Apr 28 2020. view 102
Full DNA today features Smt. Maneka Sanjay Gandhi - Chairperson, People for Animals (PFA), also known as People for Animals India, which is India's largest animal welfare organization, in a personal interview. Maneka Gandhi, who started the organization in 1992, is its current chairperson.
People for Animals has a nationwide network of 26 hospitals, 165 units, and 2.5 lakh members. “We work to rescue and rehabilitate sick and needy animals. We set up and run shelters, ambulance services, sterilization programs, treatment camps, and disaster rescue missions for animals. We conduct education programs in schools, fight cases in court, and lobby on animal issues in parliament. At present, we have a nationwide network of 165 units, 26 hospitals, and 60 mobile units”. People for Animals regularly works with various other animal welfare and rights organizations such as Humane Society International (HSI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). An example of this combined liaising would be the successful ten-year-long campaign to ban seal fur and skin in India which was passed in April 2018.
“Animal welfare is not just about animals. It is about us. Our living conditions, our children, our earth. Cruelty to animals has a significant and irreversible impact on human health. The quality of our lives depends on them. When we eat them, exploit them, interfere with natural patterns by breeding one kind, and killing another, we destroy our own lives. As each species disappears, so does the future of our children”.
Q 1. Can animals get the virus? Can they transmit the virus to humans?
I’m so glad you asked me this as it’s a fear that’s going around and it’s complete and utter nonsense. There are several reasons for this; for one, millions and millions of people have dogs and cats and a large number of people have got the Covid-19 virus. How is it that in Sri Lanka one dog is supposed to have got it? In New York 1 cat was supposed to have got it. In the Bronx Zoo, 1 tiger is supposed to have got the Covid-19 virus?
In India where millions of people live cheek by jowl with all of them having their own pets and with community animals roaming the streets freely, there was not a single case reported. These animals are being fed by thousands of people daily with not one person having contracted the virus from them, nor have any humans given the animals the virus. These stories are completely baseless and untrue.
So why should anyone say that a dog or cat has the virus? Probably because everyone is in lockdown, bored and fed up at home and all they do is watch TV. All TV channels are currently competing against each other for news, for new and more sensational Covid-19 stories because that’s the only news there is. There is no human interaction outside of your home, no societal life, so what does TV have to do to increase its PRP? IT NEEDS NEW STORIES EVERY DAY. It could be a big cat in New York, it could be a dog in a suburb of Sri Lanka, and what’s more, don’t forget that people like being scared! When you were young didn’t you get a thrill from watching scary movies, ghost movies, thrillers, etc? Well, this is all part of that. People just have to ask themselves if people could get the virus that has been in full play now for 5 months, how in the whole world of billions of cats and dogs did just 2 supposedly get it?
Coronavirus is a flu virus. This virus mutates every year, with the human body developing antibodies to that particular virus, resulting in humans not contracting that particular form of the virus again. The virus will then go on to mutate in yet another form and come back again. As with the hurricanes, we name the virus too. Swine flu, Chicken Gunya, etc. This year its Corona. But they are all part of one family, the flu family. For millions of years, humans and animals have lived side by side. Humans have got the Corona family virus every year. In India, at a special centre we have approximately 9 dogs who have been with Corona infected families who have been taken to hospital and are now in isolation. These dogs who are from different parts of India have been studied and not one has displayed symptoms of Corona despite having lived with Corona infected humans. Please be sensible and do not succumb to rumour-mongering.
Q 2. What is your advice to pet owners?
Love them. Keep them. Continue to look after them. Even after the lockdown ends there will be hesitation on the part of most people to interact with one another. Maybe we will have to change ourselves and our way of living, but if you have a pet you will never be alone. Love your pet and let them love you. And if you don’t have a pet – quickly rush out and get one.
There was the story of bats giving people Corona. Immediately people here started cutting down trees. Let me tell you that bats don’t give people Corona. As per mythology, bats don’t come after humans. You don’t get Corona from bats. Rather you get Corona if you eat bats. All that will happen if you get rid of bats is that you will harm the farmers irreparably. About 30 years ago the government of India decided to get rid of all the bats in the Ajantha and Elora caves, so they went ahead and killed 2 to 3 million bats. It took them just 2 or 3 days to kill these bats. Within 6 months Aurangabad farmers had gone into a major decline. Their crops had dwindled by 25% and they had had to double the number of pesticides they were using, resulting in their incomes dropping even more. The government then had to reverse their policy and re-populate the caves with bats – so don’t even think about going this way. Bats are your major pesticide proof organic farmers.
Q 3. What is your advice to animal welfare workers?
