The Invisibles in Our Cities

Karan Rane | 21st April 2022

In academics, policy making, urban planning, and urban design practice, people always talk about marginalized groups living in our cities. Homeless people, migrants, construction workers, street vendors, beggars, people doing odd jobs on the streets, transgender people making a living out of asking people for some cash in return for their blessings, children working as labour, ragpickers, sanitation workers, food cart owners, sex workers, and so on. Broadly, these groups find it harder to negotiate jobs, housing, safety, and social-political representation. Their lives are more difficult than ours – us, who belong to the middle-class and above, and who have jobs, housing, education, and political representation. It is important to discuss these groups and their lives and experiences in the city, however, this list of people on the periphery, only remains restricted to ‘people’. What about this other group which inhabits our cities – eating, sleeping, living and dying in them? What about stray animals?

Our anthropocentric approach, reflected in built environment discourses and urban practices, has not created any dialogue on the lives of stray animals in cities. Why is it important? You might ask! Well, it is as important to study and understand them as it is to study and understand the lives and experiences of tribes and other human communities living in forests, deserts, mountains, and other geographic locations which are neither urban nor rural. If a forest is home to human communities, so is a city home to these animals. They were born here, they have been around since generations, and their whole lives are spent here, around us, in cities. Yet, academic discourses hover around concepts and themes like ‘cities for people’, ‘people-centric cities’, ‘community-centric cities’, and so on. This absolute blindness towards stray animals and their ecologies, as if they just don’t exist, points towards conformity of Indian academics to trending discourses, either coming from the Western contexts, or a carry forward of the West’s obsession about Indian cities, such as informality.

My take is that stray animal ecologies seem complex and worth studying. Stray dogs spend their lives on contested, tightly crunched places within the public realm, such as sidewalks, medians, storefronts, under parked cars, traffic islands, open grounds, and, if they find kind people, perhaps inside residential compounds.

How do they find food to survive? How do they keep themselves safe from mad vehicular traffic, unkind people, cold, rains, and heat, displacements by municipalities over complaints by residents, and aggressions by other packs of dogs? How do they mate, reproduce, and raise pups? What happens if they have illnesses? What happens if they meet an accident? What happens if they are attacked by people or other dogs? These are some of the many questions which surround the lives of stray dogs in our cities.

Cats have relatively better access than dogs. They can climb onto balconies, chajjas, parapet walls, trees, and other projections and niches of buildings. They can climb onto sloping roofs, hoods of cars, and other small, narrow spaces which dogs can’t access. That being said, they still have to sleep, protect themselves, mate, eat, drink, reproduce, and avoid getting attacked or killed. Additionally, they also often have dogs as their enemies.

Even if we only focus on these two species and leave the rest, such as cows, monkeys, pigs, squirrels, donkeys, and the several species of birds aside, we still have enough to observe, document, study, analyse, understand, and intervene in some way.

Thinking back, it sounds deplorable that academic and non-academic urban discourses in the country have ignored ecosystems of these animals who live and die in our cities. This attitude also reflects the larger attitude of our species, which has focused only on our needs and desires, at the cost of other beings and systems who call our planet their home, leading us all into this impending climate apocalypse.

That being said, there clearly is a certain renaissance in public consciousness towards not only ecology, but also the lives of urban animals. We see more people feeding them, donating to organizations who work for their welfare, helping their treatment from illnesses and accidents, and complaining against degenerates who harm them.

While street animal welfare is nowhere even close on the agendas of our ruling political parties, neither is it the most talked about social concern, and most people might not even think about street animals, it is obligatory for academics and institutions, especially those dealing with the built environment, to bring attention to these wonderful beings who share our cities with us.

The image above shows a stray dog on a street in a residential neighbourhood in Vadodara, Gujarat.

The image above shows a stray cat on a street in a residential neighbourhood in Vadodara, Gujarat.