Bark to the Future

A veterinarian couple finds foreign homes for Indian street dogs

The Choudharys examine a puppy at their Delhi clinic. SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 January, 2014

WHEN LISE ORREN ADOPTED her first dog, Connor, from an animal shelter near Vancouver, Canada, in 2010, she had no idea of his desi roots. “It was love at first sight,” she told me via email. “He crawled right into our laps and we knew then he would be coming home with us.” Only after Orren chose Connor did Barbara Gard, the founder of the shelter, tell her that the dog, like all of those at her refuge, was Indian. Connor was only 12 weeks old and had been rescued from the streets of Delhi by Dr Premlata Choudhary and her husband, Dr SK Choudhary, seven weeks earlier.

Connor was not the first stray the veterinarians had rescued. “It started with a kitten,” Premlata told me on a recent afternoon in the cramped waiting room of the veterinary clinic that she and her husband run in the Anand Niketan neighbourhood of south Delhi. As she recounted the kitten’s story, whimpering dogs waiting for care clawed at the room’s glass doors, which we had closed in an attempt to achieve silence.

In 2000, after the Choudharys moved to Delhi from Haryana—where they are from, and had studied—Premlata found a small kitten struggling alone on the streets. She took it to her clinic (which was then in South Extension), vaccinated and neutered it, and christened it Swami. An American tourist who happened to walk past the clinic saw Swami in the window and fell head over heels in love. She offered to take the kitten back with her to New Jersey. “After that, the hope came,” said Premlata, who had long aspired to provide adequate care for all of India’s street animals. “Yes, this can happen.”

As the Choudharys’ veterinary practice grew, so too did their efforts to vaccinate and spay street dogs and cats; today, they neuter about 25 animals every month. (After arriving at the clinic, I waited for 15 minutes while the couple examined at least four dogs. One of these, a St Bernard as big as a pony, required the assistance of two strapping young aides, who lifted it onto a metal examination table and wiped the copious drool from its mouth.) When they rescued puppies or kittens not yet hardened by life on the streets, or disabled animals that would likely perish without human care, the Choudharys would shelter them while searching for proper homes in India or abroad.

In 2009, having already sent around 140 dogs overseas, they officially launched Desi Dog Adoption Worldwide (DDAW). That year, they sent 25 puppies to foreign homes; 15 of them went through the Canadian organisation Adopt An Indian Desi Dog (AAIDD), started specifically for DDAW by Barbara Gard, who met Premlata when she was teaching in India in 2004. Gard had brought four street puppies she found in Mussoorie to the Choudharys’ clinic.

Now, in their fifth year of official operations, the Choudharys partner with six different organisations in the US, UK, Holland and Canada, and have sent over 1,200 dogs abroad, all while continuing the fulltime operation of their clinic. Funding for the care and transport of the animals—about $1,000 for each dog—comes from a variety of sources, including donations, adoption fees and the sale of calendars. Premlata said the couple also contributes many lakhs of rupees of their own money each year.

Premlata hopes that the diverse population of short-haired street dogs living in India will someday constitute a unique breed on the subcontinent. Despite their eclectic colours and sizes, their genetic pool—a hybrid of whippet and retriever—has existed in India for centuries. Premlata believes a unique classification could help create acceptance of the dogs among people. She hopes to one day be able to write “Desi Dog” under “Breed” on transport forms, rather than “whippet retriever mix”. “That’s my dream,” she said.

Orren’s dog Connor had a rough initial transition to Canada. Though India’s extreme climate had made his breed adaptable, other dogs picked on Connor. But Orren and her family loved the puppy so much they eventually adopted a second Indian dog, Kenzi, who was found living with her mother and siblings in a garbage dump in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave and was taken to the Choudharys’ clinic.

Even if desi dogs become a boutique breed across the world, Premlata recognises that sending all of India’s street dogs abroad is not a viable solution for the entire population. (Orren only adopted her desi dogs from Gard after being turned down by a number of other Canadian shelters on the grounds that she was living in a condominium.) The Choudharys’ organisation is one of only a few in India that sends vaccinated dogs abroad. Premlata knows that the cost of airfare and identifying appropriate homes makes international adoption a poor alternative to Indians fulfilling what she calls a “responsibility to our community”, by feeding local dogs and improving their lives on the streets.