rescuing street dogs in Madras, India

The Crazy Foreign Dog Lady Of Madras

A shaggy dog rescue story

Kate Holcombe helped run Colgate University’s study abroad program in Madras, India, when she first met Rani. She had been laid up with a stomach bug, not leaving the house, and on the day she finally felt well enough, she stopped at a fruit cart she passed every day to get some bananas. What she got instead was far more than she bargained for.

It was monsoon season, Holcombe remembers, a wet day when the water was high in the streets. “I walk up to get my bananas and I see something out of the corner of my eye,” she says. “It’s this little puppy under the fruit cart, so I end up spending some ridiculous amount of time, at least an hour, maybe more, in the rain on the side of the road. It’s mucky, people are driving by, we’re being splashed. But there were these six puppies that were the puppies of this black dog who was looked after by the fruit cart guys. I spent like an hour and a half, maybe two, some embarrassingly long amount of time in the rain and mud on the side of the road with these puppies.”

Holcombe’s Tamil was good enough for her to learn from the street cart guys, who themselves slept on the street, that the puppies would probably have no one to look after them, so she immediately started making inquiries about what it would take to bring them back to the United States. After learning that the U.S. consulate didn’t have any particular problem with her bringing the dogs back to the U.S. with her, she took the two females of the litter back to her hotel.

Holcombe was living at the time in a Brahmin hotel, one with “pretty strict rules” about cleanliness—rules that didn’t include stray dogs residing on the premises. But Holcombe knew the room boys there pretty well, and forged a pact of secrecy with them that allowed her to move the dogs in and out of her room in order to take them to the vet for their shots. Or so she thought.

“It was just a pretty sweet experience, knowing how much these dogs touched people’s lives”

Just days before she was to bring them back to the States, one of the dogs got sick and died. “The dog dies, and the room boys on the floor, my partners in crime, who have been supposedly keeping my dogs under wraps, they were crushed over the loss of this dog. But then I eat at the restaurant there and I go to pay my bill at the front office, and the front-office managers say, ‘Madame, we’re so sorry about the puppy,’ and I realize everyone in the whole place knew about the dogs. I thought I was being so sneaky! But the entire establishment was heartbroken over the loss of this dog.”

The surviving puppy—the runt of the litter—Holcombe named Chinna, or Little One. Chinna did come back to the States with her. But soon after, Holcombe and her new husband, Craig, returned to India for another two and a half years—and brought the dog back with them.

In India, Holcombe again sought out the fruit cart boys who had cared for Chinna’s mother. “The main guy, Ramesh, he called her Rani, or Princess. All the other fruit cart boys called her Blackie in Tamil,” Holcombe recalls. “So I go back and I visit Rani a lot, just because she’s the mother of my child, I want to honor her. So I go visit Ramesh and the fruit cart guys, and Rani has a new litter, tiny little puppies like little mice, so tiny they fit in my hand.”

But Rani herself had been injured in a fight with another dog and was in bad shape. “So crazy Kate was like, I’m going to help them,” Holcombe told Good Turns recently. “So I scoop up all these puppies, I bring them to the vet, and he said, ‘These are amazing dogs. I’m going to find a home for the boy dogs.'”

The veterinarian gave the three female dogs to Holcombe, and sent her home with a dropper to feed them, but with a warning: he didn’t think they’d make it through the night. “He said, ‘They’re diseased, they’re too little, they’re probably filled with worms,’ which they were. ‘If you can hand-feed them with the droppers, maybe they’ll make it, but bring them back to me every day for IVs.'”

“So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll take the girls,’ and I took the three female dogs and I literally dumped them at the apartment with Craig,” she says. “He has forgiven me now, but at that time, I left him with these three screaming puppies who are defecating and barfing blood and worms non-stop, and he was like, ‘They’re going to die in my hands!'”

Holcombe told him, “Sorry, dude, I love you, but you’ve got to take care of these three puppies. I’ve got to go back and help the mother. I’m not going to leave her to suffer. She’s the mother of my baby.”

Holcombe brought Rani to the vet, who, hours later, was able to save her. At nearly midnight, she brought Rani back to the fruit cart boys. “I bring her back, and you can’t believe these boys. I call them boys, but they’re really men, and they start sobbing when they see me coming back with this animal, they could not believe it. Ramesh grabs my hands and arms, which people don’t usually do, and tears are streaming down his face, and he says, ‘Madame, thank you, thank you!’ And it’s midnight and we’re making this straw bed for her, finding straw, setting her up comfortably. It was so moving. Til the end of my life, it was one of the beautiful events.”

“That night after I dropped her off and the whole tearfest, I go back to my apartment, where Craig is with these screaming puppies, and he won’t even talk to me, he’s so mad at me for leaving him there for 10 or 12 hours. I’m like, ‘I know you’re mad, can I just tell you this story?’ And I tell him the whole story of the night before, Rani going to die, Ramesh crying. And in the end he went from wanting to divorce me to then crying himself, saying, ‘Oh my god, my angel, I can’t believe you did that for this dog, I love you so much, and these dogs are a total pain in my ass, I don’t know how to take care of them!’ So then he and I took care of the three puppies, we raised them over the next three months. Those first three weeks it looked like they were going to die every single day.”

But the puppies didn’t die, and eventually Holcombe found homes in the U.S. for all of them. And they weren’t the only ones. Over the years they were in India, Holcombe and her husband found homes for nearly a dozen street dogs.

“It was just a pretty sweet experience, knowing how much these dogs touched people’s lives,” Holcombe says. “I stopped working for Colgate between 1998 and 2000, but we continued to go back every other year or so. What really amazed me, I’d go back to my old neighborhood and we’d be walking down the street or going to Craig’s favorite hot chips place, and strangers would stop me, years later, and say, ‘Oh, you’re the crazy foreign dog lady!’ And I was like, ‘Yes. Yes I am.'”

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