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‘It Was My Mom’s Wish’: Woman Never Says No to Shelter Disabled & Abandoned Dogs at This Home

Sarah Iyer, the founder of Chennai-based Madras Animal Rescue Society, and her husband Gerry run a shelter for 340 paraplegic, disabled and abandoned dogs near Mahabalipuram. They need your help to keep this shelter running.

‘It Was My Mom’s Wish’: Woman Never Says No to Shelter Disabled & Abandoned Dogs at This Home

How do you define empathy? Can you find a semblance of solace in the service of sentient beings pushed to the margins?

These are profound questions that Sarah Iyer — a 58-year-old former special needs educator and founder of the Madras Animal Rescue Society (MARS) — has been answering with conviction for nearly five years.

Since October 2019, the Chennai-based MARS, an animal welfare trust affiliated with the Tamil Nadu Animal Welfare Board, has been running Daaman — a dog shelter situated along the East Coast Road (ECR) in Krishnan Karanai near Mahabalipuram.

Daaman has over 380 dogs in their care, of which 42 are paraplegic puppies and more than 50 are either partially blind, blind or have neurological issues. The shelter is also home to more than 100 paraplegic adult dogs while the rest are old, abandoned and suffer from other disabilities.

Backed by six full-time staff members (all women), Sarah and Gerry spend their days feeding, treating, rehabilitating, and caring for these forgotten creatures. Despite their abiding love for these dogs, it has not been an easy task. From offering lifelong care for these abandoned dogs to raising funds for them, these five years have been extremely challenging.

But speaking to The Better India, Sarah says, “Once you see a video of a dog suffering or people ask you to rescue a dog, you can’t say no. In most cases, the only option for old, blind or paraplegic dogs is euthanasia. Nobody will let them survive on the street. I can’t live with the guilt of refusing shelter to a dog who needs it. I would rather see them alive than put down.”

Dog Shelter and Home by MARS
Sarah Iyer feeding the dogs at her shelter

Finding PK

Nearly two decades ago, Sarah relocated to Chennai from Mumbai. At the time, Sarah had completed her master’s degree, trained to become a tutor for children with special needs, and worked with them.

“Once my daughter finished high school and left for the United States to study for her undergraduate degree, I took a break from everything, including teaching. That’s when I first got the time to get into animal (dog) welfare full time,” recalls Sarah, speaking to The Better India.

What followed were three major events which would take Sarah to where she is today. Around a decade back on New Year’s Eve, they were living on Harrington Road. 

“We had just watched the movie PK. Like Aamir Khan’s alien character in the movie, this puppy just appeared in our lives out of nowhere. We heard a dog crying but assumed that someone in the neighbourhood had just brought a young pup who was crying. But by 8 pm, however, I felt something was wrong. So, I stepped out of our home and finally found this black and white puppy wedged between a parked car and the wall,” she adds.

Their initial attempts at pulling this puppy out weren’t successful. Though injured, he was feisty and did not allow them to touch him. Gerry finally managed to pull this pup out.

“But we struggled to find a vet on New Year’s Eve. We eventually found one but had to pay five times the rate to get them over to our locality and give it first aid. On New Year’s Day, all clinics were shut. We could only take PK for treatment on the 2nd (of January). Having a spinal compression and a broken leg, PK was paralysed. After much care, attention and physiotherapy for more than a month, PK started walking, running and playing. Although we were initially reluctant, we decided to adopt him,” she recalls.

Daaman Dog Shelter Home in Chennai
Sarah and her husband Gerry spend their days taking care of these dogs.

A mother’s wish

One person who was delighted to see Sarah and Gerry adopt PK was her mother. After losing her father early, Sarah recalls how she was brought up by “three strong women” — her mother, grandmother, and maasi (aunt). “They were strong and kind women,” she says.

Sarah had also grown up with dogs and other pets. She had keenly watched her mother, aunt and grandmother feed them, groom them and love them like their own family members. As a result, Sarah had no fear of dogs and nurtured a strong affection for them.

“Growing up, I always saw them showing kindness to animals. They never explicitly instructed me to be kind to animals. It’s just something I imbibed by watching them. Eventually, there came a time when my mother would tell me, ‘Guddi, you must start a shelter’. At the time, I was in Mumbai and more concerned with raising my daughter. However, my mother would keep insisting that I should start an animal shelter,” recalls Sarah.

