Four Snapshots, One Saga, and a Bonus Video
1. Monkeys: Almost exactly two months ago, we arrived in India and took a train from Delhi to Dehradun en route to Woodstock. Waiting on the train platform at 6 am, the most arresting sight was not the bleary-eyed travelers, the mounds of luggage, or the stalls selling chai and masala-flavored crisps. What made this platform feel distinctly Indian was the family of monkeys (rhesus macaques) casually grooming each other on top of the nearby fence.
These days, Dinesh and I are used to sharing space with our monkey-cousins. When walking from home to school, we know to avoid eye contact and showing our teeth (both perceived as signs of aggression). We’ve learned to bend down to pick up stones if a macaque comes too close. We’ve also learned to appreciate the beauty of a well-executed leap through the canopy by the macaques’ larger, long-tailed cousin, the gray langur.
2. Dogs: The neighborhood dogs were among the first to welcome us here. Two of our favorites, brothers Gordo and Flaco, live about a 15-minute walk up the hill from us at a house affectionately dubbed “Mutt Manor.” The two of them frequently walk us home, sniffing other roaming dogs and barking at monkeys. When we get home, Dinesh usually waits outside the front gate with our loyal companions, while I run inside to retrieve their payment: a small mound of Pedigree kibble.
Few people here keep dogs as indoor pets, and it’s sad for us to see undernourished and mangy street dogs living in town. While there are a couple veterinarians in town, there are no animal shelters, and hungry, sometimes injured dogs seem to be a fact of life around here. But the dogs who are fed seem to live happy lives of leash-free wandering with their packs, and it’s hard to argue that life would be better for them if they were cooped up in an apartment all day.
3. Crawlies: A few weeks ago, we went on a hike about 1600 feet down into a valley to the nearby Kolti village. At the time, we were in the thick of monsoon, and the ground underfoot was moist with rain and alive with leeches. When I first heard that leeches were local to Mussoorie, I imagined large, swollen, and slimy slugs, pulsating with fresh blood. In fact, leeches here look like small, matte-black inchworms, perfectly friendly-looking until they wriggle through your socks, latch on, and start feeding. On this hike, we learned that salt, a little Tiger Balm, and constant vigilance are excellent weapons against leech attacks. We ended up with only a few attached leeches between us, but a friend of ours found over a dozen in his sneakers after the hike!
At home, we’ve also encountered plenty of less bloodthirsty wildlife, including paper-eating silverfish, giant spiders, and a disoriented scorpion that had somehow found its way into our bedroom.
4. Livestock: Last month, we walked with a group of friends to Happy Valley, a nearby village that became a refuge for thousands of exiled Tibetans in the late 1950’s. Along the way, we were met by this scene of interspecies coexistence:
A few weeks later, I spent a Saturday chaperoning a field trip to an English-medium village school, where our high school students played English, science, and math games with the local students.
On the road, our van was held up by a family of pigs and a stubborn herd of goats.
We’ve mostly stopped eating eggs because we’ve heard terrible things about how chickens are treated here, but otherwise, it’s refreshing to live in a place where animals live more or less alongside humans. We certainly don’t need to visit a zoo or drive to a faraway farm to see animals!
5. Shera: Undoubtedly the most dramatic animal story of our time here has been the story of how we unexpectedly became cat parents last month.
Our kitten came to us on a Thursday morning. One of my 10th-grade students who I’ll call Greta was running with the girls’ cross-country team when she found a crying kitten on the road. Greta is at Woodstock for the semester on exchange from Australia, where she lives on a farm and regularly volunteers at an animal shelter, so she has become a champion for animals all over the hillside. Without hesitation, Greta scooped up the kitten and carried her to campus, where she asked every adult what she should do with her furry charge. The advice she received was different versions of “Leave the cat where you found it and let nature take its course,” but Greta refused to give up the kitten until she eventually spoke to my friend Ruth, who said she could help.
Ruth had seen enough pictures of Porthos to know that I am a cat person, so she called me and asked if I might be able to help. Luckily, it was the one day in Woodstock’s baffling 10-day rotating schedule when I didn’t teach in the morning, so I sprang into action and rushed to the office of my other friend Aastha. Aastha had adopted two orphaned kittens a couple weeks earlier, after seeing a third kitten sibling get killed by a dog, so I knew she would be a ready accomplice on the mission to bring this cat to my house. I wasn’t committing to take care of her forever, but I wanted to give her a safe home at least until we were able to make a more permanent plan.
But when we went to the room where Greta told us the kitten was, it was empty. Aastha and I followed a few leads that eventually led us to Mr. G, the head of security. It seemed that due to a series of miscommunications and/or cultural misunderstandings, he had taken the cat in a cardboard box on the back of his motorcycle to drop her at Char Dukan (literally, “four shops”), a row of shops at the top of the hill where dozens of street dogs hang out. The gruesome image of a mangled kitten hanging from a dog’s jaws flashed in my mind; this is what had happened to Aastha’s kittens’ sibling near Char Dukan. Thinking fast, Aastha called Mr. G and persuaded him to return with the cat. A few minutes later, his black motorcycle rounded the bend, and I gently coaxed the frightened, tiny kitten out of the cardboard box.
That day was a month ago. In that month, the tiny kitten has just about doubled in size and gained a name: Shera (derived from the Urdu and Hindi word for tiger-- Kipling used the word to name Shere Khan). She has learned how to climb to the highest shelves and doors in the house, often using our shoulders for leverage, and she knows how to wake us up in the morning by pouncing on our sleeping forms. Today, Shera even went on her first leash walk outside!
All of this feels familiar to us. Less familiar are the incredibly low veterinarian bills (about $5 for a rabies vaccine, deworming pills, and an antifungal cream) and the lingering sense of worry about Shera’s future. One of the best parts of working at an international school is the opportunity to travel during the long winter and summer breaks, and we still don’t have a firm plan for how we will make sure Shera is well cared for during those times. We’ve started asking some local families if they are interested in adopting Shera longer-term, but indoor cats are a rarity here, and we haven’t found any takers. Unfortunately, outdoor cats don’t survive long with the dual threat of dogs and leopards (see below).
For now, we are enjoying the feline company and hoping that everything works out for the best.
Bonus: If big cats are more your style, check out this security cam video of a leopard sighting right outside Woodstock’s main gate! Leopards are super shy (no one we've met has ever seen one in person), so they don't pose any real danger to humans.