CHENNAI: "My neighbours just called me over. Their dog had gone into labour and they didn’t know what to do," says P Ashwath, as he apologised profusely for delaying his interview with us. This is not the first time Ashwath has been pulled away on such calls.
As a trained rescue professional based in Chennai, emergency cases like these are a common ordeal for him. Despite a hectic schedule that is prone to change at the drop of a hat, he also manages to attend his day job as an IT professional, help out at a secondary school run by his grandfather, work in the entertainment division at EVAM and actively campaign for the protection of domestic and wild animals alike. The 22-year-old wildlife enthusiast responded to his calling at the tender age of ten, when he rescued a weak kitten from near the Nungambakkam flyover.
“I didn’t know how to give it medical aid or save it. But, I brought it home and my parents and a doctor friend helped me nurse it back to health,” he says. Cutie, as they named the cat, was well within weeks. She has been with Ashwath ever since and is at the pruning age of 12 now.
Inspired by what he could do for one animal, Ashwath set out on a mission to save many others who needed his help. And there was much work to be done.
Call to rescue
“Back in 2008, laws regarding the breeding of dogs and cats were obsolete and hazy. It was easy for breeders to hold animals captive and abuse them for money,” he says, referring to the hurricane of breeders who were selling cat meat to be used as substitutes for chicken and mutton, at the time. Ashwath was one of many rescuers who has been tracking down such traffickers and bringing them to justice. “Only a few years ago, the municipal corporation finally addressed the issue and tightened the rules around domestic animal slaughter. Despite that, we see such cases even today,” he adds solemnly.
On his part, Ashwath wanted to learn how to rescue animals and be of direct use to those facing abuse and those in distress. To his luck, he met Dinesh Baba at just the right time in 2013. A fellow animal enthusiast and caregiver, Dinesh runs Cloud 9 Kennel and Nursing — a medical facility and boarding house for cats and dogs — in Iyyapanthangal. “We clicked instantly over our concern for animals and quickly became friends. We invested more and more time into researching the different ways one can rescue an animal. Slowly, we began practising what we had learnt,” he narrates.
In 2014, Ashwath and Dinesh (who is just a couple of years elder) had reached the point where they could put out their contact information on social media and name themselves as rescuers. Their idea was to be on speed-dial for anyone who comes across a distressed animal. Soon enough, the cases began pouring in. “There were times when we could only catch a few winks of sleep before the next call came,” he recounts. With every case, Ashwath understood that his response would have to be improvised based on the circumstances. He emphasises that any two cases are hardly ever alike.
“When a cow or bull is stuck in a sewage drain, one doesn’t have much space to secure the lift-pulley around the animal. It takes some level of judgement and quick thinking to be able to effortlessly pull off a successful rescue,” he says. Recounting a recent rescue he had done just two days prior to our conversation, he shares, “There was a cat that had gotten stuck on a tree. We had received a distress call from Chetpet. By the time we got to the location, the person who had called was nowhere to be seen.
We saw the cat on a tree and began setting up our equipment for the rescue.” Ideally, they would have used a branch to hang the rope and hoisted up one man to reach the cat. This time, however, the cat was perched too high for them to swing the rope in the place. “That’s the thing about tactical rescues. One may not always face ideal conditions to rescue the animal. But, with a little wit, one can figure out alternative methods. In this case, I saw a garbage truck nearby.
We asked the driver to position the truck under the tree and raise the freight attached to the back. I climbed on it and secured the rope around the branch,” he says. That’s the other thing about these rescues. While he is wellequipped with essential tools, Ashwath is yet to procure any state-of-the-art gadgets. “One doesn’t need fancy gadgets to successfully conduct a rescue,” he shrugs.
A domestic affair
Ashwath and his team, which has now grown to host six members, mostly attend to domestic rescues — dogs, cats, cattle and such. They rehabilitate the animals at various pet hospitals or clinics in Chennai, including Cloud 9, and then release them in the areas where they were rescued from. “When it comes to dogs or cats, we make sure to neuter the animals before releasing them on the street.
It is a safe, quick and cheap procedure, and ensures that the populations of these animals on the streets are controlled,” Ashwath says. The team secures funding for each animal they need to rehabilitate, either by raising funds on social media, among friends and family, or asking the distress caller to pay for the treatment of the animal. “Most callers who stay with the animal till we arrive are obliged to pay. But, those cases are rare and we resort to alternative methods to raise funds,” he adds.
Ashwath also rehabilitates rescued stray dogs and cats in his own house. “Some animals that suffer major injuries will find it difficult to survive on the street. Animals who have had to undergo amputation and severe surgery, I house at my place. We, now, have five dogs and thirteen cats (including Cutie),” he says. Apart from these animals, Ashwath is also a big fan of monkeys. Having adapted to a city lifestyle, many fall prey to electric wires or speeding traffic. Ashwath pays special attention to the monkeys he reports.
Watching out for the wild
When it comes to rescuing wild animals, there’s plenty of caution he has to exercise, given the many rules that govern the transfer from natural habitat. Not to mention, the wild animal’s temperament. “The behaviour of domestic animals can be predicted to some extent. When we rescue them, they are most often scared and respond timidly in defence.
We have been trained to calm the animal and rescue them without injury. In the case of wild animals, the guesswork is a bit tricky and our wildlife services department discourages any attempts by amateurs,” he says. However, Ashwath does his part by reporting any wildlife crime he witnesses. Many wild monkeys, captured, trained and forced to beg for money can thank Ashwath for their freedom and rehabilitation. “As we cannot personally rescue wild animals, I make it a point to call the local authorities whenever I see the abuse of a wild animal.
I try not to get involved myself, apart from ensuring that the perpetrators are caught, but I see to it that the monkey or any other wild animal is rehabilitated appropriately,” he explains. Emphasising on the fact that we have a huge responsibility towards protecting our environment and the species that exist in harmony with us, Ashwath calls for every citizen to do their due diligence and show some humanity.
“We are all in a position to do something to change the way we treat other living beings. Unfortunately, it is not a problem that can be solved by one person or one group of people. Each individual must have the sympathy to extend to the strays that roam outside their gates; that’s when we can make a real difference,” he articulates.
Help in time
Ashwath’s latest initiative has been to raise funds for an eco-friendly pet ambulance. The total cost of the ambulance was 4.7 lakhs. Fortunately enough, on December 3, actors Karthi and Surya Sivakumar, Jyothika and Ranjini (Karthi’s wife) contributed the ambulance to Ashwath’s cause.