09/29/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Puppies in the Mist

The puppy's eyes look like soft black orbs, large in a head that already seems too big for the stick legs and torso huddled in the bathroom's dusty corner. The orbs fix themselves on me, unwavering, as I look at the puppy and its sister in consternation. I feel a curious sense of emptiness as I think about exactly how I would do what I had to do. "Mixed feelings" didn't really cover the emotion I was feeling after the past couple of days.

I happened on the puppies during last week's rain. Curious to see the rain subdue the road, I took a noontime break in my work to walk into the small town of Deodurga, India. Our NGO campus is right off a main road leading to a small traffic circle. When it's sunny and dry, the road bustles with a crazy sort of energy as one avoids ox-drawn carts, goats, and the occasional monkey. But now, my effort was rewarded: the typical whine of a mechanic's saw, beeping of motorbikes, and roaring of government buses was gone. That made it easier to see the two puppies as they waddled against traffic.

I shook my head when I saw them, thinking, "Don't even look, just walk right by." Two lost puppies didn't excite my pleasure or interest, just my pity. See, stray dogs abound in the village. I always see them scuttling around with ears pressed against their head. At night, their howling is constant. And I couldn't help them -- every unmarried person who works for my NGO lives on campus in compact bamboo huts. While this makes for an extremely familial atmosphere, it also means that someone's problems -- some whiny dogs, for instance -- are everyone's problems.

But as I approached, a bus thundered by and splashed a them with mud. They were shocked, and they stopped to look around frantically, like puppies do. I could hear their whines from six feet away. So, I closed the distance, bent down, and pet them. When I touched them, I realized they were shivering hard, their fur matted and dirty. They whimpered and circled my feet, huddling close. I felt a bit of a lump in my throat.

Grimacing, I swallowed the lump and stood up, and carefully kept walking. How could I single them out when so many dogs -- people, no less -- were in a similar situation?

However, as I grew farther, their whines grew terrified. I turned to see them waddling towards me, and they resumed their place at my feet. I paused, I hesitated... and then, feeling like a stupid American tourist, I bent down, gathered them into my shirt, and walked the short distance back to my hut.

"I'll just dry them off, wait out the rain, then set them loose," I told myself as I laid them on my bed. They looked around like only confused puppies can do, and I gathered a towel and blanket, wiped them down, and wrapped them up. One hadn't stopped whimpering since the bus; I decided he was the Whiny One. Blanketed up, they still trembled, so I climbed in bed next to them and hugged them into my chest. Curled in this position, I felt their tiny breathing and waited for the shivers to stop.

"Hfff!" I gasped and woke with a start to the Whiny One's whimpers. It was dark out, and the puppies were circling the room, desperately sniffing into corners. They were hungry.

What do puppies eat? Feeling dumb, I sneaked from my room into the kitchen. All that was there was a big pot of rice and another pot of spicy string beans. I scooped some of both into a plate and hurried back. Veggie protein?

The puppies waddled to me when I opened the door. I knelt down and held out a spoon of the string beans. The Whiny One, screeching excitedly, took a lick -- and recoiled horribly. He stumbled away, twitching. Scratch the spicy! I offered the rice to the other, but it didn't eat it-- maybe it didn't know how, or maybe it couldn't.

The only other bit of food in my possession was a tub of cashews. I couldn't imagine them eating that, but desperate times called for desperate measures. As the puppies searched the floor, I gathered them in, chewed up some cashews and spit the bolus into my hand. The puppies devoured it, licking it up and suckling at the fleshy parts of my hand when it was gone. I repeated this again, and again, until the tub was a quarter empty. They slowed down and lied back down on the blanket: nap time, again.

And that's how it went for the next day. After continuing my work and making the rookie mistake of leaving them use my bed as their bathroom, I wrapped them in a towel bed in the bathroom, and in the morning, fed them again, mama-bird style. I don't know how they managed when I was gone, but when I returned from my work, which consists of field visits and interviews with farmers, I repeated the process, leaving approximately a quarter of cashews left.

The Whiny One and its brother didn't sleep too well that night, and, as a result, I didn't either. I woke up to find the bathroom a mess - there was little turdlets everywhere, and piles of cashew colored throw-up, with huge bite marks out of them. I guess they were really hungry, in a disgusting kind of way.

I was waking up and putting that in order when the door opened, and the office boy (basically a campus servant) peeked in. Shoot! He gasped, and started speaking fast in Kannada. I tried to quiet him down. "They're just here for a bit! Just a bit." He pointed at the Whiny One, then picked up the other, bustled it around, and said "Aloo!" (I don't know what "Aloo" means, but it was a good a name as any.) He left, I fretted, and as I guessed, a stream of coworkers arrived.

