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About 700 km from the capital city of New Delhi and right next to the China Border lies the beautiful snow-covered valley of Spiti. It is located far north of Himachal Pradesh and is famous for its scenic cold deserts. But under the perfectly blue sky and over the picturesque terrain, lies a story of hunger, death, and violence.
About two months ago, I stumbled upon a strange documentary on YouTube. It was titled Why are dogs killing dogs? Intrigued, I clicked. But it wasn't clickbait. It was true. This is a story that gave me chills but on the other hand, it gave me hope.
I used to follow Robin Singh on his socials, loving the wonderful work he does with animals and hence, one DM and it was fairly easy to get him to speak to me. This is a story of change, this is a story of hope, this is the story of Robin Singh, his team, and their dedicated mission in Spiti Valley.
In September, Robin had gone to Spiti with his wife on a tour but what he witnessed next gave birth to the ‘Spiti Dog Feeding Winter Programme’. He recorded his experience in a 27-minute-long vlog-documentary called Dogs of Spiti.
The stray dogs in Spiti are infamous as ‘feral’, ‘deterrent to tourism and biodiversity’ and have been a concern for the locals for a long time.
However, Robin Singh, who is the founder of Peepal Farm, an animal rescue organisation located in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, differs: “The stray dogs in Spiti Valley are dogs who don’t have access to food, especially during the harsh winters. They’re not feral, they are very much dependent on humans and that's why they die out of plain starvation in winters when there is no one there to feed them,” clarifies Robin.
Robin Singh, whose organisation has rehabilitated and rescued about 4000 animals, had heard about this from a Spiti local who had visited Peepal Farm last summer. Before starting the project, he decided to visit Spiti himself as a part of his long due vacation, along with his participative wife, Shivani.
He explains, "The dogs seemed to be very scared, thin, and uncared for."
In the documentary, Robin highlights the sorry state of affairs and spells out the horrendous condition. He says: "Packs of dogs were seen targeting one dog to hunt him, they were clearly hungry, they have no source of food when the tourists aren’t around, they either die or they resort to killing their own. What else will they do?"
So, What Is the Cause?
It really made me wonder if there was a change in recent times that was causing this particular crisis and Robin explains: “The imbalance happened when Spiti started having an influx of tourists in summers, and along with that an increase in food availability for stray dogs. That caused an explosion in population, which couldn't sustain itself in harsh winters which sees very few tourists, and thus not enough food for the dogs.”
This unavailability of food in the months of harrowing winters led to extreme conditions where these dogs would sometimes attack the cattle or wild animals such as the blue sheep or ibex.
This was seemingly endangering the biodiversity in Spiti Valley. The dogs even had resorted to eating their own.
Robin elaborates that whenever there is a larger problem, the solution always lies in a community response, he adds, "we at Peepal Farm believe that if every human takes the task of doing something for his surroundings, a lot of problems can be sorted. The only way we thought we could tackle this was with the help of locals, so that’s what we did."
With its ‘Spiti Dog Feeding Winter Programme’, Peepal Farm has sponsored 12 local women in six villages – Kaza, Rangrik, Khurik, Kibber, Chicham, and Ladang – to cook approximately 50-60 kg of food, enough for 300-400 dogs every day. The programme is intended to continue till April 2022. With this rate, Singh plans to create a well-fed, calm population of dogs and then sterilise them as per the Animal Birth Control Rules of 2001.
On being asked if it was easy to find the workers to execute the programme in all its smoothness, Robin replies, "it wouldn’t have been possible without the many selfless volunteers who have been able to accomplish this. They have talked to these women, convinced them to cook for these dogs. It has been a bit easier of course since we have been able to sponsor them financially, but it always takes a nudge to do good. We cannot force people to do good."
A particular line from the documentary that has stayed with me is "if your eyes are open, you can see hunger in the most beautiful of places, perhaps this is why many people want to keep their eyes closed."
For now, the large furry mountain dogs of Spiti depend on Peepal Farm’s initiative to survive and the future of valley’s biodiversity depends on the success of his mission. They have been suffering for far too long, especially due to ignorance of the administration.
Robin seeks to collaborate with the government to continue his mission and lead a sterilisation programme which will control this man-animal conflict in a humane and ethical way. His mission seeks to re-establish the ecosystem that once was.
From leaving his well-paying job and a comfortable lifestyle in the United States to starting Peepal Farm in 2014, and then developing it into one of the most active animal rescue organisations, Robin Singh has done it all. He says, "I was trying to find happiness and I ended up finding a purpose. Realising that even the simple act of living carries a suffering footprint, the philosophy that I strive to live by is to consume only to live, and live only to do good."
Dogs of Spiti has led to mass awareness of the issue through the internet and is available to watch here.