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Adoption Tails: Learning to Fly! - Sasha's Story

31 Oct 2014 | by | Posted in: Adoption

The remarkable story of Sasha and her road from caged to carefree

Sasha and her doting brother Calvin

In animal welfare as in any other kind of welfare work, there are an alarming number of armchair critics and a handful of people who shut up and work hard. There’s also that rare breed of welfare worker who has probably never sat in an armchair but doesn’t keep quiet either. In a good way, of course. Chinthana Gopinath is a stellar example of such a person. You will see her squatting in a kennel next to an out-of-luck dog, you’ll read her adoption stories and animal welfare posts on social media. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to taste her gooey homemade chocolate brownies on a particularly bad day at the shelter. When she isn’t doing all these things, Chinthana runs a home-bakery for canine treats, called ‘Pupcake’. This is the story of how she met, rehabilitated and adopted a beagle called Sasha, who had spent her entire life before that in a cage in a testing laboratory.

Anoopa: When and how did you start getting involved with the laboratory rescued beagles?

Chinthana: In November 2012, 28 beagles were released from a testing laboratory in Bangalore. They were all above ten years old. There was an urgent appeal on Facebook to foster these dogs, as sending them to a shelter from the sterile environment of a laboratory would make them highly susceptible to infections. I fostered one boy from this batch. He had beautiful black eyes that spoke volumes of the confusion and fear he felt. He had a liver condition, smelt strongly of chemicals and highly infected gums. Once he was treated for all this, he was adopted by a family in Coorg.

Anoopa: How did Sasha come into your life?

Chinthana: In February 2013, 102 beagles were released from the same laboratory by the efforts of Ms. Maneka Gandhi. CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action), an animal welfare organisation in Bangalore, was entrusted with the responsibility of re-homing these beagles. I used my business page, Pupcake, which has a lot of dog loving people following it, to promote the adoption of these dogs.

Within a few weeks of adoption, some of these beagles were being returned. Despite fair warning, people were not prepared to deal with the severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that laboratory rescued beagles come with. There were two such beagles living in the CUPA office, one boy and a girl. I went over with a camera in hand to take their pictures in order to help them find homes. My mother accompanied me. I sat on the floor to make myself appear smaller in order to make them feel more comfortable. The two dogs were walking in circles, very typical of dogs used to circling in their tiny cages. After a while, the girl walked up to me and licked my toes. She then walked to where my mother was standing and licked her toes. She came back to me and, very slowly, clambered on to my lap. It seemed as if the decision had been made! We didn't take her home immediately though. I went back the next day, giving myself 24 hours to prepare to bring in this huge responsibility. And so it was that, on March 8 2013, the little ‘beagirl’ came home to her family.

Anoopa: Tell us about the beginnings. How was Sasha when she came to you? What is her story before she came to you? What were the first few weeks like?

Chinthana: When she came home, she stared at the flight of stairs for a long time with utter bewilderment on her face. She had been in a cage all her life and didn't know how to use them. Our other dog, Calvin, demonstrated by going up and down a few times. She slowly came up by herself. It took her a fortnight after that to learn how to climb down a flight of stairs. Physically, she was underweight and had a very scanty coat, but otherwise she was alright. We knew that we had our work cut out for us to help her heal emotionally. She was very scared of human beings; any movement we made (even though not intended for her) made her cower. Her fear of men, particularly young men, was intense. At the mere sight of a man, she would start shivering and drooling. All the regular household noises that we take for granted would make her jump out of her skin in fright - sounds of a chair scraping against the floor, the sound of curtains being drawn, a cough or sneeze. Never having been walked before, taking her out on the streets also needed a lot of learning on her part. Having only been on a diet of packaged dog food, she didn't even know how to eat a home cooked meal of chicken and rice. She was so nervous with her new surroundings that she would pick up a few grains of kibble in her mouth, run to another room, eat a few and maybe come back for more. She barely slept for the first few days. She would constantly walk around in circles - day and night. She would flinch and tense up if her paws were touched; she still does when people she doesn't know touch her paws. She had been used to testing drug toxicity. Her forelimbs bore many scars from all the times that she had been injected with toxic chemicals.

Anoopa: What did you and your family do to help Sasha get along? Are there any personal anecdotes or moments from this time that you’d like to share?

Chinthana: She was constantly watching our other dog Calvin, particularly his interactions with the human beings. Slowly, she started to approach us. Without making any sudden movements, we would reach out to gently stroke the side of her face or scratch her behind her ears. Her walks were scheduled for very early in the morning or late at night when traffic was minimal. We began with ten minutes and slowly built it up. We walked the same route everyday till she became comfortable being outside. After a while, she enjoyed her time outdoors as her exploratory beagle instinct began to kick in. We noticed that she continued to remain slightly nervous indoors. I began teaching her a few basic commands like "sit" and "jump". No, she will never perform in a circus. But basic obedience training helped take her mind off the things that were worrying her. It helped her focus her attention on how to get that piece of cheese out of my hand. The day she chased a little ball was a day of great celebration too. She never knew what to do with a toy before and she was now learning to play. 

Anoopa: You learnt something horrifying about Sasha a couple of months after she came to live with you. Can you tell us about that?

Chinthana:  Her ball once got stuck under the rocking chair in our living room. She had watched Calvin bark to call for help when his toys reached places that he couldn't reach. Imitating him, she began to move her mouth. To my horror, I realized that there was no sound. It struck me that it had been 2-3 months since she had come home and she hadn't barked. A visit to the vet the next day confirmed that her vocal cords had been cut: a common practice in laboratories to prevent the dogs from making a noise. Now began the phase where Sasha started to train us. We had to watch her carefully to observe her facial expressions and her body language to understand what she wanted. If she wants to go to the toilet, she circles near the door. If she wants that ice cream that you are eating, she will squint her eyes into thin slits and stare at you.

Anoopa: How is Sasha today? Can you correlate her personality now to how you and your family, including Calvin, worked with the issues she was dealing with?

Chinthana:  Sasha today is the hostess with the moistest! She is the first to greet people who come home. When outside, she will pull us to talk to anybody who says "So cute" as we pass by, even if that comment is not intended for her!! She cannot bark like other dogs can. But her cords have grown back and she can bark when in extreme distress. Loosely translated, it is when a particularly hyperactive Labrador comes charging at her. When guests sit on her spot on the sofa, she stands in front of them and stares at them till they get up. She is clearly Calvin's boss today. She confidently swipes food from his bowl when she thinks nobody is watching but he doesn't dare eat from her bowl. She enjoys her walks, particularly an off the leash romp in Cubbon Park. Her favourite thing to do is to roll in grass and lay in the sun.

Anoopa: What has Sasha taught you? Do you continue to work with animal rescue?

Chinthana: Thanks to the lessons I learnt from Sasha, I continue my work in helping with placing rescued/abandoned dogs into homes. Often, people hesitate to take home an adult dog as they are worried about whether the dog will adjust. I tell them Sasha's story. If a mere shadow of a dog can adjust and thrive the way she has, there is no reason why any other dog shouldn't. This line of argument has been my most convincing yet.

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