HUMANS HELPING ANIMALS
A short distance from Dharamsala lies an animal farm like no other, where humans are finding out that it's possible to live without causing suffering.
Robin Singh, co-founder of Peepal Farm
“Most people say that they love animals. But what they really mean is that they love their pet. There is this imaginary boundary in our minds between pets and farm animals. We’ll do everything possible to protect companion animals like dogs and cats, but we have no problem slaughtering farm animals because we have no attachment to them.
At Peepal Farm, visitors work with both sets of animals at the same time. Over time, those imaginary boundaries gradually begin to blur. People start seeing all animals in the same light.
Peepal Farm is an animal recovery centre that I co-founded in Dhanotu, a few kilometres from the popular tourist hub of Dharamsala. Originally from Delhi, my dream as a child was to read books and help dogs. I grew up to be programmer, moved to the US, started my tech own company in 2003 and eventually forgot all about that childhood dream. Sometime around 2010, I started to get restless. I was running a successful business but wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
And so I decided to travel. I visited Auroville, the experimental township near Puducherry. There, I helped an elderly woman who was single-handedly looking after 40-50 stray dogs. Vowing to return, I headed home to the US and later crossed paths with Joellen Anderson, who was working with an animal welfare NGO at the time. I told her about Auroville and she wanted to help out. In 2012, she accompanied me to India and together we revived the animal shelter in Auroville.
It was during this period that I realised that instead of chasing money, I wanted to spend my life helping those who can’t help themselves. And animals are on the lowest rung of that ladder.
Peepal Farm also tries to find homes for animals who can't fend for themselves. After the word was put out on social media, some well-wishers from Delhi and Amritsar adopted a couple of horses, while two dogs found new owners in Finland and the US respectively.
The crux of the issue is that animals are seen as objects created for our benefit and not as entities who have rights. Joellen and I felt the way forward would be to focus on animal welfare in such a way that the impact would be not just on the animals, but on humans as well. In short, we wanted to weave awareness into the welfare work. We wanted to lead by example and show that there is way of moving through life without causing suffering. And that’s how Peepal Farm came to be.
We settled on a 1.5 acre farm in Dhanotu. In late 2014, construction started on what was to become in a few months time a full-time animal recovery centre - a safe haven for rescued animals that needed space to heal.
These rescues happen by word of mouth. If the injured animal is within an 8-km radius, we take a jeep out and rescue it. If it’s farther away, we request the callers to arrange for transportation and once the animal arrives, we do whatever we can to look after it. We treat most of the animals ourselves, for some we call in a private vet, and in more complicated cases we take them to a veterinary hospital. Thus far, we’ve provided refuge to mules, dogs, cats, cows, bulls and horses.
In addition to the animal recovery centre, the farm has two other sections - a farmstay and a cultivation area where we grow our own food. Apart from me, there are only two other permanent residents on the farm. The rest of the team comprises a rotating band of helpers.
As opposed to a volunteer programme, we primarily run a work exchange initiative. We do not pay people but give them food and accommodation in exchange for six hours of work they put in six days a week for a minimum of a fortnight. These visitors, who come from all around the world, help with everything from rescues to rehabilitation to housekeeping to construction to carpentry. Apart from the work exchange programme, some visitors come specifically to lend their talent and expertise to creative campaigns aimed at spreading the message of compassion.
We insert our message in places where people don’t expect. For example, we put sweaters on stray cows bearing the words ‘Yeh Cow Meri Hai’. By doing this, farmers chasing away cows would at least be reminded that these are creatures of god and think twice about hurting them. We also started a 'Desi Dog, Desi Log' campaign to encourage people to adopt Indian breeds.
With these initiatives and with every rescue, more people get involved and they become aware of the plight of the animals. Two weeks is not enough to change people’s outlook completely, but it’s enough to plant the seeds of compassion and change. Visitors leave Peepal Farm with a sense of meaning and derive the kind of satisfaction that money can’t buy.
Two years on, I personally draw satisfaction and a feel a sense of fulfilment from the difference we make. In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) asks: “If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?” If you were to ask me that question, I’d say I feel pretty good about it."
AS TOLD TO SIDDESH SHETTY AND NILESH PINTO