Rachappa, a tall athletic guy: "Ah, this is the source of last night's whining noises!"

Vishwanath, who has a bit of a Napoleon complex: "What are you thinking when we presently already have two dogs?" This was true. Loius, an anemic-looking older dog with gray eyes that looked almost human, and Lucky, a puppy not much larger than my two, both belonged to the campus at large.

Dipika, a very friendly woman: "You will have to suckle them daily with one half liter of milk." That did not jive with what else I had heard, that milk will give puppies diarrhea. I also had no idea where I could find milk, or how to suckle pups, really.

Frantically trying to abate them, I started to realize that I might be in over my head. The puppies had already distracted me from my work for the past two days, work that I had yet to really get off the ground. There was nothing on campus that could feed them, my space was too small for me and two puppies, and the rest of the campus had provided little support. My advice from friends at home, to buy puppy food and flea shampoo, was useless. The largest supermarket was a single aisle, and I had no idea if either product existed in the entire Raichur district.

And this was a larger problem than just these two puppies. This is simply not a happy society for stray animals. Even if I could make them into nice little Western dogs for the year I was here, all plump and happy to be pet and snuggle, how could this persist? Who would take them in and feed them? My coworkers make a monthly wage of a little under $100. What was the use in taking care of them when a couple months after I left, they would be just like the other street dogs: lean, scared-looking, and worst of all, fathering and mothering other puppies to fight their way through that world?

The default mode of interaction that I have observed between people and animals is a sort of self-reinforcing fear and violence. As children, people here brought up afraid that the dogs will bite and maul them, and so they learn to kick them and scare them away. This fear is not totally unfounded; there are often reports of animal violence in the New Indian Herald. A quite provocative example was printed the week I arrived, a story based in a village near me where a rabid dog bit nine children in total, killing two. A followup was printed the next day: the villagers, in outrage, retaliated and killed more than 40 stray dogs. As puppies, dogs are shown violence as a form of play, which influences their behavior later on. Lucky and Louis exemplify this dynamic. Since Lucky is a puppy, everyone interacts with him, but in a way that shocks my Western senses. People step on his feet and push him around, riling him up until he chases our feet. It's then quite the game to avoid the rampaging puppy, because his small bite is quite unpleasant on one's toes. No one ever pets him; in fact, whenever I try, he squeals and bites at my hands. Everyone laughs then, because it's cute, but what does this behavior turn into? The first time I met Louis, a small child told me, "Do not pet him, Uncle, he will bite you!" To my surprise, he twisted around to snap at my hand in a slow, anemic sort of way. Slightly disturbed, especially by his eyes, I retracted my hand and never tried to pet him again.

So it makes sense that this sort of interaction is reinforced, but it still bothers me. Sure, we in the West play a hypocritical charade when we lavish attention on dogs and cats and sentence pigs, cows, and chickens to the factory farm, which amounts to species-level genocide. But there's something deeply unsettling about seeing these dogs pushed to the brink of starvation and creeping around the edges of society when I'm used to only seeing well-groomed, well-fed dogs on leashes. There's also something tragic about seeing a lean male dog chasing after a female, his loins robust and alert, or seeing a mother dog with full teats swinging as she runs through the rain. People fear dogs and set up barriers to reinforce this fear; why not at least try to control the population?

Because, like many other things we take for granted in the West, it doesn't happen here because there just aren't enough resources. There aren't the distribution systems, or the will, or the time. People are too busy trying to lift themselves out of poverty to worry about the happiness of feral dogs. Another's life and death has a different meaning in a land of scarcity, and frankly, I can't really blame the villagers for that.

I didn't want to raise two dogs that would participate in and perpetuate this system. I had taken them in, and now I felt it was time for me to see them off. And so, I stand before them, huddled in the corner of my bathroom and wrapped in a dirty towel. I pick them up, and exit my hut with them under my arm. They whimper a bit, but for the most part, wait trustingly, heads jostling in time with my step. I walk down my campus' driveway and onto the main road. I turn right, and head towards the circle. At around the point that the truck splashed them three days ago, I set them down on the ground, turn around, and walk away. Looking back, I see the Whiny One has taken a few steps towards me, and is looking alert confused. Aloo has curled up on the ground, perhaps out of exhaustion or weakness.

I think I'll remember the sight for the rest of my life. I hope I forget the guilt that comes with it. For many people, not taking care of an animal, a fellow person, or a set of ideals is not a choice, but a necessity. Was it for me? I don't really know. I do know, however, that we in the West have enormous privilege, and we should never let ourselves forget it.