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Animal stories

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BASANTI

About five years ago, our shelter staff rescued a poor old pony from the road, where she had been abandoned after falling down from exhaustion. The owners had removed the harness, pulled away the wooden cart, and left her lying in the sun, to die of dehydration and starvation. Luckily, a passing stranger, who knew of our shelter, phoned us and told us of her predicament.

After we had unloaded her, and given her food and water, she struggled to her feet, and stood pitifully before us. Her feet were completely crippled and she could hardly take a step forwards or backwards. This crippling of the feet is a common problem in Jaipur where the horses are worked so hard that the tendons swell and become inflamed from constant trotting on the hard, hot roads. Bad shoeing also compounds the problem. The leg near the hoof becomes shortened, losing its elasticity. In bad cases, such as that of the old mare, the back hooves actually start to turn backwards, so that the horse is walking on the front of the hoof itself.

The damage was irreversible. Joy, one of our vets, examined her thoroughly, then she stood back and spoke to me.

‘She’s been worked until she couldn’t take another step,’ Joy said. ‘See here on her shoulders – the gall marks from rubbing. See here, round her fetlocks, the scars from hobbling with ropes.’

I took a step forward and gave the pony a rub on the forelock. Having led such a life, I fully expected that old, exhausted, emaciated pony would lay back her ears, and barring her teeth, try to bite me. After all she had known nothing but cruelty from humans, so who could expect her to behave otherwise?

But as I touched her forelock gently, and murmured horsy words, she slightly quivered her bottom lip, and gazed affectionately from large brown eyes.

Joy glanced at me, then at the back hooves again. ‘With careful trimming of the hooves, we might be able to slightly correct the situation,’ she said. ‘She’ll never be able to work again, but she could lead a comfortable life for a few more years.’

‘Perhaps we could try,’ I answered, ‘She deserves some rest at the end of her life.’

We called in the best ‘jute Wala’ (shoeman) we knew, and Joy directed him how to cut the hooves. We called the pony Tattoo (the Hindi word for pony) and we fed her a carefully balanced diet.

Over the weeks her coat began to shine, and her bones became covered with flesh. She began to walk, and, although she was very crippled, she did not seem to suffer pain, for we gave her the run of the shelter, and she would often go out the gate, walking for long distances down the road, returning in the evenings.

She was affectionate and clever, more like a dog than a pony. She would come and stand up on the verandah outside the office door, near the cooler, when it was hot. If she had a chance, she would even walk into the office, for in those days there was a cake shop which donated sacks of unwanted biscuits and bread. Tattoo, having been starved all her life, was always interested in food. In fact, she would even lick the tea out of the tea-cups should anyone leave one lying around. She loved vegetable curry, dal, and anything at all which was vegetarian would vanish down her ever-ready throat.

At that time the kooti (chaff) was delivered by a man who came with the sacks on a cart pulled by a small, fat, chestnut stallion. This little pony was very friendly, and also greedy. While the sacks were being unloaded, he always helped himself to whatever fodder he could find in one of the cow or donkey’s bins. He enjoyed his short sojourns at the shelter so much that he used to visit at night, after the day’s work was finished. Many times we had to ring the kootiwalla and ask him to come and collect his pony.

Soon we noticed that Tattoo was growing fatter than ever, and one evening she gave birth to a beautiful little chestnut filly. Her long life of suffering had now been replaced by a new life of joy and fulfillment. With great tenderness and love she cared for her tiny baby. She never left the shelter now. The two of them were inseparable, and we called the filly Basanti. This was the Hindi word for ‘spring’. She seemed to us like spring, full of newness, and promise, and beauty. Her surprising and unexpected appearance, from an animal that seemed to old to breed, made us believe there was something special about her.

One day we noticed that Tattoo was unable to walk anymore. Her feet were clearly giving her terrible pain. Basanti was now six months old, and able to care for herself. We knew that Tattoo’s time had come. We felt the shelter would not be the same without her personable presence, her affectionate ramblings, and her naughty tricks.

She died peacefully, and her body shivered as that mysterious quality we call life, seemed to lift from the flesh. One moment she had been alive, and the muscles and bone seemed to thrill with her being, but, as she shivered and died, with the departure of that consciousness, that Tattoo whom we had loved, her old body became just an empty corpse.

We had separated Basanti, but now that her mother had died, we allowed her to come and say her farewells. She walked over to the body, and sniffed it all over. We wondered whether she understood what had happened

We decided that Basanti was too valuable to be allowed to roam freely. We kept her in a small run. Everyone liked going and talking to her. She was so friendly and pretty. But as she grew to a yearling, she began to grow restless. She began to kick and bite, to charge around the enclosure. We taught her to wear a halter, and took her for walks along the streets where once her mother had wandered, but she liked to play games and to rear in the air if she had an excuse. A passing tractor or camel would be enough to send her into a frenzy. It was all a game for her.

