Locked-in and forlorn, Kerala families seek joy in 'pandemic pets’

Rajalakshmi Aryan Luka
Combo image of singer Rajalakshmi's (L) son Aryan (R) carrying his pet Luka on his shoulder and Priyamvada with her pet.

Fifteen-year-old Aaryan’s life is divided into two segments – before Luka and after Luka. Luka is a Labrador puppy his parents gifted him after years of pestering. Seven months later, looking back at the decision to bring home a 40-day-old pup, Aaryan’s mother, singer Rajalakshmy, sees it as the best thing they did for their family.

“Luka is everything for Aaryan now. Being a single child, he was lonely, and a great animal lover, he always wanted a pup. When Luka came, he changed our lives forever, and I haven’t seen my son happier. Aaryan is now very organised and responsible; he takes care of Luka and keeps him engaged. For us, Luka is like our second child,” says Rajalakshmy.

During these times of COVID-19, Kerala has witnessed a steep rise in the number of families adopting pets for their children who are locked in their homes with no friends or outdoor activities.

When Luka brought joy to Aaryan’s home in Thiruvananthapuram, in Kochi, 12-year-old Priyamvada found bliss in her shih tzu puppy Milo aka Pinkappan. Priyamvada’s mother Sreeja admits that Pinkappan is their ‘pandemic puppy’.

“Living in an apartment complex, we had no plans to have a pet, but lockdown changed everything. Before COVID, we used to go out every evening. The monotony of inbound life, activities limited to food, sleep and screen time, and the growing negativity around made us decide to get a pet,” recalls Sreeja.

Paw’sitive outlook

After ample research about friendly dog breeds, allergy possibility, an indoor pet which required less activity, Sreeja and Prageesh decided to get their daughter a shih tzu. Since then, Priyamvada is a happier child, and more responsible. “Our daughter is a single child and both of us are working. She was lonely and unhappy. With online classes, she lost peer interaction and missed her friends. She was glued to smart phone, computer and TV. After Pinkappan joining us, it’s all different now. She plays with him, handles his food and medicines, potty trains him… She has made a timetable for herself,” says a glad Sreeja.

Rajalakshmy too finds Aaryan a lot disciplined and kinder than before. “Aryan has been taking care of Luka since he was brought home; from brushing his teeth, bathing, feeding, taking for a walk, cleaning up his mess and playing with him, Aaryan does everything. He is up at 6 every morning to check on Luka, and then he starts studying without being told. That was an unbelievable transformation from a boy who had to be pushed out of bed and repeatedly told to study. Playing with Luka keeps him physically active too. The two have now become inseparable; it’s wonderful to see both of them having each other’s backs. I’d no longer worry even if I have to leave him at home while I go for a recording. Luka will be there for him.”

New parenting lessons

Rajalakshmy initially thought of the idea of owning a pet to keep Aaryan engaged. Little did she expect that would be swept off her feet by the unconditional love showered by a little ball of fur. “I wasn’t keen on having a pet at home, but Aaryan wanted it. I was concerned about allergies, someone getting hurt, and even its bark disturbing my practice. But not once has Luka made a noise when I practise or hold music classes. Instead, he lies down listening to the songs and never gets up until I finish. Luka is a great music lover.”

She adds that Luka taught her the power of unconditional love. “A few days after he was home, Luka fell ill and we had no idea what to do with the pup. We rushed to the vet, who ran a few tests and asked us to come the next day. The whole night, Aryan and I spent beside Luka, all of us weeping, as the puppy just stared at our faces. I gave him a little boiled and diluted milk; he emptied the vessel in a second. I went out and bought some baby food and gave it to him, took care of him like a newborn, and soon, he was back on his feet. I realised that I am Luka’s amma,” says Rajalaksmy.

For Sreeja, parenting a pet is a positive change. “Pinkappan is the only one who is not bothered about coronavirus, the deaths or the gloom gripping everyone. Watching him grow up is a sight of wonder and delight for us. It’s amazing to have around a species other than a Homosapien.”

Stress-buster during pandemic

The impact a pet has on children is unbelievable. “A strong immune system, higher levels of empathy, confidence, responsibility, focus, non-judgemental attitude, unconditional love; kids copy the finest traits of their pets,” observes Seema Lal, a special health educator and psychologist, who opened her Kochi apartment for Zero, a kitten who accompanied her kids from the playground a month ago.

