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     Volume 8 Issue 83 | August 21, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

To Sasha, with Love

Farah Ghuznavi
Contemplating options...

The treatment of animals in our part of the world has long been a source of concern to me. In Bangladesh, we are certainly not in the league of say for example China, where most of our furry and feathered friends face the danger of ending up on the dinner table - it is said, with some degree of justification, that the Chinese can find a way of eating anything with wings except an aircraft, and anything with legs apart from a chair. That undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that Chinese cuisine finds a way of making something delicious out of virtually anything, no matter how unsavoury its biological origins may be to some (e.g. snake) - though I cannot actually vouch for the quality of Chinese cooking in the latter instance myself, having had no experience of consuming reptiles. In any case, I would be too worried to eat a snake in case its mate came back to get me…For anyone who's laughing, I refer you to the second "Jaws" movie as a case in point!

But the fact is that while Bengalis are not as omnivorous as some of our Asian neighbours, the casual cruelty that we can sometimes exhibit towards animals (even those we are not planning to eat) is quite disturbing. Anyone who has seen the harsh treatment handed out to performing monkeys or the more commonly-seen "gratuitous side-kick" aimed at a mongrel dog or passing cat will understand what I'm talking about. For the occasional street or slum-dweller who lovingly places a piece of string tied loosely around a dog's neck as a sign of ownership and affection, there are many others (including those rather more prosperous) who are willing to throw a stone or to “khedao” an animal that is not doing them any particular harm.

Even with household pets in well-off homes, we are sometimes less than generous in handling the inordinate imbalance of power in a relationship that puts us firmly in the driver's seat when dealing with the cats, dogs or birds that are dependent on our goodwill. One of the worst examples of this is the widely prevalent habit of buying large dogs for security purposes, and then chaining them for long hours at a time - sometimes 24 hours a day - which makes them vicious. Not perhaps surprising, given that it also invariably makes them miserable...

I'm not in agreement with the likes of Maneka Gandhi in their willingness to put the interests of animals above those of people in Maneka's case, of course, the exception being if you happen to belong to the "wrong" community. But the truth is looking after a pet requires a degree of patience, time and energy; and above all, a generous helping of affection. Animals do have rights, and people have responsibilities when it comes to taking care of them. The truth of this was brought home to me not long ago, when I watched a friend struggle to create a good home for her cocker spaniel puppy, Sasha.

In Bangladesh, most of us at least have the advantage of living in a house with several other people, and that often includes household staff. This basically means that providing affection and attention to a puppy or any other animal can usually be divided up with reasonable ease. And it helps, of course, that you can avoid the responsibility of cleaning up after your pets, if you're so inclined, which is a luxury you definitely don't have in most parts of the western world!

"Chasing butterflies is hard work!"

After growing up in a household where we have had several dogs living with us at almost any point of time and over a dozen canines of various species over the years, staying with my friend was my first experience of being in a situation where you had to watch a pup very carefully indeed to make sure that you could scoop her up and make a run for the garden in time to prevent an "accident"! No amount of newspaper floor-covering and dedicated toilet-training can avoid a minimum number of such incidents. And they invariably involve you handling unmentionable substances that any right-thinking individual would rather keep a safe distance from.

So most western dog-owners eventually learn to how to build their own work schedule, toilet breaks and virtually non-existent social life to coincide with the brief windows of opportunity offered by puppy nap-time (highly unpredictable) or the kindness of friends who are willing to look after a pup for a short period of time. And in the process, you learn just how laughably little control you have over your life when you have effectively handed it over as the result of taking on a four-legged bundle of joy - at the risk of offending parents, perhaps not completely unlike the situation with a new family arrival, where sleep deprivation becomes an occupational hazard! But as one observer pointed out, at least with babies you can put them in diapers, and you do know where to expect the waste products to appear…

With her glossy black fur, capacity for mischief and incredible spurts of speed at all the wrong times - for example, when she had managed to stray perilously near the edge of the garden and close to a well-trafficked road - Sasha kept us fully occupied for the two weeks or so that she was a member of my friend's household. In the end, it was not the amount of unmentionable substances, the half hourly runs to the garden (not to mention the midnight versions of the same!), the eternal vigilance required to prevent her from "playing (havoc) with" carpets and furniture (or her own little red sleeping-cushion with its furry lining), or even the 24/7 nature of puppy-raising in Europe that led to the decision to find her another home.

It was the awareness that this beautiful, highly intelligent dog deserved a home where she could be given the attention and affection that her highly social nature required. Cocker spaniels are known for being friendly and gregarious - their behavioural problems, if any, invariably stem from receiving inadequate attention; the bottom line is, they are miserable when they are lonely. And so, after considerable soul-searching, Sasha was found a home which met all the necessary criteria: loving owners, a family with children, past experience in looking after dogs - and, of course, love at first sight when they met her.

And yet, despite the brief amount of time I spent with her, I have to admit that Sasha brought me great pleasure. Patting that silky head, playing with those soft, plush, over-sized puppy paws, being drawn into her games and (occasionally!) receiving her unconditional affection reminded me just why so many of us love dogs. But over and above that, she reminded me of the need for patience and the challenges of adjusting to a routine that was not built solely around my own convenience - and by stretching my capacities in various ways, she reminded me just what I am capable of. One of the best things about being in contact with animals is the way that they can unexpectedly bring out the best in us.

And when I think about Sasha, I know I will always have a rich montage of images to remind me of her - many funny, most cute, some comical and a few downright magical. A small dog chasing after an artfully dangled length of string, looking for all the world like a playful kitten; a huge bark bursting out of that small body to let you know that she doesn't take kindly to being ignored; a black blur scampering back to safety indoors, when Sasha was startled by the sound of a noisy motorcycle engine from the street. It was hard not to laugh when you saw the pup making determined attempts to engage in culinary congress with the occasional large round slug she encountered outdoors; bounding across the emerald lawn to retrieve her beloved, battered tennis ball, always ready for another round of "fetch"; cocking her small head in puzzlement, as she followed the erratic movements of a tiny white butterfly. And those moments that I loved most of all, a puppy lost in deep slumber on the floor with her white-tipped chin resting on my foot, the occasional indistinct moan or soft snore rippling through her small frame, utterly trusting in her unguarded vulnerability…


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