus’s spread in our country, Dipanwita Ridi, Founder of Animal Lovers of Bangladesh (ALB) tells us that in the wake of this pandemic, the shelter she’s been running for years in Narayanganj has gone into lockdown. Dipanwita has been running the shelter for almost five to six years, ensuring that animals are receiving food, medical care such as vaccination and sterilization. Additionally, in her absence, there are people in the shelter who are looking after the animals. But operating from Narayanganj alone has been cumbersome for Dipanwita, hence she divides her duties between the two districts in such a manner so that she can serve them both alternatively. “I’ve been living in Dhaka in Dhanmondi, looking after the dogs in the TSC by feeding them and getting them sterilized and vaccinated. Since going back and forth from Narayanganj is tough, I stay there for three to four days and then do the same in Dhaka,” she explains.
Ever since coronavirus started spreading in Bangladesh, the first thing that Dipanwita noticed was how pet cats and dogs were being abandoned. “Under the pressure of landlords or even family members, many owners have started dumping their pets on the streets. Our shelter has received many such animals since the lockdown in March. Since then, we’ve taken in 13 cats in our shelter,” she says. She has received many Facebook posts and alerts about cats and dogs being thrown away from families, even collared pets wandering into neighbourhood homes. On the side of rescuing homeless animals, ALB also works towards finding these animals permanent homes.

Understanding well that there are people in the same line of work providing food and care to animals in the Dhanmondi area, Dipanwita focuses solely on those dogs near TSC, knowing well that after the lockdown, there are no restaurants there. The halls have been closed and the students have left. “The area is now completely barren during this time; no shops are open and no one is there to put out some food,” she explains. Despite the lockdown, she still forges ahead to feed the hungry dogs in that area, sometimes even with the help of her ALB volunteers Shadhin Chokroborti, Sanaul Kabir, Farhadul Reza and Taohid Tanjim.

ALB is feeding 100 stray dogs on a daily basis in areas such as TSC moar, Suhrawardy Park, Ramna Kali Mandir, Chhobir Haat (opposite Charukola), Shahbag moar, Social Science Campus, Kolabhaban; according to her, there aren’t that many cats in that area. The ones that are there are mostly inside Charukola- and if there are guards inside, we provide them with the necessary funds so that they can feed the animals that are inside the institutes. Along with three to four ALB volunteers, Dipanwita carries out the food distribution; the meals consist of rice, mixed with chicken, as well as its liver and pancreas, sometimes eggs and potatoes as well. But on days when she and her team can’t bear the bulk of big meals, they distribute dry cake and bread instead. Dipanwita also adds that she’s not looking after the TSC dogs alone; in fact, there’s an Animal Welfare Club of Curzon Hall, an initiative of Sabrina Sabbir that also helps with feeding strays on the streets.

Addressing the issue of pets being abandoned as a result of coronavirus, she says that she’s gone live on ALB’s Facebook page, along with certified veterinary doctors, such as Dr Saddam Hossain from Chittagong and Dr Anisur Rahman, where they had elaborated how the disease actually spreads, and how it has nothing to do with domestic pets. The social media live sessions were done as a means of informing people that abandoning animals with the hopes of preventing coronavirus is actually wrong. Apart from these, ALB had also done several awareness posters conveying coronavirus messages approved by WHO, reassuring that in Bangladesh COVID-19 does not spread from animals. “Using WHO, The Guardian or any other reputed sources that are reporting on the disease, we created posters and had them posted in various areas. They’ve also distributed these posters to people who wanted to raise awareness within their areas.”

At a time when the city has gone ‘mum,’ it’s admirable to see the efforts taken by Dipanwita and her shelter volunteers. The dedicated volunteers come from all parts of the city, starting from Banasree, Dhanmondi, Khilgaon, Mohammadpur; apart from ALB’s volunteers, members of the Animal Welfare Club of Curzon Hall also come from these areas. Now that there’s a strict directive from the government to practise social distancing, and keep themselves covered and protected at all times, ALB has geared up accordingly to make sure their jobs are done without health and safety being compromised. “All volunteers distributing food are dressed in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)s,” she states.

So far, ALB’s initiatives are all done via personal funding; however, Dipanwita and some others working with her, have sent applications to the Department of Livestock Services, Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) as well as the government, that personal funding alone is not enough to make these initiatives sustainable. “We’ve seen examples in various countries, such as India, United States as well as Canada, that the shelters are provided food by the respective governments of each country. India has given declaration in various places that a budget has been sanctioned to feed stray dogs. So, we’ve made several appeals through social media or even written applications, regarding funding support from the government. We don’t mind doing the work as long as we can secure enough funding,” she shares.

Current challenges that she faces in her work, especially during this time is the lack of transportation. At the moment, volunteers and Dipanwita herself are having to do the work either by foot or commute through rickshaws in instalments. For her and her team, this is difficult, time-consuming and quite hectic. She’s taken permission from the Shahbag OC to carry out the work. But ideally, this should have been done by DCC, as the dogs are under them, and they should have ensured their welfare in the first place because already these dogs are getting aggressive in the absence of food. “When this happens, people complain to DCC that the dogs are getting aggressive and that’s when they are taken away. If people’s security is threatened, these dogs will be taken away; and there have been instances where some of these dogs were taken away- but we don’t have any trace or records as to where they were taken,” she elaborates.

Funding aside, Dipanwita says that the right media coverage is also another way out of animal abuse, cruelty and discrimination. At the moment, the content that’s being reiterated on television is how people should stay away from animals. “As per my knowledge, the notice that the media had received from the Department of Livestock Services, was labelled wrong as per the Veterinary Association of Bangladesh, and the content was corrected. However, the message didn’t reach live television,” she mentions. She adds that when general people keep seeing this, they are more likely to abandon their pets no matter how much ALB and similar organisations explain to them. Additionally, those who are in areas which are under lockdown aren’t allowed to step outside, the dogs in those areas suffer the most.

Furthermore, a lot of volunteers were working prior to the lockdown, but when the lockdown went into full effect, they were no longer able to get out of the house. What would have helped in such situations is a permission notice that allowed Dipanwita and her team to continue working, as well as an adequate supply of PPE. “These problems won’t stop unless there’s a specific directive that is given from the government on this regard,” she states. Having said that, the passionate animal rights activist carries on with her work every day, even when the going gets tough.

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Home away from home

As the death tolls in Bangladesh keep on rising due to coronavirus, the deadly disease goes the extra mile to jeopardize the safety of animals