Sarah Holcomb

How Stray Dogs Inspired an Empathy Movement

Chandani challenged the status quo in her community to transform the relationship between people and animals.

Stories

Growing up in Bhopal, India, Chandani Grover used to build twig houses to shelter butterflies from the rain. Instead of playing sports at school, she played with a street dog. One day she saw a litter of 10 stray puppies at someone’s house — and the next, she was caring for them at her own place.

The 15-year-old encountered stray dogs every day. Chandani, who has always been enamored with animals, took her passion for animals further when she saw the dogs being mistreated. After she saw a car run over a local dog, she knew she had to do something.

So Chandani set out to change how her community thinks about and treats animals, replacing an attitude of fear with the spirit of empathy.

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dogs on the ground

It started with a shelter

When Chandani wanted to care for the dozens of stray dogs that lived around her home, she naturally decided to build a shelter. She found some open land 50 minutes away, teamed up with nonprofit and a vet, and launched a successful donation drive on Facebook.

They bought the land and constructed a shed with kennels to keep the dogs safe at night from the busy road. They also vaccinated and dewormed the dogs, both for the animals’ health and safety and that of the community.

Soon, however, Chandani decided the shelter wasn’t solving the problem. “Because dogs are territorial, it’s hard to keep them somewhere else,” she explains. She needed to find a way to care for the dogs where they lived — which would require transforming the community’s attitude towards stray dogs to ensure their safety.

Chandani noticed that people, especially teenagers, often carried stones and sometimes threw them at stray dogs. While Chandani saw young children act friendly towards the dogs, their parents, worried about diseases the dogs could carry, warned the children to stay away.

While her own parents initially discouraged Chandani’s desire to be around dogs since she has chronic asthma, she eventually won them over. And as people began to spend more time with the animals, Chandani noted a change in behavior happening. Her mother, now a core member of Chandani’s team of animal caretakers, is one example. Though she acted fearful towards dogs when Chandani was young, “now she’s an even bigger animal lover than I am,” Chandani says with a laugh.

A day in the life

A normal day for Chandani starts with feeding 70–80 dogs in the morning on her way back from the gym with her parents. The family’s driver, another member of Chandani’s team, feeds dogs in the area surrounding the nearby airport. They’ve placed 100 water bowls across Bhopal, and people in different areas fill up bowls in the evening: a true community effort.

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Chandani visited various areas and houses to secure permission for her team to be place water bowls for strays near their homes. Community members agreed to fill the bowls daily with clean water. (Courtesy Chandani Grover)

Chandani visited various areas and houses to secure permission for her team to be place water bowls for strays near their homes. Community members agreed to fill the bowls daily with clean water. (Courtesy Chandani Grover)

In the evenings, often Chandani goes to play with the dogs. She’s no longer one of just a few animal lovers in the area. Chandani persuaded her friends and classmates to join by promising them chocolate — not unlike how they persuade the dogs to down their deworming medication by tucking it in gulab jamun sweets. It worked. Soon some of Chandani’s friends were coming to feed the dogs and her core team began to expand.

Chandani sees a clear difference in the community. Less people are throwing stones now. More people walk by the dogs quietly instead of carrying rocks for protection.

Meanwhile, stray dogs are also behaving differently. Feeding the dogs helps to calm them down, Chandani explains, and so does spay and neutering them. Dogs and people seem more at ease in this new relationship; both have become less fearful, aggressive, and intimidated by the other.

“There used to be constant dog fights, and when we started to feed them, there’s more harmony around them,” she says. “They’re friendly with us and they can trust us.”

Building the movement

Seeing this transformation, Chandani realized that her mission extends beyond improving the quality of life for stray dogs. It’s about empathy. Deciding to overcome fear and “drop the stone” can serve as a gateway to a new way of living and relating to other people, not just animals.

 

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Volunteers and teammates help out at an after-school feeding drive. (Courtesy Chandani Grover)

Volunteers and teammates help out at an after-school feeding drive. (Courtesy Chandani Grover)

The name of Chandani’s venture — “Kindness, the universal language of love” — captures her vision to help people better care for everyone, first by learning to better care for animals. Kindness is “the way we communicate with every being on this planet,” she explains, “regardless of age, gender, etc.”

Currently her team, which includes over a dozen people including friends and family, is working not just in Bhopal, but in Delhi and Mumbai. They’re trying to shift mindsets, helping people develop empathy through the experience of giving — and receiving — love from animals. She sees the animal-human bond in action every day, when people start talking to stray dogs like small babies, and watch them receive much more love in return.

“My own venture should teach people to empathize with animals,” Chandani explains. “And I feel once you can empathize with animals you can start empathizing with people around you, with conditions around you, with whatever’s going on in this world.”