A Wounded Stray Inspires Hope in Anxious Mumbai

After a wave of coordinated terrorist attacks turned parts of Mumbai's financial district into a combat zone, officials in New Delhi, India, and Islamabad, Pakistan, grapple with the political and diplomatic fallout of India's deadliest terror attack in 15 years.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 20, 2008

MUMBAI -- On a leafy hospital campus in this still-scarred city, one of the victims of last month's terrorist attacks is making a recovery. He's a chubby, cream-colored pooch whom workers have named Sheru -- the Hindi word meaning Lion Heart.

Sheru was a stray dog hit by an errant bullet when two gunmen opened fire in a crowded railway station during the first night of the assault. The survival of the aging Sheru, despite a gunshot wound to his left shoulder, has become an uplifting and soothing symbol of Mumbai's recovery to many of the city's anxious and angry citizens. In a three-day siege beginning Nov. 26, 10 gunmen killed more than 170 people and wounded at least 230. They attacked two luxury hotels, a restaurant, a train station, a Jewish outreach center and other sites.

"Some may ask why a dog is being saved when so many human lives were lost," said J.C. Khanna, a retired lieutenant colonel and head veterinarian in the Indian army. "But saving all creatures big and small shows the love and affection for all life that [Mumbai] has shown again and again. Sheru's life stands for something, for all of us getting back on our feet."

Plump, easygoing and almost 10 years old -- a senior citizen in dog years -- Sheru often slept near the pastry case of the Re-Fresh restaurant, a popular eatery in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the city's busiest train stations. Commuters would feed him leftover fried veggie puffs or sips of milk, workers said.

But on the night of the attacks, the wounded Sheru, hearing gunfire and people screaming, was too terrified to move, said Shripat Naik, 28, a local newspaper photographer who was at the scene and brought Sheru to the city's Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw animal hospital.

"I was clicking photographs when I saw the dog, bloody, dazed and looking so horribly afraid and traumatized," Naik recalled. "I myself was a dog owner. My dog died a year ago. My heart went out to this poor, quivering animal."

On a recent afternoon, Sheru's shoulder was bandaged and a patch of dried blood was visible through the white cloth. Still weak after surgery, he slept with his head resting on his paws.

With fresh water and antibiotics, he was slowly mending in this small, square-shaped kennel, which is housed in the hospital unit of the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It's an expansive city campus, with birdcages, chicken coops and donkey stalls, as well as several surgery centers, all in the shade of sturdy banyan trees.

"The bullet had luckily cleared Sheru's shoulder and didn't puncture his heart or lungs. It was like a small miracle," said hospital manager Yuvraj R. Kaginkar.

The hospital is also treating dozens of pigeons whose wings were broken or who suffered shrapnel injuries when gunmen and police battled on the seaside square between the famed Gateway of India monument and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel.

Some birds died from lack of oxygen after the hotel's historic dome caught fire. The square in front of the hotel is home to thousands of pigeons, who figure prominently in Mumbai postcards and are as much a part of the area's street life as food carts and balloon vendors.

"In India, pigeons are a symbol of peace," said Titoo Singh, a tour guide who often feeds snacks to the pigeons along the glistening waterfront. "When the pigeons came back and when we knew Sheru would be okay, it was a peaceful moment for many residents. It was like a certain normal life, a calm had returned."

In this rattled city, where children are receiving trauma counseling and the city's freshly painted black billboards warn: "Someone needs to protect the city: It all starts with you," Sheru's recovery has inspired residents to bring him dog treats and rubber toys. An anonymous donor has paid for his medical care.

India is home to one of the world's largest populations of stray dogs. Relatively few dogs are house pets here, and most are bone-thin, weak strays that hobble around city streets, sniffing out discarded food.

Recently, India has found a use for dogs in its counterterrorism efforts, putting them to work sniffing for bombs. The number of canine units has doubled in recent years, Khanna said, and three trained rescue dogs were killed during the attack on the Taj hotel. The city's fire departments gave them official funerals.

"Dogs go 100 meters ahead of humans in bomb blast situations. They track militants and have been a real lifeline for us. It shows how important they are," said Khanna, who worked with bomb-sniffing dogs in the disputed region of Kashmir before retiring.

"Ultimately, it is an ecosystem," he said. "Everyone is connected to each other. If animals are not there, we are not there. Sheru has made it. That was good news for all of us."

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