By now I loved Basanti. When I went into her enclosure and stood with her, and put my arms round her neck, I felt a deep peace, the peace which comes only when the species barrier is broken, and two individuals from two different kingdoms of nature, commune in silent understanding When that bridge between the species is crossed, some third, undefined quality seems to emerge, and the two are uplifted and joined, in that unique communication.

To me Basanti was beauty personified, her glowing chestnut coat, her growing mane, thick and lustrous, her huge, brown, gentle eyes. My heart melted when she pricked her ears at my coming and stood at the gate. She would follow those she knew, nuzzling at their backs and hands, pressing for food and attention.

At our shelter she had never known cruelty, never suffered under the whip, never been forced to pull an overloaded cart, never had to strain her legs, never felt the crippling pain of labour on the rough roads. She was safe, protected, and loved.

She was as clever as her mother. She knew how to lift the latch, and pull the bolt on the gate to open it. If it was not securely closed, she could let herself out. Once free, she would tear around the shelter at a gallop, kicking her back legs out behind her, wild with the taste of freedom. I knew how to catch her, and she would stand, stubbornly refusing to move, communicating with every gesture that she did not want to be replaced in her enclosure. But if I urged enough, and spoke to her gently, without ever having to use a stick or a whip, she would eventually agree to my demands, and walking reluctantly, and rather stiffly, go back through the gate and into her dreaded ‘prison’.

Basanti clearly wanted to experience the outside world. She wanted to smell new scents, to touch new surfaces, to see new sights. She wanted to use her inquisitive, intelligent mind. I longed to ride her myself, but knew that no-one at our shelter had enough experience to break-in such a spirited young pony. We were torn between Basanti’s boredom, and the cruelty of the outside world.

Every day, Joy was working on the streets with her team of helpers, treating the sick and injured horses, ponies and donkeys which owners brought to her for help. She saw common diseases such as babesiosis, a debilitating disease caused by a parasite spread by ticks; she saw cuts and wounds from road accidents; and she saw bloated stomachs from worm infestation. But most of all she saw the incurable results of over-work – the tight tendons and straight, inflexible fetlocks, the crippled, lame, stiff legs caused by years of labour on the hard, hot roads, and tiny, inadequately fitting shoes.

One day, an old, white-bearded Muslim man brought his horse to her for treatment. The horse was as small as a donkey, and all its ribs and bones protruded. It could hardly stand on its tiny, twisted hooves. Joy looked into its mouth. There were hardly any teeth left.

‘Do you use the horse?’ she asked.

The man answered that he used her every day to carry loads of people from the station to the hotels. Overloaded, with laughing women and men, and piles of suitcases, these little Tonga ponies were a cheap form of taxi.

‘She’s too old to work,’ Joy said.

‘I very poor man,’ he answered, patting the head of his old pony, his eyes filling with tears.

That night Joy spoke to me. She explained that Basanti needed to be broken in, or she would become difficult to manage. Since she was young and intelligent, she could even become vicious if she was very bored. Joy explained to me that at eighteen months of age Basanti was ready to begin work. If she stayed with us all her life, she would never learn or experience anything beyond the confines of our shelter. If she was given to the old man, he would look after her kindly, and her life would be meaningful.

‘The old man’s agreed that he can have Basanti only on condition that he looks after her properly, and breaks her in gently,’ Joy explained. She had come to an agreement with the old man that while Basanti was being trained to the cart, the old man could continue to use his old horse, as he said he could not survive without his daily earnings from the tonga. Our shelter was also paying for all Basanti’s food for three months, at which time the old horse was to be surrendered, and, if Basanti was in good condition, she would be formally given to the old man.

I agreed that it would be good for Basanti to have a new and interesting life, and so one day the old man came to our shelter to collect Basanti. He led her out into the street, talking to her gently, and she followed him obediently.

About two months after Basanti had left our shelter, I was staying in Mt. Abu, a hill station in southern Rajasthan. I woke one night after having a realistic nightmare in which we had found Basanti lying outside a gate, gazing at us in pain, unable to stand. Was this some sort of subconscious appeal for help, I wondered. Was I somehow mysteriously connected to her? I could hardly wait to ring the shelter next morning and ask about Basanti. I was assured that Joy’s team had recently seen Basanti, and she was doing well. I dismissed the dream as an over-active imagination.

After three months, the time had come for the old man to return to our shelter, and surrender his old mare to us. Dr. Ashok came down to our office to tell me that Basanti had returned for a final check-up. I ran out. That beautiful chestnut pony stood there, outside our shelter, in the street, harnessed to an old wooden cart with wobbly, worn wooden wheels.

But I could hardly recognize her as the same horse. She no longer stood with her head thrown upwards, proudly, with flared nostrils, and bold eyes. Now her head hung downwards, her whole demeanour was dejected, and broken. She seemed old and exhausted.

