FOR everyone who has achieved something in life, there would have been a defining moment when they realized what they wanted to do in life. For animal activist Sally Varma, it happened when she was just 12-years-old. “My sister and I used to regularly feed a few street dogs in our locality – one of them, who we called ‘Lady’, was especially close to us. One day, as we came back from school, Lady was nowhere to be found. And then we saw, to our horror, two men on a two-wheeler passing by with a pile of dead dogs tied up in front!” Sally recalls. Instantly they realised why Lady was not waiting for them and then they spotted her, frantically running away from the men. “But before we could reach her, the men stopped, grabbed her by her neck and in front of our eyes, strangled her to death and threw the body into the pile even as we screamed and pleaded to them.” But that wasn’t the end and unmindful of them, the dog catchers approached another one of their favourite street dogs. “Without thinking twice, I just opened our gate and dragged the dog into our compound. My dad had come out by then and he sternly told the men that nobody could enter our property and touch the dog. ‘Somebody should do something about this,’ I thought as I was standing next to him, seething in rage,” says Sally.

And that is exactly what she went on to do in life. Over the years, Sally Varma has emerged as a prominent voice for stray dogs in Kerala, especially during a period when the State was caught in a mass hysteria over dog bites followed by dog-killing drives, which led to criticism from across the country. The Government of India recognized her work by choosing her as one of the 100 women achievers in the country for 2017, with a medal awarded to her by the President of India. As a Community Engagement Officer at the international NGO Humane Society International, today, she focuses on conducting awareness campaigns on stray dogs in Kerala.

A question on everyone’s minds: are the street dogs in Kerala more aggressive than the rest, and why, if yes?
The simplest answer is: the street dogs in Kerala do not trust humans. They live in constant fear of their lives and years of cruelty towards them have made them terribly scared of us. We ourselves have brought about this state of affairs. No dog is born aggressive; it is the surroundings that define its behaviour.

Whenever there is a dog bite, the local bodies call dog catchers to kill all dogs in the area, but do you think that they actually go searching for that one aggressive dog that might have bitten somebody? No. It is always the gentlest of dogs that get killed. They are the easiest to catch and they are the ones that die. Dog killing drives are not the solution.

What then is the solution?
I’m now working with ABC (Animal Birth Control) programs, but I wouldn’t say they are the ultimate solution to the stray dog ‘issue’ — I would prefer to call it that rather than stray dog ‘menace’.

Every day, as part of my job, I travel in a vehicle with 10 or 12 dogs caught from the street — for vaccinations and sterilizations. None have attacked me, and people stare at me in amazement and ask me why I’m not scared. That is the root of the entire issue: fear. Getting rid of the unreasonable fear of every stray dog in people’s minds is the only real, long-term solution to the issue, in my view. That’s the kind of work I’m doing now too. I bring a street dog into the hall and let it free during awareness sessions and demonstrate to the audience how harmless it is.

You can’t bring about changes instantly, nor can you turn a stray dog hater into a dog lover. Acceptance is the next stage and change does occur, slowly.

I have taken awareness sessions for dog catchers employed by the government who were the so-called dog killers and they responded so well! One of them is a great dog lover now and very helpful in rescue cases.

Why are animal activists disliked by many?
I would say some activists themselves are responsible for the situation by being very extreme in their views. The aim should always be to find a solution which benefits dogs, as well as humans. I have always noticed that people will listen and respond when you talk logic. I have the same opinion with vegetarianism. I wouldn’t ask all meat eaters to turn vegetarian overnight. But everyone, including children, should be aware of where the meat they eat comes from. People should see for themselves what terrible conditions farm animals live in. In free range farming, they at least get to live like living beings until they are killed. I ask people to skip meat for one day a week. The less they demand, the less will be the supply and the torture.

How was it to receive the award from the president?
I will be honest, there are many others who do the same work as me but aren’t as active on social media. I was chosen by a voting system. But there is a reason why I talk about my work on social media. I want at least one person to get educated or inspired by every photo I post of an animal I rescue. I always post pictures of my son and infant niece interacting freely with pets in the house to make people aware that they don’t harm children. I’m very grateful for the award, as I could get media attention on a lot of issues related to animal welfare.

Which would you say are the best and worst moments of being an animal rescue and welfare person?
Every single day we get calls about an animal abandoned by its owner on the streets — an abandoned German Shepherd, an abandoned Rottweiler, the list is endless. But the joy you feel on seeing an ill, injured or neglected animal heal from physical and mental scars, and be happy with the people who adopt it, makes it all worth it. Also, to see changes in the attitude of people towards stray dogs after an awareness campaign — that, for me, is real achievement. My animal rights activism destroys me. It drives me to the darkest and deepest depths of sadness and often breaks my heart to be witness to unimaginable cruelty and death every single day. But it also heals me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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