“When we moved to Chennai and got PK home, my mother was very happy. Also, since I had more time for myself after moving to Chennai, I told my mother that I would think about opening a dog shelter. In 2016, however, my mother suddenly passed away. To make matters worse, my aunt also passed away within a year of my mother’s death,” she adds.

Daaman offers a home for injured and abandoned dogs.
Daaman offers a home for injured and abandoned dogs.

Saving Mehrunnisa

Months after adopting PK, Sarah and Gerry left their Harrington Road residence and moved to Palavakkam, a locality closer to the beach.

“After moving to our new place, I noticed a man walking with his labrador. Near them was an indie dog who had littered (gave birth to pups) and started barking at the man and his labrador. In response, the man hit this indie dog very hard with a big stick he was carrying with him. The next day, I found that this mother dog couldn’t stand up. Her legs kept slipping beneath her and she was unable to feed her four puppies. I took her to numerous vets, but none could do anything about the injuries,” recalls Sarah.

“We took her in and named her Mehrunnisa (Neesa), which means ‘sun among women’. She was a beautiful and petite dog. While we got two of her pups adopted, we took in the other two. Neesa was paralyzed for life. It was only then I realised that she needed so much care. We had to put underpads under her [stomach] because she would get all sorts of sores and wounds. Leaving dogs like Neesa on cement or tile floors, they develop wounds and start bleeding from their sores. That’s how they develop secondary infections and sometimes die,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Sarah was part of a WhatsApp group with 180 people on it who were organising daily rescues from all over the city and sterilising strays. She claims, “Other people in the group would donate here and there for the cause but ultimately I would pay for the retrieval and treatment of these rescues. At this time, we were rescuing about eight dogs per day. Imagine paying for the boarding, transport, and treatment facilities for these rescued dogs.”

Moreover, after rescuing a dog, what does one do? “I realised that I couldn’t put these old, injured, paraplegic, and disabled dogs back on the street. Initially, I would put them up in foster care. For one dog, these foster care centres would charge me about Rs 10,000 per month. That’s a lot of money. What’s more, the foster care people were taking money for these paraplegic dogs but their condition was only getting worse,” she explains.

Sarah knew that if she wanted to help more dogs and completely transform their lives, she had to be more systematic and that’s how she decided to form a trust. Moreover, having taken care of Neesa and given her 24/7 attention, Sarah also began thinking about the fate of other paraplegic dogs suffering on the street.

“How are they even going to find food? By dragging themselves they develop abrasion wounds and the healthy dogs won’t even allow them to eat because they’re territorial by nature. Besides establishing a trust, what we also needed was to build a shelter for them,” she notes.

Fortunately, Sarah had a friend who owned a piece of land on the outskirts of Chennai next to a beach which she could rent out. It had not been used for the previous eight years and so. 

“Out of our own pockets, we cleared up the space and started building enclosures. Despite establishing the trust sometime in May 2019, no money was coming in because people didn’t know about the kind of work we wanted to do. Initially, we built two enclosures followed by another two and so on. By October, we started the shelter and called it Daaman,” she says.

Amidst all this, Sarah was still dealing with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother. To deal with the pain of losing her mother, she focused on establishing this trust, setting up the shelter, and caring for the paraplegic and abandoned dogs who came in

“As I mentioned earlier, I also lost my aunt within a year of losing my mother. They were integral parts of my support system. To deal with the pain of losing them, I immersed myself in helping these dogs. In the process, I fulfilled my mother’s wish of establishing a dog shelter,” she notes.

Sarah develops an intense love for these dogs at this shelter and home
Sarah shares an intense bond with these forgotten creatures

Lifelong care

Upon receiving a call from people about a dog getting hurt in a part of the city, Sarah and her team send out a vehicle or an autorickshaw to collect it and get it treated. Following this, the dog is brought to the shelter and given a ‘forever home’. It’s lifelong care for these dogs.

“About 99% of the cases we receive are of dogs who are really old, paraplegic, and cannot go back to the street. What’s more, nobody wants to adopt these dogs. Yes, we do have a visiting vet but we don’t have a full medical set up at our shelter. Every day, I have to travel with at least four to five dogs to clinics in Neelankarai and Pallikaranai which are about a 30 to 45-minute drive from the shelter, and we bring them back,” explains Sarah.

“I’ve also learnt to do physiotherapy for paraplegic dogs. The sand in the shelter offers a very good surface for these dogs to regain some of their ability to walk because it gives them a good grip. The sand is also excellent for these dogs because it prevents pressure sores and bed sores, and their wounds heal faster. Our physiotherapy work and the sandy surface facilitate quicker recovery for them. We also provide them with good nutrition,” she adds.

