[In collaboration with Petwale]
TW: Suicide, Depression, Self harm
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, if you are a pet owner, you will agree that your furry friend has made your life better in ways you didn’t even imagine. Pets bring a sense of joy, and comfort, and occasionally when they destroy your favorite sweater, tears.
It is a proven fact that pets improve the quality of life of pet owners. They improve mental health by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Their presence helps combat loneliness and improves your mood. Interacting with animals helps lower cortisol levels and lowers blood pressure, improves child development, and has even proved to improve life expectancy. But, very little has been said about the effect companion animals can have on the quality of life of sexual minorities. The very little research done in this field has largely focused on how animals have been used as tools of control and coercion against women in abusive relationships. However, as the studies on the intersections of human and animals have grown, they have started exploring how kinship with their pets have helped improve the feelings of loneliness, and isolation and have even played a role in dealing with trauma in the lives of LGBTQIA++ people. The explanation seems rather straightforward: in a world that is still making its way towards acceptance of sexual minorities, queer people have less social support, and having a pet helps provide that emotional support everyone seeks.
‘Daisy Saved Me’
Sanchita Sharan, a Mumbai-based photographer, and mom to one-year-old Daisy grew up in a farm-style home and so the idea of pets was not new to her. However, she only ever gave her heart to Zack, a puppy who stayed by her side through all the hard times. “My mom is bipolar, and we used to be left alone a lot and Zack was just always there. I started living in a hostel soon after, and when I came back home for the first time, I found that my mom had given him away,” she says. Sanchita never let herself get attached to another pet until she found Daisy.
“She saved me,” shares Sanchita. Daisy had been abandoned during the pandemic and had ended up in a shelter. Sanchita who used to volunteer with pet shelters saw a post about her and went to meet the pup. “She was sitting under a table, scared, not letting anyone touch her. I just sat by her and played with other dogs. It took 4 hours before she trusted me enough to let me touch her. She never barked at me, but never left me alone either” she says. This has stayed true to this day. Daisy follows her when she wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the washroom, sits beside her no matter what mood she is in, and even helped her deal with her depression. “I have been battling depression for the past 10-12 years. I am suicidal and have been on medication. I am married, and I have friends and people I care for, but none of it even seemed like a good enough reason to stay. I have desperately looked for something keeping me grounded, something to hold on to, and nothing ever really clicked, until Daisy,” shares Sanchita, before adding, “She doesn’t need anything from me, she just wants to be there.” Watching how Daisy loves her has taught her how to love selflessly. “She never leaves me. Everyone I have loved has left me at some point, but she never does” she adds.
For Anjali Tolani, her 13-year-old Labrador, Puchka, was a way to learn to be an adult. “I was terrified of pets growing up. But, I was gifted two pups when I moved out of Bombay. At the time I was running a resort, so they were taken care of by the people there, so the responsibility was not solely on me. But, they helped me get over my fear,” she says. Puchka entered her life in 2009 when her brother gifted her a 2-month-old pup weighing 4.4 kilos. “I was going through a phase of extreme maternal instincts. I wanted a child, but there was no way to have one. I had just gotten out of my marriage and I was living in a remote location where the odds of meeting someone new was next to nil,” she says. While the thought of getting a pet never occurred to her, it seems her brother had the foresight to imagine that Puchka was all she needed. “Having him has satiated that urge and at the same time scared me off from having my own child,” she muses. From someone who has always shirked away from commitments and has been disinterested in the idea of being tied down, she says, Puchka transformed her. “I used to travel for two months out of the year, and being responsible for someone meant having to give that up. But, he taught me to not be so flighty and be an adult,” she explains.
Talking to him has also become a form of therapy for Anjali. “I am prone to depressive phases and when that happens I don’t want to talk to anyone, which is okay when I am by myself. Now, that’s not an option. I can ignore many people and things but ignoring his needs is not an option. As it is you are wondering whether you are doing enough, so there is no room to wallow, which helps me snap out of it quicker,” she adds.
