July 3, 2006

New Delhi Hospital Cares for Injured Birds

NEW DELHI -- In the honking chaos of Delhi's old city, surrounded by bustling streets and crowded alleys teeming with people, hand-pulled carts and motorized rickshaws spewing exhaust, sits a little haven where sparrows chirp, pigeons coo and peacocks scream.

For bird lovers across northern India, the terra-cotta colored Charity Bird Hospital in the yard of the 16th century Digamber Jain temple has become a sanctuary for ailing birds and small animals.

Anyone finding an injured bird can bring it to the hospital and it will be nursed back to health. All treatment provided by the team of veterinarians and volunteers - including surgery - is free.

And once the birds recover, "they are set free," said Vijay Kumar, a veterinary surgeon at the hospital.

There's also a call-in service that dispenses free advice to owners of ailing birds.

At any given time about 2,500 birds are being treated at the hospital, Kumar said.

"The fall and winter months are the worst time as it's the kite-flying season in New Delhi. Each day we get scores of birds, mostly pigeons, whose limbs have been cut by kite strings in which the birds get entangled," Kumar said.

Sitting in his tiny office, its walls decorated with traditional Mogul paintings that depict different species of birds and hunting scenes, Kumar also doubles as the hospital's accountant, writing out receipts when people drop off a donation.

"My daughter's just cleared her medical college examinations. Whenever something good happens we make a donation to the hospital," said Srimali Jain as she collected a handwritten receipt for her donation of 1,000 rupees, about $22.

In existence since 1929, the hospital runs on thousands of such donations, mostly made by followers of Jainism, a religion that calls for a deeply spiritual deference to all living beings.

"But we get donations from all sorts of people - Hindus, Muslims, Christians. It's a humanitarian cause," said Kumar.

Bird injuries occur all year round. In summer, birds collapse in northern India's searing heat, and many fly into electric poles or vehicles. In winter, it's the dense smog that leads to birds getting injured.

Injured birds are treated and placed in individual cages. When they get slightly better, the birds are moved into a larger cage with other convalescing birds.

"We found this one early this morning," Kumar said while gently wrapping a cotton bandage over a tiny plaster cast on a pigeon's leg. "Its leg was broken and entangled in kite string, but we've set the bone and it will heal."

Once the bird is back in shape, "we will move it to a general ward where we will observe its flying ability and assess whether it can forage for food," said Vinod Singh, a hospital volunteer.

Each morning, Singh braves the sharp stench of bird droppings that fills the airy rooms that serve as cages, checking on how the healing birds are faring and whether any need more treatment.

Since the hospital is guided by the Jain philosophy of not harming even the smallest living creature, the birds, even carnivorous ones, are fed a vegetarian diet of green vegetables, nuts, grains and cereals.

The only hesitation that bird owners have in bringing their pets to the hospital is that once cured the birds are not returned to them, but are set free.

Smaller birds such as finches, sparrows, pigeons and parrots are released from the roof of the hospital. Larger birds like peacocks and eagles are released in forests along the nearby River Yamuna.

"The happiness you get when you set free a healthy bird, cured of all its pain, cannot be described. It has to be experienced," said Singh.