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A Dog's Life

A Dog's Life

September 15, 2010

The most untypical story of a Varkala stray, caught between the dog world and the human world.

Marley probably didn’t have the most auspicious start to life. She started out a stray pup, destined to be separated from her mother and to wander Varkala’s cliff in search of charity from tourists dining at Western-style restaurants and cafés. She would have had limited success at this, essentially a cuteness competition with the other puppies and dogs hanging around the area, until she grew big enough to be ready to have pups of her own. At that time, the restaurant and shop owners would have hounded her out, condemning her to a life of trotting and sleeping around Varkala’s streets, maybe venturing out to the cliff or beach from time to time, running in packs with other strays, and probably not living very long purely because she wasn’t blessed with genes that would make her grow big and strong.

It was Chris, visiting Varkala at the time, who took pity on her. He came home after a cliff excursion one day with this small mongrel in tow. I just couldn’t help it, he said. She looked so sad and cute – I couldn’t leave her there. Me, I was unsure at first, as people don’t look upon dogs kindly here. In general, they are dirty scavengers who make too much noise and, if they get close enough to you, are liable to bite and infect you with rabies. The way to deal with them is to throw stones or kick them if they get too close. We'd also heard a horrific first-hand account from our dog-loving friend Ayna of the twice-yearly gangs who would patrol Varkala's streets in a truck, round up stray dogs and then hang them over the side of the cliff until dead. I felt like this ugly little pup would be more of a burden than a blessing. How wrong I turned out to be.

Mummy (we became Mummy and Daddy to our pet) thought of the name Marley – in reference to the renowned reggae musician, not the Owen Wilson/Jennifer Aniston film – and it stuck. Her floppy ears grew tall and pointy and she switched from milk to eggs without complaint, but she only grew as big as an outsize puppy. She grew accustomed to the house and land we lived on – half an acre was plenty for her, but never enough to keep her from exploring outside. For a while she had a boyfriend until one day the look in her eyes became a little too wild, and it was time to have her spayed.

I took her to Animal Rescue Kerala in Kovalam, an hour and a half by rickshaw. Having never travelled, let alone on Kerala's notorious NH47, she vomited in fright the whole way. The surprisingly helpful staff and volunteers at ARK explained to me that they no longer take in stray or unwanted dogs because there are simply too many, and urged me to find a responsible solution for Marley's future should we ever leave the area. Post-procedure, she was oddly calm – perhaps a remnant of the general energy that seemed to be about ARK – and the return journey passed without problem.

Thanks to a pretty steady diet of love and affection from the two of us, especially Mummy, who was home more often and had actually had dogs of her own before, Marley grew to be intuitive and very sensitive. We loved her so much that we forgot there had ever been a time before her. Our moods generally defined hers, and she clearly thought of herself as human. When other dogs came onto the property, she would gambol about with them – a Street Dog again for a few minutes – until they got bored and jumped the wall. Then she would return to us, her family, and sigh loudly in her favourite chair in the living room, perhaps hoping for a surprise cuddle or biscuit.

She was about one and a half when she got poisoned. We'd kind of been expecting something like this because she'd developed strong guard dog traits and would bark loudly at folks passing in the street, especially if they were schoolboys stopping to throw stones at the pati on their way home. One afternoon, having been off her food for a few days, Marley ran up to the roof of the house where Mummy was doing yoga and promptly urinated all over herself. She then went completely stiff, and while it certainly seemed to be the end, it wasn't – she relaxed after a few minutes, had some water, then curled back up in her chair. She barely moved for days, but she kept breathing and eventually got back to health. The only thing missing was that playfulness that had always been present in her eyes, replaced by a faint glaze and easy lethargy. Only Mummy and Daddy would notice this change, but it would be impossible for them to ever ignore.

After that, we kept her inside for weeks, only letting her out at the end of a short chain. She hated it. Having never lost that street dog element, she wanted to run, to be with her friends, her hungry but free friends. Ultimately, our fear of her getting poisoned again was outweighed by her obvious sadness at being cooped up. We agreed that if something like that ever happened again, it would still be better than limiting her freedom to such an extent that she couldn't have a happy life.

Mummy had to take a job in another country, so it became just us two, Daddy and Marley, and with this big change came another: a move to a new home. She never really got accustomed to the new place, with new smells and sights and new running dogs who weren't her friends. I had to confine her to the house and terrace because other folks lived on the property, and I really didn't want her to exercise her guard dog traits on them. She was sadder than ever. The light that had once been ever-present in her eyes now only flickered when she buried her face between my legs each time I arrived home. It was the same story: she needed me as much as I needed her, but she wanted to be in the open and live on her own terms, at least sometimes, for a while, until she missed me again.

