By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 26, 2009
NEW DELHI -- It was just another relaxing family evening in front of the television, Sanjay Raina said, when President Obama appeared on the screen, frolicking on the South Lawn of the White House with his wife, daughters and the cutest pet Raina's family had ever seen: the curly-haired, 6-month-old Portuguese water dog Bo.
"Can't we have this dog?" Raina said his 8-year-old daughter pleaded as she watched the recent backyard romp. "That's how this whole thing started. Right away, I called our vet. I asked who we should approach, even if it meant that I have to import it. And his reply to me was: 'Sanjay, you're not the first one to call but the ninth or 10th one who has enquired since this thing flashed on the TV.' "
Forget India's month-long national elections, the global financial crisis and terrorism. In recent days, the capital has gone crazy over Bo, the first dog of the United States. Even Bollywood film star Salman Khan has placed an order for a Portie, according to the Hindustan Times, which ran a headline that read "Delhi's Doggie No.1."
The energetic, black-haired dog -- a relatively rare breed -- has to be imported here from Europe, the United States or Thailand, prompting concerns that the animals might be drugged for the long flights or smuggled in illegally. Including airfare and various permits, a Portuguese water dog would cost an Indian buyer about $2,000, said Satish Chhillar, a veterinarian.
That's as much as India's recently released Tata Nano, said to be the cheapest car in the world.
In New Delhi, pet shops and veterinarians report being overrun with requests for the breed, which apparently used to help Portuguese fishermen steer their catch into nets and served as couriers ferrying messages between boats and shore.
"This dog is a family dog. It's a lovable animal. And it is adjustable in Delhi's hot weather," Chhillar said. "Earlier, Indians were not aware of this breed. Now, every day I get six to seven inquiries about Obama's dog. Not everyone can afford it. But those who want the dog are executives who are staying in big apartments or aristocratic people who live in bungalows and farmhouses."
The obsessive interest in the Obamas' puppy also illustrates the growing willingness of India's expanding middle and upper classes to spend part of their household budgets on pets, a trend that has become increasingly popular over the past decade as the country's economy has grown.
"These days, kids in the upper-middle and elite classes get permission easily for a dog costing one lakh," or about $2,000, said Naresh Kohli, owner of the pet shop Jaws and Paws.
In New Delhi, there are about 250,000 bone-thin stray dogs that often run in packs. Some dog lovers feed them; other people stone them. Across India, an estimated 19,000 people die every year from rabies, mostly contracted through dog bites, accounting for nearly 35 percent of such deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Animal rights activists have campaigned for years for more dog shelters and better vaccination programs, to little effect.
But Sanjeev Kumar, owner of Pet Bytes, a chain of pet shops, said that as incomes rise, the treatment of dogs is likely to improve.
"The culture is changing fast. The kind of care, attention and loving which goes into a pet is not there with 100 percent of the pet owners," said Kumar, who recently opened a grooming parlor called Scooby Scrub. "But that scenario is changing, so maybe eight, 10 years down the line, we'll have a pattern where a pet is treated like a real family member."
The craze sparked by Bo, the world's most-talked-about dog, may help, pet-shop owners say.
"Obama is very popular," Kumar said. "If he admires this dog, then it must be good."
Special correspondent Ayesha Manocha contributed to this report.