Durrani is a pet lover and owner of the JFK Animal Rescue and Shelter in Lahore. A few days back, a family had adopted four puppies from her centre promising to give them a loving home. A week later, however, they were making calls threatening to abandon the dogs on the street if she didn’t pick them up. The reason? The novel coronavirus.
The deadly pandemic has created panic that animals are carriers of COVID-19, which is not true. As soon as the disinformation went viral, people started abandoning their pets. Some even left them in dumpsters to die.
According to the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation in Karachi, the number of animals abandoned and abused has increased dramatically. “Our usual limit of animals is 400, but today our shelter stands at almost 600,” it revealed in a social media post.
Similar reports have come from other adoption and rescue shelters. Durrani estimated that the increase in the abandonments is at least 20%. “Recently, we have witnessed expensive breeds roaming around in the street,” she told SAMAA Digital. “People think they are missing pets but actually they have been abandoned.”
Sarah from the CRDS Animal Welfare told SAMAA Digital that since the lockdown was imposed, their organisation has recued more than 15 kittens. “In our society, it’s very easy for people to abandon their pets,” she said. “But ever since coronavirus spread, people are not even contacting shelters to take them.”
All the rescued animals are being fostered at the rescue centres and shelters and are up for adoption.
‘Animals are victims of COVID-19 like the rest of us’
Pet owners first grew skeptical when they heard news of a four-year-old tiger catching coronavirus at the Bronx Zoo in New York. According to the New York Times, the public health officials of the city believed that the cats caught the disease from a zoo employee.
Following this, several cat owners all over Pakistan started abandoning their cats. Any news of animals spreading COVID-19, however, is untrue, the WHO has confirmed.
Dr Chandran Kumar, a vet at the Richmond Crawford Veterinary Hospital, Karachi reiterated that the only way your cat can can get the virus was through you infecting it and not the other way round. “Across Pakistan, we don’t have a single case of animals catching the virus or spreading it,” he told SAMAA Digital, adding that so far only bats have shown signs of the virus.
Veterinary Surgeon Dr Isma Gheewala agreed. In the message she shared with ACF she said, “Even if animals catch the virus, they can’t transmit it to others because they don’t have the ability to spread it.”
According to Al Jazeera, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a news conference, “We don’t believe they [animals] are playing a role in transmission, but we think they may be able to be infected from an infected person.”
The WHO’s emergencies expert Mike Ryan asked people not to retaliate against animals over the outbreak. “They’re beings in their own right and they deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. They are victims like the rest of us,” he said.
On the other hand, hundreds of cats, dogs and rabbits were found dead inside pet markets after shops were hurriedly closed because of the lockdown.
The survivors were rescued two weeks later after a passerby heard their feeble cries for help. Hafsa Arshad, the owner of IPS Animal Rescue, one of the organisations that rescued animals from these shops called the experience “traumatising”.
“We had received a call from a girl who was passing by the pet shops at the Empress Market in Karachi and heard cries of animals locked up inside,” Arshad told SAMAA Digital. The Empress Market has around 1,000 animals at these shops. They pulled some strings and got help with the government authorities to get inside.
“Sixty percent of the animals had died and the rest were on the brink of giving up,” Arshad said, adding that the ones alive hadn’t been fed in days and were covered in their own feces. “They were in the same cages as the dead ones. It was traumatising.”
These animals were then rescued by ACF and the IPS Animal rescue. The organisations have permission from Karachi South’s district commissioner for pet owners to visit their shops two hours every day.
Arshad said that the government has assigned Dr Chandran Kumar to overlook pets at these shops and keep checking up on them for any diseases. “Our hospital is also open every day from 12pm to 3pm for people who want to get their pets treated,” Dr Kumar said.
According to Durrani of the JFK Animal Shelter, pet shops at Lahore’s Tollinton Market went through a similar fate. A total of 20 dogs were found dumped in a sewer behind the market. “With the help of Edhi, I was able to save five puppies but a huge number of animals had already died,” Durrani said.
More two dozen dogs, cats and birds starved for days as the shops were shut. More than half of them had passed away from the lack of air.
Blessing in disguise
Apart from these abandoned animals, stray animals too have been suffering as well. According to ACF, the stray animals have been starving. They used to get their food from cafes and restaurants which have now been closed.
Additionally, the number of hit-and-run cases have increased. Stray dogs are the most common target. Rescue shelters have been requesting people to help strays in whatever way they can. The easiest is to leave out fresh water and leftover food
The owner of an animal welfare charity organization, Ayesha Chundrigar, calls pets “blessing in disguise”.
“You need them more than anything during this time to keep you company,” she said. There’s nothing better than keeping a pet to help with anxiety.