They must just keep feeding. The reason I say this is because if you have hungry dogs and cats on the road you will face a major crisis. Hungry animals will become fearful of and shy away from humans. They will feel abandoned and will not hesitate to bite. Then your next step will be to kill them resulting in yet another problem. They simply have to be fed. Every animal welfare person has to go out there and feed and those who do not feed need to start today! Moreover, if you don’t feed cats, you will lose every single bird on your island. Cats faced with no food will start killing birds. Therefore you have to feed both cats and dogs and feed them properly. India has been in lockdown/curfew mode one and a half months now but we go out and we feed our community animals. Our government has been most sensible in giving all animal welfare workers feeding passes to enable them to go out and feed the community animals.
Q 4. What is the OIE’s – [WORLD ORGANISATION FOR ANIMAL HEALTH ] stand on the COVID virus?
The predominant route of transmission of the COVID- 19 virus is human to human. No companion animals have got it. No cows, goats, sheep, or pigs have got it. The Indian government put together a team of 30 of our best vets to research this and they researched over 30,000 animals and have not found even one animal with a trace of the virus.
Q 5. Sri Lanka is yet to pass its Animal Welfare bill. What is your advice to animal welfare workers in such a scenario and how do we safeguard our animals?
If you don’t have an Animal Welfare bill in place it's really retrograde! Every country in the world has one. If Sri Lanka does not have one I’m afraid it’s really SHAMEFUL. It is a Buddhist country. The people must go to court and get the bill through.
Some years ago in Chandigarh, the Municipal Commissioner announced that he was going to break all the beehives. He got down a crane specifically for this purpose and this crane went right round Chandigarh breaking down all the beehives. I met the bureaucrat who initiated this and explained to him that bees do not attack humans unless provoked. Furthermore, the bee knows that when it stings a human it dies as once they put their sting into you their entire abdomen comes out with the sting. When you do away with bees your entire pollination levels go down and farmers will have immense problems, especially with regards to fruits and flowers. You need to try and instill some sense into these bureaucrats and educate them, no matter how hard it seems.
Q 6. We now have a Wildlife Minister who has given villagers guns... How can this problem be overcome?
We too had a minister who did exactly the same thing, resulting in over 100 Blue Bulls being killed before I was able to intervene. Governments just don’t realize the importance of and the role animals play in our lives. If you kill elephants you will lose over 150 species of trees. Elephants and monkeys are huge pollinators. You will lose your biodiversity in Sri Lanka. When an elephant moves and eats they leave behind seeds. They also leave behind dung which is hugely fertile and fertilizes other trees and plants. Both elephants and monkeys have an unusually varied diet and the seeds they ingest and put out are extremely important to your island home. When you remove elephants from your landscape you will destroy all trees and plants as well. Mauritius had a similar problem and Sri Lanka will have it too. Mauritius has no trees left. In Himalchand they shot down all their monkeys and soon their trees started disappearing and they had to keep replanting. When you plant, you plant monoculture which has no value at all. This also results in landslides. All this means is that when you kill monkeys and elephants and other animals they kill you right back. It's nature.
Q 7. In the event that community animals are destroyed, what do we do?
You will have to go to court. However I don’t think any government will entertain this kind of action, for your community animal is your main scavenger and in the absence of /community dogs and cats, rats will rule! Dogs and cats do not live on the food we humans give them alone. They live on garbage and rats. If you remove dogs and cats from the community, garbage and rats will increase. It takes just 2 rats to produce 33,000 rats in the space of 1 year! Nobody will ever be able to get rid of them. In the city of Surath in India, we had a Commissioner who said he was going to clean the city up in 3 weeks. His idea of cleaning the city was to destroy the dogs and cats. In a matter of 3 weeks, he had killed every single dog. For him, this was cleaning the city. Needless to say within 2 weeks the entire city was infested with rats. Rats are not scared of humans they are scared of dogs and remain underground. In the absence of dogs, they surfaced and flourished. They grew large and started biting people resulting in 2 persons getting the plague. Surath had this huge epidemic which was much worse than today’s Covid-19 virus. For a period of 2 years tourism came to a halt. It was a frightening time. People all around were terrified of catching the plague. And all this resulted due to the killing of dogs! So if dogs are killed in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka will suffer the same fate as Surath. In a matter of 2 weeks, you will have a plague of rats and then I wonder who will come forward to kill the rats? Right now in New York the Mayor is considering introducing community dogs and cats to overcome the rat menace they are experiencing. Humans cannot exist without animals. Yet we create a world in which they are abused and misused. Let us recognize the partnership between us and further it for the good of all animals - both on two legs and four.
Interviewed by Anusha David