Learning to be a family
Vrujen, a Goa-based poet and bartender, was gifted Isabella by his partner Kunal, about two years ago. Learning to find joy and meaning in everything around him has been the greatest lesson Isabella taught him, and of course, responsibility. “I truly believe people should get pets before they even think about having kids. Not because the lives of pets are lesser, but because it allows you to get a very small glimpse into how intense it can be,” he opines. Isabella, he shares, has brought out a paternal instinct in him and has also put his own childhood into perspective. “How we parent is based on how you were parented and there is a moment when you can choose what kind of parent you want to be. When I have to correct Isabella, I think about how my tantrums were tackled and I try to deal with the situation in the way in which how I wish my parents would have. But, it is not always just that clear-cut; parenting is always so instinctive,” he adds.
An interesting tidbit Vrujen likes to add is that Isabella is a queer cat. “We thought she was a girl, and hence, named her Isabella. But then, we found that Isabella is in fact a male, and their testicles had not descended and had to be removed. We tell everyone her pronouns are she/her/they.”
Being a family pet, Isabella has been a source to comfort on an individual level, as well as a source of support system around the house. Kunal agrees although he disagrees that Isabella is Vrujen’s pet. “I got her as a pet for us. But, if we break up, I am taking her; she is mine,” he says, chuckling.
Unlike Vrujen, Kunal grew up with a plethora of pets, from turtles he tried to raise in secrecy to parrots who flew in and never left. However, Isabella is different. “As a kid who grew up in Saudi, there was a certain aspect of loneliness and pets helped with that. But, it was also about fun and about what I wanted; it was more selfish. But, now, Isabella is family and she has a say in what happens around the house. In all our decisions, she factors in, which I would not have done as a child,” he explains.
Hyderabad-based Anil is the founder and Vice President of Mobbera Foundation and parent to 5-year-old Tasha. While Anil never had pets growing up, they decided to adopt one after they ran away from their family so that they could live their life unapologetically. “I wish I had pets growing up. Even though they can’t talk, they teach us so much. They show us unbiased love, and in turn, teach us to love ourselves,” they say.
Tasha has been Anil’s chosen family. “Tasha is my daughter; she is my lifeline who saved me from depression and anxiety and taught me to cope with my self-harming thoughts,” they share. Abandoned by their biological family, Anil yearned for someone to call their own. Her love, and cuddles, have been a constant reminder of their place in the world. “With her, I know I am not alone in the world and I have learned that family does not just apply to humans or blood relationships,” they explain.
Tasha has also taught Anil to be a good mother. “Being a mother is not associated with gender identity, it is a behavior, and having Tasha has helped me develop those skills,” they say.
The Not So Rosy Picture
Just like any parent, most pet parents will agree that raising a pet comes with its own set of stress factors. Whether it is a human child or a pet, having someone rely on you can be an overwhelming experience. As rewarding as it is, it also comes with making some hard choices.
For Sanchita, traveling has been a challenge. “I love traveling, but now I have to do a lot of homework and ensure that the place I am going to is pet-friendly. I adapt in ways she can be included, which means there have been a lot of treks. Daisy enjoys them, because she can be off-leash,” she shares.
Anjali too has had similar concerns. “I live a vagabondish life, but he adapted. We have gone on road trips together,” she shares. But, it has not been an easy ride. “I travel a lot for work and until three years ago, I didn’t have full-time help. So when I had to travel there was the guilt of leaving him behind. I started being selective and going only when no one else can be sent, and sometimes, I have resented him for it,” she shares. While she agrees that her life would have been freer if he wasn’t there, it in no way outweighs the positives he brings into her life, she concludes. “We are like an old couple that grew old together; we both have knee problems. He also has spondylitis and arthritis, and I can see that he has his struggles, but he is still a puppy at heart. “It is not lost on me that he is toward the end of his lifeline, and I want to spend as much time as I can with him. He was the naughtiest pup, and sometimes I miss seeing that energy, but even now, he is so excited for his walks and loves to run around, and when I see him, I know I have no excuses,” she adds.
At the end of the day, that is the love that Puchka taught her; to be there irrespective, to sit beside the one you care for even when the energy drops.
For Kunal and Vrujen, raising Isabella has been an exercise in patience. “No matter how hard we try, there are just some things we don’t understand and I get frustrated with myself and with the pet because any solution to fix the problem is lost on me at that moment,” says Kunal. Many such instances have ended in tears.
Vrujen agrees and adds that it gets easier to read your pet as you build a connection, but it is a slow journey. “When I lose my patience and lash out at her, I find it really difficult to come to terms with,” he shares.
But there is no doubt that they would do this all over again. Albeit a slow one, they agree, it has been a beautiful journey.