One day, I put her on that chain for the first time since moving to the new place; when I came home late that night, she had already passed away. That was a month ago. I don't know exactly what happened, and I only blame myself, but I try to believe that she had a happier – and hopefully longer – life than she would have. As a friend told me in the aftermath, “don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened.”


  • Manju
    04.02.12 11:31 PM
    The way you have narrated Marley's story touched me so much that i had tears in my eyes by the last paragraph. Let's hope that wherever she is right now, she has plenty of room to play and is happy. RIP Marley
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.03.11 10:40 AM
    Everly, your dilemma is such a tough one, and I'd suggest (with my limited knowledge of dogs) that it would depend on her and her character. My little dog became very depressed when her 'Mummy' left, and even more so when we had to move to a new house a month later. Other dogs, however, might adapt fine even to a new country.

    My suggestion is that if your way with her involves a good deal of affection and touch, bring her with you. She's unlikely to get that anywhere here unless you find someone very special, which is a hugely difficult task but worth a search.

    That dichotomy between the philosophy and the practice is just another of India's (and the human race's) great contradictions, I guess, sad though it is. I too often feel greater pangs of anger and sadness when a street dog is mistreated than when a human being is mistreated; at the very least, the feelings are comparable.

    I hope you figure something out before you go. If you wish to be in touch by email, let me know here and I'll send a message to whatever address you give.
  • Everly
    11.03.11 02:47 AM
    I was referred to this article by my family, and sadly, find it so true and relevant that it almost breaks my heart to read it. I am a U.S. college student reaching the end of a year studying abroad in India, and am currently considering adopting a local dog to take home with me. There has been one in particular I have become quite attached to, and her fate weighs heavily on my mind. I have been struggling with the question of whether it will truly be better for the dog, one that is several years old already, to adapt to a life in a yard (i.e. fenced/caged), or if it would be better to leave her in the environment she has grown up in? Knowing well the treatment of animals here, the fear of leaving her is almost worse to me than the thought of her not adjusting to life in the U.S.. She has claimed a local bit of space for her 'territory' and does not roam much, so I can't help but feel that perhaps she could adapt to a yard well (with visits to the dog park fulfilling social need?). I feel the benefits could outweigh the cost to me, but to her? I really cannot be sure, and fear the same loss of spirit you describe in your article (poisoning aside).

    Seeing the treatment of animals here has been one of the biggest issues I have been grappling with. For a society that claims its dietary roots in the philosophy of animal welfare (sacredness) and the idea of karma, I find attempting to understand/rationalize the unnecessarily cruel treatment of animals to be a daily struggle (at which I often fail). I can't help but see it as the height of hypocrisy, and have found that more often than not I feel much worse for animals here than their human counterparts. I figure people are too busy trying to live their own lives to worry about the lives of others (particularly animals). I figure more often than not they lack the knowledge and/or finances to treat or care for the animals they have. But that does not explain/rationalize the unnecessary cruelty I see. And I am not entirely sure I can attribute this attitude only to Indians, as I have not traveled abroad extensively. But it has been most visible here.

    A moving story indeed. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    18.09.10 06:06 PM

    This was very moving, even for someone like me who's never had a dog.
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    16.09.10 09:33 PM
    She rather resembles a Thai beach dog.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.09.10 01:19 PM
    I'm glad people seem to enjoy the post. It was one of my more difficult pieces to write, given the feelings I have about her life and what happened. You three who have commented thus far, I'm guessing you can relate to this somehow - not TOO closely I hope.

    Gori Girl, that's quite a story too... Marley wasn't exactly innocent - she did bark rather too much, after all - but yeah, stones and sticks were thrown at her daily, and it was rarely (if ever) necessary.

    Satya, I should point out that the photo above isn't Marley - to see what she looked like, click" rel="nofollow">here.
  • satya
    16.09.10 08:31 AM
    she is so adorable .. i hubby loves pets too ... n he enjoyed reading this post ...
    Satya" rel="nofollow">
  • magiceye
    16.09.10 06:25 AM
    these guys sure have a way of taking over our lives!
    we have adopted a stray who is now wirh us for the past 7 years! he even has his own blog at
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    15.09.10 07:23 PM
    What a sweet story! I knew that cats weren't particularly liked in India, but I didn't know dogs were the same. I had a cat that wandered our old neighborhood in the Mission in SF. He would escort me or my female roommates to the store -- rough neighborhood.

    The gang members on the street didn't like us much and one day I found him in the gutter, dead. I think he'd been poisoned too, as there were no broken bones.

    People can be terribly cruel to innocent animals.

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