For someone who was scared of cats and dogs, Seema’s initial reaction was a shriek. But the kitten wouldn’t leave. “It was too tiny and was hungry. We gave it some milk and he wiped the bowl clean and looked at me with those adorable, irresistible eyes. I couldn’t throw him out,” says Seema, whose sons Sameer and Sooraj, 15 and 11 respectively, are fully engaged with the kitten, penning poems and shooting videos of Zero if they are not playing the piano, table soccer or watching TV with him.

It was only after Zero walked in that Seema realised how much she was craving for a connection with somebody. “Socially disconnected for a year and a half with mounting frustrations, Zero was a huge change for us. My husband Sunu has stuck abroad and the children were bound to the four walls after even the play area of the apartment was shut down fearing the spread of COVID-19. Having someone who knows no grudge, frustration or hatred day and night with you makes a difference to your life,” she says.

Zero was a great learning experience as well. “The first smashed myth was about kittens and milk. According to the vet, milk is unhealthy for a cat. Everything was new – a tiny, adorable creature was teaching us to focus and care for each other, keeping us bonded and positive to tide over the crisis.”

Boom in pet sales

Looking at the rising trend of pet adoption and purchase, Tiju Antony Maliakal, who runs a pet store and grooming and styling service in Ernakulam, says that post COVID-19, the sales of pets has skyrocketed. “During the last lockdown, our sales increased by 60-70%. People are ready to shell out money to purchase even expensive pets for their children. Dogs, cats, hamsters, fishes, love birds and cockatiels are in demand. Hairy breeds like shih tzu, pug and Pomeranian are much sought after.”

Prices too rose with demand. Dogs priced at Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 were sold for up to Rs 45,000. Bengal cats were sold at Rs 35,000. But the sales have dipped this time. Tiju notes, “I think the spending capacity of people has taken a hit with the overall financial crisis caused by COVID-19. We have had resales as well. However, lockdown made people realise the importance of proper pet food. Instead of feeding them food scraps and human food, pet parents have started spending on proper pet food. Though import of pet food was affected by COVID-19, the situation has been a boon to Indian pet food manufacturers, whose high quality and affordable products have gained an upper hand over their expensive foreign counterparts.”

Pet parenting shouldn't be a fad

Though the trending pet parenting and adoption look cool and chic, there’s a flip side to it. Almost equal are the numbers of abandoned pets, observe animal activists. According to Sajith Shajan, a veterinary nurse turned pet rescuer, the pandemic trend of owning pets could be short-lived. “People rush to buy pets for their kids without giving it much thought, but later, when schools reopen and they all be busy with their jobs, these creatures would be a burden to them,” he says.

He has a reason to comment so. Since the rumours that animals might be carriers of coronavirus, a lot of dogs, irrespective of their breed, have been abandoned in various parts of the state. In the past few months, Sajith has rescued a lot of dogs, even those with collars – an aged Great Dane from Kundannur, a blind Doberman who had inflammations in its mouth and body, a famished dog which was left behind when its owners moved to an apartment which didn’t allow pets and a pug which was up for euthanasia for having a tiny treatable wound, among others. “In Kochi, Willington Island is a major dumping yard. Every day I go to the island to feed the stray dogs and quite often, I find new dogs there. When they see a human, they come running thinking someone is there for them. It’s heartbreaking,” he says.

Combo image of Sameer and Sooraj with their pet cat and Sajith Sajan with the calf he rescued.

Sajith has been rescuing animals since 2008, first as a volunteer with the organisation People for Animals (PFA) and later, through his own rescue centre. The animals he rescues are registered and microchipped so that even if lost or abandoned, they can be tracked down and rehabilitated. Sajith lets an adoption from his shelter only if he is fully convinced of the earnestness and love of the persons who approach him as he feels that anyone willing to adopt a pet needs to be serious about their decision. “At first, many parents might think that pets would keep their children engaged so that they won't disturb their works from home, but once the charm loses and people move on, they ill-treat the pets, lock them up in cages and finally dump them somewhere. Parenting a pet is not a fad,” he says. 

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