Sarah and Gerry standing at the entrance of the Daaman shelter.
Sarah and Gerry standing at the entrance of the Daaman shelter.

Each month, the Trust requires 3,000 kg of chicken, 1,700 kg of rice, 500 litres of milk, 800 eggs, and a lot of vegetables to feed the animals, ranging from young puppies to adult and elderly dogs. Quality food makes a massive difference to these wounded animals.

“Depending on their injury or health condition, we have to give them extra amounts of food. These dogs enter our shelter in a pathetic condition. What also takes up a great deal of our funds is the cost of medicine and regular check-ups. A lot of them get secondary infections. We also have old dogs with renal failure or enlarged livers or spleens. Another major hassle is managing tics, and buying quality medicine for it is also expensive. It also costs money to maintain these enclosures and the fencing surrounding them,” she explains.

However, the problem remains that the people who have brought some of these dogs to the shelter don’t want to take them back, and Sarah can’t put them back on the street. After six months, one can’t expect the dog to go back to the street. Given their territorial nature, the recovering pup or old dog will get attacked or chased down by other dogs on the streets who may not recognise it. Also, in the six months the dog has spent at the shelter, he/she has forgotten how to scavenge for food since they feed them regularly twice a day.

These dogs find peace, quiet and support at this shelter.
These dogs find peace, quiet and support at this shelter.

“Dogs who had only a couple of months to live when they first came to our shelter end up living for a couple of years. This is why the number of dogs under our care has increased. Also, no one comes back to adopt paraplegic dogs because they poop and pee wherever they can drag themselves. People don’t have the patience to adopt them once they’re rescued,” she says.

Daaman also houses a few abandoned breeds. “People will come and tie their Rottweilers, Labradors, Great Danes and German Shepherds to the gate and go away. People sometimes leave a cardboard box with five newborn indie puppies taken away from their mother at our gate as well. Who adopts them? Where do I find homes for these breeds? We’ve not had very good luck with breeds we have given out for adoption. I will not give a dog for adoption until and unless I know the person or someone recommends the ‘dog-parents’ to me,” claims Sarah.

“For example, we recently had one Dalmatian puppy ‘Simi’ who was diagnosed with a hole in her heart and doctors said she couldn’t survive this condition. Thankfully, she has been with us for about eight to nine months now. Forget about paying us for her upkeep, the people who dropped her here haven’t even called to check up on her once. We are so busy 24/7 that we can’t chase people down for funds. The need to create and maintain a sizable corpus of funds is so important for us,” she adds.

Sarah’s shelter also gets calls from people all over India, asking her whether she can admit their paraplegic dogs. “People from Kerala, Mumbai, Hyderabad and even Himachal Pradesh call us to ask whether they can admit paraplegic dogs into our shelter,” she adds.

Sarah with her dogs.
Sarah playing with the dogs in her shelter.

Dealing with loss

“Our dream is to have no dogs suffer on the streets. Backed by an extremely robust animal birth control program and proper shelters, we would like to see fewer dogs on the streets. With their numbers on the street reduced, there will be fewer accidents and fewer paraplegic dogs as well. We wish to showcase this here in Chennai and then roll it out through the state,” she says. 

Besides the work required in caring for them, it’s also an emotionally draining process. Some of these dogs come into this shelter as puppies and she cares for them all their life. Eventually, however, they pass away. How does she deal with that emotional toll?

“Honestly, whenever one of my dogs passes away, I tell Gerry that I want to shut the shelter down. Recently, I lost a German Shepherd called Zain. He was my dearest baby. He came to us as a three-month-old pup with his pelvis crushed and by the time he was ten months old, he had become this massive fellow following me around everywhere. We name all the dogs in our shelter and choose them according to their personality. I’m still grieving for that boy,” she says.

“Even if an old dog stays with us for two months and passes away, it tears me up from within. I’m shattered for the next few days until I see a video of another dog or puppy on the streets of Chennai who needs our assistance. I focus my energy on helping that dog. I find a way to block that pain by immersing myself in taking care of the other dogs in our care. But it also gives me great joy seeing these dogs get shelter, recover, and play around,” she adds.

(Sarah needs your assistance to maintain her shelter for old, abandoned, disabled and paraplegic dogs. If you want to contribute, click here.)

(Edited by Pranita Bhat; Images courtesy MARS and Milaap)

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