By Sharon St Joan
This is one of a series of stories about the early days of the animal welfare movement in India.
Blue Cross of India, in Chennai (Madras), was the first of the modern-style animal shelters in India.
For thousands of years in India, there have been goshalas, or sanctuaries for cows, and these still exist; many are run by the Jain community.
Around 300 BC, the emperor Asoka was the first animal activist known to history. He set up pillars all over India, some of which are still in place, with inscriptions of animal welfare laws that are to be followed. The first veterinary hospitals in the world were introduced by Asoka, with a requirement that the remedies to be used were to be based on the natural healing properties of plants.
As the first of the modern Indian animal shelters, the name Blue Cross soon became a generic term for any group that helps animals. There are scenes in Bollywood movies where, when an animal is not being treated with kindness, someone in the crowd will cry out, “STOP! We’re going to call Blue Cross!”
Blue Cross is today the largest and most well known of the over 10,000 registered animal organizations in India. In 1964, they started the first ongoing spay/neuter program in the world, known as ABC, spaying and neutering the street dogs and cats of Madras. This program has gone on uninterrupted for fifty years. They have never stopped, creating a model that has been followed all over the world for relating to street dogs and cats humanely and effectively – the world’s longest running TNR (trap/neuter/return) program. The rabies vaccinations they gave to every animal led to Chennai becoming a rabies-free city.
Captain and Usha Sundaram were the two primary founders of Blue Cross, joined in the early days by a number of others, including their son, Chinny Krishna, who even as a teenager was very actively involved.
Captain and Usha Sundaram were both pilots. At a time when there were few female pilots anywhere, Usha became the first female pilot in India. They flew together, as pilot and co-pilot, carrying dignitaries, including Nehru, Sardar Patel and other high-ranking government officials.
Captain and Usha Sundaram spent some time in the U.K. and when they returned, he joined Indian Airlines as a pilot.
After he had reached the mark of 10,000 flying hours, without an accident, he wanted to do something in gratitude for the blessings of his life. He and Usha talked briefly about starting a leprosy home, since one of Captain Sundaram’s uncles had been a doctor who contracted leprosy while caring for his patients.
They had always been fond of animals though; their house had long been a haven for any stray creature in need of a home, and the animals won out.
First, they started a group within the SPCA, along with D. Devasigamoni, the Vice President of the SPCA and President of the Indian Football Association, calling their group the Animal Aid Association. They focused especially on humane education, going to schools to teach children respect for animals, while giving practical guidance on things like how to approach dogs so as to avoid dog bites.
After around five years, they decided to start something on their own; the name was changed to Blue Cross in 1964.
As well as their son, Chinny, other founding members soon joined. There was G.M. Donner, an Irishman, in 1962. Usha’s father, T.S. Krishnamurthi, and her mother Kamakshi Krishnamurthi, as well as Dawn Swain, also joined; then Chinny’s older brother Suresh, and his younger sister, Viji. There was also Sundari Nataraj, and a railway officer, T.V. Chandrasekar.
Grimmi (short for Grimaldi) and Shaggy were two puppies found and rescued from a storm drain, during a monsoon downpour, by Captain Sundaram. Though the family had always had a houseful of rescued animals, these two became the nucleus of a new group that were related to, not so much as family pets, but as the first rescued animals of Blue Cross.
For the first several years the shelter was run out of their home, and Chinny credits his mother with being the backbone of the entire operation – ceaselessly caring for the animals. She did much of the work herself, getting up extra early, cleaning, feeding, and caring for any sick animals. Two rooms in their house, of about five hundred square feet each, were dedicated to the animals.
In 1968, Chinny, having graduated as a chemical engineer, went to study in the U.S., where he stayed for four and a half years, earning his MS in Business Administration, from Bucknell University, Pennsylvannia.
Having left to study in the U.S. at the same time as eleven of his friends and classmates; Chinny was the only one of them all who returned to India.
When he got back, Chinny and Nanditha Krishna were married in 1974. Nanditha later joined the Board of Blue Cross in 1987.
Like many who make a mark in the world, Captain Sundaram was never known as a quiet, retiring personality. He was intense and volatile, with a flair for the unexpected. He had a passion for machines, and loved going for long drives on his motorcycle.
One day, after telling Usha, in the morning, that he was going to Mamalapuram, about an hour’s drive south of Madras — she received a call from him a few hours later – not from Mamalapuram, but from Bangalore — which is several hours in the other direction, west of Madras. Upset at her husband’s unpredictability, Usha called Chinny, who was also exasperated with his dad. Chinny went to have lunch with his mom and was a helpful, calming influence.
The next chance he got, Chinny “borrowed” his dad’s motorcycle and sold it. He brought him the money and set it down on the table in front of his father. His dad did not look up and did not reply. For a month after that, there was a stony silence on the subject of the motorcycle.
Apart from these occasional family spats, Chinny, his dad, and their whole family had a warm relationship and communicated easily with each other. They worked together closely on behalf of the animals.
As for Captain Sundaram’s rather flamboyant style, it came in very handy on the many occasions when he was standing up for animals.
Top photo: Courtesy of Blue Cross of India / Mrs. Usha Sundaram and Captain Sundaram.
Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / 1st century Indian relief from Amaravati, Guntar district, Andhra Pradesh, Preserved in the unmet Museum, Paris / Believed to represent the Emperor Asoka.
Third photo: Courtesy of Blue Cross of India / A family adopting a dog during the Blue Cross Adoptathon in December 2014.
© Sharon St Joan, 2015
To visit the website of Blue Cross of India, click here.