I wanted to touch her muzzle, to hold her head against my stomach, as I used to do, but she was wearing blinkers and could hardly see.

‘Basanti!’ I asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ I stretched out my hand, but instead of responding with a velvety nose, she snorted, rolled her eyes so that the whites showed, and flinched away.

I looked at the bridle. At each side of her mouth there was a deep, weeping, red wounds. The bit was spiked, with deep, sharp ridges which had cut into her lips.

Indignation and anger rose in me. We had given our greatest gift to this man, we had entrusted him with a young pony, had handed her over on the understanding that she would know no cruelty at his hands, and now he had broken his promise to us. She was here before me now, frightened, head hanging, lips with deep wounds. I felt that I had betrayed her, and wondered if she understood.

I realized then that it was in my power to save her. Joy had made the arrangements in such a way that the owner had needed to bring us Basanti for inspection at the same time as he surrendered his old mare to us.

‘Why did you use this bit when we asked you not to?’ I asked him.

‘She was being very naughty in the traffic, and so the people told me I should use it,’ he said.

I spoke to Dr. Ashok. ‘Madam’, he said, ‘I feel that these wounds could easily become infested with maggots, as the flies would like this seeping juice which comes from these mouth holes.’

We agreed that treatment was urgently needed to heal the wounds, before the bridle could be used again.

Dr. Ashok looked at Basanti’s back legs. Sure enough, the tell-tale signs were there. He saw that the pasterns had become quite straight. ‘She’s been overworked,’ he concluded.

‘There was that genetic tendency there from her mother, and this man has compounded it,’ he said.

Basanti stood there in front of us, unmoving, crushed, perhaps oblivious to the argument going on around her. I was afraid that so much damage had been done that she would be lame for life, for the pasterns were so contracted that she looked as though she was standing on tiptoes, and one hoof turned under. However, I was hopeful that Basanti would not yet go the same way as her mother, as I remembered how Joy had explained to me once that, if a horse was rested before any permanent damage had been done, the swollen tendons could heal, and the flexibility return to the hoof and lower leg.

Dr. Ashok asked the owner to unharness Basanti. We took the old man into our office. When he had sat down, we explained that Basanti could not be worked until the lips had healed; otherwise they might be permanently damaged.

The old man put his head in his hands and began to weep. For a moment I felt tempted to give Basanti back to him with a new, smooth bit, but then I thought of her tight little feet, and the deep mouth wounds. When she had left the shelter her lower legs had been soft and flexible, her mouth was smooth and unblemished. When we offered the old man one thousand rupees as compensation for his lost work, his weeping suddenly stopped and he accepted the offer.

After the old man had gone, leaving Basanti’s Tonga cart propped in a corner of the shelter, I went down and spoke to her. For a moment she tossed her head and looked defiant, but then she pressed her forelock against the front of my body, as she used to do. Was this her way of forgiving me, I wondered? Did she still remember me, or was she simply such a good-natured pony that she could put behind her all the abuse and mistreatment she had suffered. We were together again, and despite everything that had happened to her, she was still affectionate, still trusting. We stood for a long time under the tree.

On each wither there was a rubbed, bare patch which had been caused by friction from the harness. Then I saw that round each back fetlock there was a deep indentation in the hair, and in one place there was a bald, exposed line. Hobbling! This man had hobbled her. Perhaps he had tied the back legs together for days at a time to force her to stand still, or perhaps he hobbled her every night and turned her out. In any case it was a cruel practice, which led to wounds, which soon became fly-infested. Once the maggots hatched, the whole leg could be eaten away. On many occasions donkeys and ponies had been rescued from the street by our shelter, with the bones of the leg exposed, with hoof attached, but unable to be moved due to the absence of muscle, while the animal was still conscious and living.

I walked over to look at the old mare that the man had surrendered to us. I wondered how many years she had worked for him. She stood tethered, slowly chewing the green Lucerne our staff had placed before her. She was so thin that the bones on her hips protruded like angle iron under the dried, dull coat. When I tried to stroke her, she stretched out her head, drew back her lips, and tried to bite me. She was clearly exhausted and probably her whole body ached from rheumatism and malnutrition. Twolarge gall marks on each shoulder told of years and years of rubbing harness. Once there must have been bleeding wounds. Eventually these had become thickened, black patches. Was this what would have happened to Basanti?

This beaten, bad-tempered crippled old pony was similar to hundreds of others in Jaipur. The whole purpose of her existence, which had been to love, and to be loved, remained unfulfilled.

Within ten days Basanti’s lips had healed and her pasterns had become more flexible. Every time she saw me come out the door she would lift her head, and nicker.

We asked the milkman if he needed another pony. Basanti now lives near our shelter. She is glossy and friendly, and sometimes, breaking free, comes charging down the road, standing outside the fence and whinnying to us.

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