New Delhi: Moti, Max, Tipsy, Scooby, Kelly, Ginger, Venus, Julie, Rocky, Laliya, Johny, Bela, Raki. These are just some of the stray dogs that went missing from their localities after Diwali—when their usually safe street corners became ‘war zones’ to their sensitive ears and they fled to escape the booms and crackles, whooshes and whistles. Now, a small army of rescuers, spread out across the national capital region, from Gurugram to South Delhi to Noida, have been trying to find the runaways and bring them back.
The WhatsApp group with more than 200 volunteers, which emerged during G20 when the civic body was rounding up strays, has repurposed itself and redirected its resources this festive season. They are constantly coordinating with each other, collating ‘missing’ posters, clicking photos and sharing numbers.
“If you feed dogs, you will know when there is a new face in the group. Displaced dogs are usually nervous, they are extra alert, skittish,” says Divya Puri, admin of the ‘G20 dogs movement’ WhatsApp group.
Detailed descriptions are posted on social media platforms—‘Brown dog with old scar on left leg’; ‘White dog, clean coat, green collar, walks with a limp’. At least six dogs have been found since Diwali.
Some of the volunteers who have stumbled upon an unknown stray in their neighbourhoods and housing societies have taken them in until their original caretakers are found.
“If you love dogs, you can understand from their behaviour that they are in unfamiliar territory,” says Puri, who runs the Karan Puri Foundation, an animal rescue founded 10 years ago by her mother. The foundation feeds around 450 dogs spread across Delhi, every day
Puri’s own dog, Cuddles, ran away from their home in New Friends Colony on Diwali night after she got spooked by the crackers.
“I didn’t sleep the first three days. We plastered entire walls with missing posters, went into every bylane calling out her name. We got the direction she went in through CCTV footage,” says Puri. And then a few days later a man called and said that he had found her in Zakir Nagar some 2 km away from New Friends Colony. He had seen the posters and realised that the lost dog was Cuddles.
“We rushed to the spot. It was a very filmy scene. Traffic everywhere, people staring. She was running like crazy but when I called her name, she just stopped. I cried in the middle of the street hugging Cuddles!” says Puri.
A day later, there was another happy reunion. A volunteer on the G20 WhatsApp group posted about a dog that looked “very similar” to Tipsy, who had run away from his caretaker’s home in Lajpat Nagar on Diwali night, had been spotted at Siri Fort.
“We rushed to the spot, but by then, some guards had already shooed him away. But we kept searching,” says Mansi Rautela, co-founder of Wagging Tales Foundation, which feeds Tipsy daily.
The volunteers had shouted themselves hoarse calling for Tipsy. Rautela was ready to call it a day when suddenly a dog emerged from a plant nursery at the Asian Games Village complex.
“At first, I didn’t recognise him. He had a cut right across his face. But a few moments later we knew it was him,” she said.
Kallu was reunited with his carer too. The “shy” boy had gone missing from Gulmohar Park around Diwali. A few days later, a volunteer in the group shared a photograph of a dog which looked identical, black with a whitish patch around the nose, “quivering and whimpering” in the cold.
As were two dogs from Nehru Park. Unlike the others, they were not too willing to return from their jaunt and had to be netted and brought back home.
But the G20 group’s work is far from over. Many of the dogs are still missing. Gita Kapoor, 65, who works at the World Bank, is still looking for Rocky, the stray she met at Jor Bagh where lived during the pandemic.
“I shifted to Gurugram after the pandemic, but I still drive to Delhi every day to feed dogs. Every day when I would reach Rocky’s area, I would honk and he would hop on to my car and accompany me on my feeding rounds,” she says.
Days before the G20 Summit when the municipal corporation was threatening to round up strays, Kapoor rushed to Jor Bagh and brought Rocky to her home in Gurgaon for a few days. She wishes she had done the same for Diwali.
“Our community dogs have had a hard year. First, it was the floods, then the G20 Summit, and now Diwali This year, it was the worst,” she says.
Many of the volunteers, including Kapoor, allege that the ban on bursting crackers had no impact on the ground. People were lighting up fireworks with impunity and the police barely responded to complaints, says Kapoor.
“My friend who took the highway to Faridabad the morning after Diwali told me she saw several dogs lying crushed on the streets. It is an animal lover’s worst nightmare,” she adds.
Even now, more than a week after Diwali, countless dogs are turning up in unfamiliar territories, lost and bewildered. And the WhatsGroup pings regularly. Almost every new dog spotted on a feeder’s street is photographed and shared with a contact number. The dog is fed and cared for, till the original caretaker is found.
On the eve of Diwali, volunteers give their community strays an extra pat on the head as they ladle out dollops of warm home-cooked food on torn sheets of newspaper. They pray that when they return after a night of festivities the dogs will be there.
Having been part of enough search parties, Puri recommends microchipping and collaring community dogs. “Unfortunately, good GPS tracking devices are expensive. Affordable GPS trackers are the need of the hour. Most dogs will wander, even more so when they get scared due to sudden loud sounds. You cannot stop them,” she says.
For now, volunteers rely on reflective collars and scribbling their names and numbers on them with permanent markers. If strays go missing and they are not GPS tagged, Puri suggests the old-fashioned ‘missing’ poster, printed out in a large font in English in the regional language, with a sizeable cash reward.
“Sometimes, a lot of people make it their mission to find the dog, just for the money,” says Puri. When Cuddles went missing, she even hired a portable loudspeaker to make announcements.
It is not easy to be an animal rescuer in India. In a country with weak animal protection laws, and constant human-animal conflict, volunteers are often at the receiving end of verbal abuse, even beaten up for feeding strays.
But in this group, the lost dogs are never forgotten. People are still on the lookout for Gudiya and Chameli—two strays disappeared last Diwali from Civil Lines and Sushant Lok, Gururgram.
Their missing posters are still doing the rounds. There have been no confirmed sightings yet. But the volunteers have not given up.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)