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Profile: Ambika Shukla, animal-rights activist

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-24

MS Ambika Shukla of New Delhi is widely considered one of Asia's leading advocates to protect animals and wildlife. Educated in the United States, she has worked with numerous global organisations such as the World Wildlife Federation in drawing attention to the subject of cruelty to animals. She runs a nonprofit, nonpartisan organisation called People for Animals, which operates animal shelters in virtually all of India's 29 states. Ms Shukla is a popular speaker on the lecture circuit in India, South-east Asia, Europe and the United States. She recently spoke with The Straits Times. Excerpts from the interview:

What explains your passion for animals?

My involvement with animal welfare stems not from a passion for animals, but from a sense of outrage against injustice, cruelty and violence. I feel a strong empathy for the helplessness of animals and the conspiracy of silence that allows and perpetuates our exploitation of them. Like the American novelist Alice Walker has said, the animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.

Can you offer an anecdote or two that illustrates your experiences concerning saving animals?

Many years ago, my son brought home a litter of six puppies he found abandoned in a sewer. We set about cleaning and feeding them up. The next morning we found the mother camping outside our door, along with another female dog that we took to calling the masi. The mum was a really skinny, frightened dog who wouldn't approach her progeny when there were humans about. But as soon as we'd go, she'd come and lick her pups. The whole day both these "ladies" would sit at the gate keeping watch over the pups. At night they'd go foraging and return with scraps of food and bones which they'd deposit in the garden for the benefit of those fat, well-cared for pups - but they'd go hungry themselves. I'd leave out bowls of food for them but they'd hardly touch them because again, mostly because our greedy pups would get to them first.

One morning I was lazing in the sun with the pups all over me when suddenly I felt a tug on my dressing gown. I was amazed to see the mum, because never before had she responded to my calls or come in so close. She was pulling me toward where one of the pups was lying and I saw then that he looked a bit droopy and needed attention. I was so overwhelmed by the fact that this dog had overcome her own fears to find help for her baby.
Similarly other incidents have revealed so many amazing qualities about animals: their intelligence, courage, and stoicism, even jealousy. They are so like us that I think of them simply as people in fur coats.

How do you fund your nonprofit organisation?

Our annual budget is roughly the equivalent of US$200,000. We receive funds mostly from individual donations. We also hold fund-raising events featuring celebrities. I'm also encouraged by corporate support.

How many more shelters would you like to see built in India?

So far we have 17 veterinary hospitals and shelters in India. Ideally we would like there to be at least 600, one for every district of the country.

Are Indians more cruel and uncaring toward animals than other nationalities?

Maybe not willfully cruel, but certainly more apathetic and insensitive to animal suffering. A lot of cruelty comes from carelessness and ignorance. For example 'joyrides' - which are no fun for animals. In Rajasthan, shade-loving elephants are sent up and down steep inclines in the hot desert sun. Or aquariums, for which coral fish are plundered and live short miserable lives in small sterile tanks and bowls. Or wedding horses who do several shifts during the season. Or bears, monkeys and snakes, which are caught, and tortured to learn 'tricks'. Then there is the way we transport and kill animals. Activists have filmed cows being marched across to Kerala yoked three or more together for hundreds of miles without food or water. When one falls, the others just continue dragging it along. Chilly powder and tobacco is rubbed into their eyes to make them move. Their tails are twisted and broken. Butchers are untrained. Sometimes they are just children working in the slaughterhouse using rusty blades to saw away at a fully conscious animal's neck. It's appalling. Then there is Oxytocin, a hormonal drug that causes uterine contractions, which is given to dairy cows twice every day to force the milk out faster. Chickens in factory farms are being grown in cages piled one on top of another; they are killed at barely one-year of age. Then there is animal sacrifice where even perfectly educated people, both Hindu and Muslim, will participate in the most barbaric killing rituals. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that the civilization of a nation was best judged by the way it treated its animals. By that yardstick, we're still a long way off from calling ourselves civilized.

What lessons have you learned in your work?

We ignore cruelty to animals at our own peril. Cruelty is not innocent. It reveals an enjoyment of another's pain. Incidents of children throwing stones at dogs or pulling wings off insects are often dismissed as just pranks. But cruelty that goes unchecked gets repeated and the victims may not always be animals. Those who enjoy violence might also indulge in vandalism, bullying and violent crime. Studies show that all the world's worst criminals - serial killers in the United States like Jeffrey Dahmer, Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler and Ted Bundy - had a history of animal abuse. The man who murdered the famous Italian designer Versace used to catch crabs and burn out their eyes.

Just like we teach math and science, kindness and consideration, too, need to be taught to our children in schools. There is a story that when Princess Beatrix of Holland was a child, she forgot one day to feed her dog. The next morning she was served no breakfast on the orders of her father, Prince Bernhard. The little girl learned her lesson. It is not that children are naturally cruel or careless; it is just that they do need to learn to be considerate towards both the humans and animals that share their lives and earth.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that it takes courage to care. You will meet resistance, ridicule, and rejection but since the animal welfare ethic is so right, it cannot long be denied.

And your message to the global community?
Remember, animals have no voice, no choice - they have only one ally, a human sympathetic to their plight. All of us, no matter how old or young or poor or rich or busy or not, have the power of compassion. Use it.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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