At a time where the world is faced with the pandemic we now know as COVID-19, people across the globe are gripped with fear for their lives. Amid the chaos, the four-legged creatures with whom we coexist, are loitering in the streets, with the hopes of finding food scraps that are often discarded by us. With the human population in quarantine, and garbage collection not happening spontaneously due to area wise lockdown, many animals suffer from starvation and thirst.
Addressing the challenges faced by stray animals in the city during this time Rakibul Haq Emil, Founder of PAW Foundation explains that given the scarcity of resources, people are consuming food carefully, as a result of which there is less accumulation of garbage; in addition to that, the tea shops are also closed which naturally limits their access to food and water.
The challenges in his line of work increase tenfold when animal lovers and volunteers cannot unite together to distribute food, as social distancing has been made mandatory by the government, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “In these times, we’re trying to find ways where we can help, without promoting social gatherings. In order to do so, we’ve taken a few initiatives,” he says.
Rakibul and his team are trying to identify the people who are providing food to the animals within their neighbourhood. They’re also trying to understand the areas where dogs are receiving food as well as those areas where they aren’t receiving anything. “Since there’s a limitation on our end, in terms of resources, capacity and time, we need to think about using our funds effectively and efficiently,” he explains.
To do so, he began distributing food in commercial areas such as Motijheel, some of the main roads of the city where dogs don’t have access to garbage disposals, nor do they receive the love and affection of people from residential areas.
Given their limited resources, they first started feeding those dogs. When they noticed that the lockdown period was being extended, they’ve been working towards making the distributions more station-based. This includes a primary zone for distribution in each neighbourhood. “If there’s one station each in Uttara, Moghbazar, Dhanmondi, or Banasree- where the stations are divided across Dhaka and the cooking is done on a large scale and there’s a store for dry food such as bread or biscuits, the children from those areas can collect the food from us from a particular pickup point. This ensures the proper distribution of food and also saves a lot of time,” he elaborates.
Their goal is to cook from the morning, distribute food then finish work by 6 pm in the evening and return home. Rakibul further states that this solution is also cost-efficient when it’s done in bulk as opposed to individually cooked meals; and because of this, they are able to feed more dogs. Dhaka aside, PAW Foundation’s Jessore committee is operating in the city through voluntary contributions of many boys and girls. Likewise, the organisation’s Khulna committee volunteers are also running a food distribution drive in the city.
So far, PAW Foundation has fed 14,000 dogs. The boiled meals consist of rice, body parts of the chicken, potatoes as well as sweet pumpkin. The added advantage for them is that this food is also consumed by cats, crows, sparrows or even a rat that lives in the sewers. Alongside, they’re also distributing bread buns and energy biscuits, as consulted by the trained vets working with them. From their initiatives, it’s evident that stray animals are used to eating human food.
“While it’s possible to give dog food, the problem that arises from feeding these is that it makes dogs very thirsty; and a lot of dogs will also reject it. Moreover, other animals cannot eat this. With water being scarce at the moment, it is essential to give foods like rice or bread, so that when the situation gets better, these animals still continue to find and eat the same foods,” he says.
To ensure that no animal is left behind, they also alternate between areas, when providing food to the animals; so if they’ve covered one area in a particular day, the next day, it will be a different area. According to Rakibul, helping these animals survive is their main goal; if dogs don’t receive food for a day, it’s not so much of a problem in the short-term.
In the wake of a global pandemic and the absence of a cure, the kind of work that PAW Foundation is doing is indeed a gamble. Rakibul and his organisations have calculated the risks but also geared up accordingly so that they can continue to feed hungry animals on the streets. “Our volunteers are expected to sign forms prior to taking part in our initiatives. They are expected to have masks and gloves with them at all times. They must also carry sanitiser or Hexisol; additionally, they must all refrain from distributing food in one area. Maximum two people can go to an area, they may even use a rickshaw to carry the load of the food, whilst maintaining the distance between each other. This also prevents law enforcers from interrogating them further,” he states.
At the moment, Rakibul and his organisation are preparing to go into areas which are under lockdown, but not before they’ve managed PPE or enough dedicated volunteers who have an understanding of this kind of work. Safety and awareness on caring for pets and stray animals is also a need of the hour, as many people are fuelled by the knowledge that COVID-19 is a ‘zoonotic’ disease meaning, something that’s transferred from animals to people.
PAW Foundation has been monitoring the effects of coronavirus from its inception in Wuhan, and once it hit Bangladesh, a leaflet was passed from the Department of Health, where the third point stated that animals were carriers of the disease. The chaos that ensued after, was that many pets were being abandoned and many tenants were harassed by landlords to evacuate their spaces, for keeping pets.
To tackle the situation, the PAW Foundation gave a legal notice to the Department of Health, IEDCR and Department of Livestock Services. “Our plea was to distribute a public notice that corrects the error that was circulated earlier about animals spreading coronavirus. Subsequently, Bangladesh Veterinary Council released a public notice, which was shared by the Minister of the Department of Livestock Services, on his own profile. Additionally, when the issue of cruelty on animals in Katabon was raised, the Minister of Livestock Services had made it public via the media that any act of cruelty towards animals under the coronavirus excuse will not be tolerated,” he emphasises.
Through their social media platforms, PAW Foundation is providing awareness on people’s conduct with animals, during coronavirus by going live, so that animals are not misunderstood in these trying times. “We’re sharing on our page information on animals that is both locally and globally approved and authentic. A lot of people have used these to fight against their landlords’ impositions and have come out successful. People need to fight from their own standpoint, keeping in mind that the government has made provisions for animal’s rights, and legal notices have been made by WHO and OIE World Animal Health Information Systems and news coverage on these issues- they must show these to challenge the misconceptions,” he highlights.
Rakibul also adds that landlords have shown disinterest towards reviewing legal documents on the issue of animal cruelty, which goes to show that they’re masking their dislike for animals by using coronavirus as an excuse. Pet owners need to go to the station and let law-enforcing authorities know that they’re being harassed. All the stations are aware of our Animal Welfare Act.
Now that animal lovers have taken to the streets to feed the many voiceless strays that roam throughout the city, it seems as though the light at the end of the tunnel may not be that dim after all. “Being locked up at home in this sweltering weather, people are being able to feel the plight of these animals on the streets. When people are witnessing boys and girls doing their bit to feed animals, it’s rewiring the way we think about animals. In fact, we’re receiving donations from people who’ve never even thought about animals before,” shares the enthusiastic animal activist. Acts like these are what reassures Rakibul that moving forward, they may find more such people who have the interests of animals at heart. And just like that, humanity is now found in people coming from all walks of life. Not just animal lovers alone.