‘Our lives became hell’: Kerala pet owners allege harassment and ostracisation by RWAs

The rise in the number of such incidents of late has forced the Maneka Gandhi-founded People for Animals (PFA) to move the Kerala High Court earlier this week. In its petition, the PFA argued that the ban imposed by resident associations and housing societies on keeping pets was ‘illegal, arbitrary and unfair’.

On the night of June 10 this year, Roshan Joseph was walking his pet Labrador named Oscar in the common area of his housing society in Kochi when a resident of the complex came near him on a cycle. “Oh, you have come out with your dog,” the man told him before reportedly hitting Joseph in the face. And as Oscar came running to him, the man kicked the animal too.

The incident shook Joseph who has been constantly harassed by members of the apartment association ever since he brought Oscar to his home. Though he was a joint secretary of the association at one time, they gave him two options when he adopted the pet. “Either you can be a part of the association or you can keep a dog. I said I don’t want to be a part of the association. I stepped down and soon they started ignoring me,” said Joseph. The association, he claimed, had created an illegal by-law banning pets in the society premises.

“There was a child who used to come every day outside my door to see Oscar and play with him. They called up the parents of the child, asking them not to send their child to my home. They told him that they have decided not to talk to me anymore.”

In neighbouring Kottayam district, Vineetha and her husband Suresh had to bear harsher consequences for owning a dog. Since Suresh worked in the state’s technical education department, they stayed in government quarters. And sure enough, a few days after they got a Pomeranian as a companion for their son, problems began cropping up. Their neighbours, alleged Vineetha, raised complaints even as the dog posed no danger to them.

“They get scared just looking at the dog. They claimed they will get a (heart) attack. They made up complaints and submitted it to the superintendent. And the superintendent, without hearing both sides of the matter, asked us to get rid of the dog or vacate the quarters. We told him that we had raised the dog with a lot of love and we couldn’t give him away. He became stubborn and said if we don’t do as they say, they will create problems for us,” said Vineetha.

“The amount of torture we faced cannot be described. They even set up an enquiry committee and a vigilance probe just to get rid of a poor dog that meant no harm to anybody. But we haven’t seen any reports of such inquiries. Ultimately, they gave my husband a punishment transfer. And the order said very clearly it was for keeping a pet and causing harm to neighbours,” she added.

Though she had gone to court and approached the Animal Welfare Board of India, she said she received no favourable verdicts from them. “They made our life hell for two years,” she said.

The experiences of Joseph and Vineetha illustrate the relentless torture faced by pet-owners across Kerala from government and private housing societies and resident welfare associations (RWAs). Through unilateral general body resolutions and illegal bye-laws which don’t get challenged in court, such associations have managed to clamp down on keeping pets inside homes. And when pet owners don’t comply, many of them are ostracised.

The rise in the number of such incidents of late has forced the Maneka Gandhi-founded People for Animals (PFA) to move the Kerala High Court earlier this week. In its petition, the PFA argued that the ban imposed by resident associations and housing societies on keeping pets was ‘illegal, arbitrary and unfair’.

It said that the guidelines issued by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) in 2015 advised owners to ensure that their pets are not a nuisance to anyone. In the same breath, it underlined that no amount of pressure from anyone/body should lead to the abandonment of pets as it is a violation of law. The PFA sought a direction from the court to all resident associations in the state to comply with AWBI guidelines.

Latha, secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram chapter of PFA which filed the petition in HC, said they get at least one complaint every day from pet-owners facing harassment from RWAs. “There has to be some kind of a complaint redressal mechanism. We want a system established so that no pet gets abandoned,” she said.

“People should understand that if there is a pet owner in a building, the children there can play with the animal. It is good for children to have some kind of a bond with animals as it helps them become better people when they grow up.”

In one case, she pointed out, a woman was advised to keep a pet by her doctor as she had some neurological issues. “She got a pug. But the building association made a huge issue about it. They got the family staying in the flat below hers to complain that their children are getting an allergy because of the animal’s hair. But we know that pugs are short-haired animals. So it was a deliberate attempt at pushing the dog out,” she said.

Bhanu Tilak, appearing in court for the PFA, said Kerala currently doesn’t have a state animal welfare board which can be a competent authority to handle matters concerning pets under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. “Our laws with respect to animal rights are very weak and on the enforcement side, nothing is happening,” she said.

The PFA’s writ petition has been admitted in HC, she confirmed, and the court has asked the AWBI and the state to file a counter-affidavit in the matter. The next hearing is on August 2.

Earlier this month, after a dog named Bruno was brutally killed by three persons in Thiruvananthapuram, the HC took steps to protect pet animals in the state. It asked the government to direct local bodies to issue public notices requiring all pet owners to register their animals with them within six months. This would help in tracing owners who abandon their pets.

(Rivi Joseph, based in Thiruvananthapuram, is an intern with Indianexpress.com.)

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