Before you visit India, a lot of people will tell you things. Stereotypes mostly. Lots of warnings about how dire poverty can be in places.
You’ve probably heard them.
I’ll tell you something no one has likely told you before. How about, if you go to India, get ready to see dead puppies.
All over the streets. Behind dumpsters. Underfoot. Under tires.
Think about that. In Canada, where I lived, a puppy on the streets was a cause celebre. A lost puppy in Canada is a viral dynamo.
Where did this puppy come from? We MUST find this puppy a home.
We’re suckers for puppies.
Maybe because we grew up cartoonishly coddled, divorced from real-world realities, in a first world bubble. We’re all still just children, and to us, all that is good and soft and sweet in the world is a puppy.
Feeling blue? Take a puppy. Heart broken? Puppy. Suspect your life may be completely void of meaning? Puppy.
In New Delhi, puppies were a nuisance, an inconvenience, a roadblock. People seemed to busy for other, more pressing realities. Puppies didn’t solve homelessness. Or hunger. Or disease.
So visitors from the West are occasionally staggered by the surreal sight of a litter of puppies in the middle of a street, still sucking the teat of their smushed mother.
While traffic pays no heed at all.
And sadly, you can’t blame anyone for that.
Their parents, the ones who survive puppyhood, grow up hard. Every street dog I’ve ever met bares its teeth at first. Then he shows you his belly.
I had beautiful friendships with many of them.
And these dogs do not give a flying fudge about fleas.
In fact, they all wore jangly necklaces of dried ticks. Those parasites had sucked them dry and died of old age long ago.
Show one of those dogs an open hand, and they will sidle up to you. Be patient. They get kicked and jabbed with sticks daily. Then they instantly transform into the kind of dog we recognize as an actual dog. Our best friend. Old Yeller. Lassie. That sort of thing.
These dogs drop their mighty, battle-scarred heads in your lap. They don’t want you to move. Just stay there forever, even as the city swarms and beeps and hollers and screams around you.
Because these dogs are starving for so much more than food.
But you can’t stay there forever. The locals will look at you like you’re mad. There are lepers on these streets. People suffering from tuberculosis. Children defecating in the streets.
What are you doing fussing about a damned dog?
So you move on. The dog follows you until he can’t any longer. Then, he just stands at the gate and stares.
Needless to say, during my two-year residence in India, a lot of dogs laid their head in my lap. Of course, the locals thought I was a fool. Even mentally unwell.
It was out of this wilderness, while driving in the back of a taxi, that someone rammed a puppy in my face.
Two puppies, actually. One was golden and bright-eyed. Something like a lab, I guess. The other was black and, for a puppy at least, not terribly adorable.
“They’re sisters,” the man leaning into the window, told me. “A hundred rupees each.”
Despite the fact that puppies were as plentiful as pigeons in New Delhi, this enterprising street vendor thought he could earn something, anything, by selling cuteness to a Westerner.
He was right. I had reached a point where, despite being totally incapable of owning a dog while working as a journalist in South Asia, I needed a puppy. Like, the way Westerners need a puppy.
My heart had been taking a beating in India.
“Will you take 40?” I asked.
“The black one.”
He dropped the confused, mewling puppy in my lap. She must have been a month old.
A little over a month later, I called Canada.
“Mom, I’m sending you a puppy.”
Sending home a street dog from India is no easy affair. I’ll save you the bureaucratic details. They basically think you’re smuggling drugs in the body of a street dog.
The puppy, named Delhi, of course, landed in Toronto. She was covered in piss and shit. And, somewhere along the 20-hour journey, she may have even lost her mind in that box.
I can’t believe she survived. I was completely in love with her.
My mom fell hard too, instantly.
Today, Delhi lives on an acre of land in the quaint southern Ontario town of Fenwick.
She barks at strangers. Kills birds. And has nothing but contempt for any other dog.
But her love for my mother and I? I’ve owned so many dogs growing up. All of them formidable love batteries.
For a dog that was given no love as a puppy, I am always amazed by how much love she gives.
When I visit, she cries while licking my face. I can’t even stand up for a good five minutes.
She just cries and cries and licks and cries.
They say when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. I’ve always thought that was such an insignificant price to pay for a dog’s heart.
But in New Delhi, I lay down with battered puppies and old, traumatized dogs riddled with disease.
And yeah, I woke up with fleas. I also, just woke up.
Dead puppies are real.
I didn’t adopt Delhi because I thought I could make some small gesture for one of those puppies. I did it for me. I needed to love one of these puppies.
And I did it for my mom. Her old dog had just died. She needed a “puppy.”
Christian Cotroneo (@Groane)
Former Toronto star reporter, former Huffington Post editor. Now, working for animals at The Dodo. In between, I traveled the world, lost my way, met some nice people and even nicer dogs.