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The cats and dogs helping to ease Kashmir's mental health crisis

After decades of violence, and now COVID, pets bring respite and joy

Kashmiri musician Zeeshaan Nabi with his Siberian Husky, Ranger: "Music, my mom and pets helped me survive, otherwise it gets hard to carry on," says Nabi. (Photo by Mugais Malik)

SRINAGAR -- Kashmiri musician Zeeshaan Nabi's eyes brighten and his smile broadens when he talks about his Siberian husky, Ranger, that he credits with saving his life.

"Music, my mom and pets helped me survive, otherwise it gets hard to carry on," Nabi says. Like thousands of Kashmiris who lived through the worst of the armed conflict in this restive region, 28-year-old Nabi suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Seared in his mind is an image of his uncle, a bullet hole in his head, killed in 2004 by unknown gunmen. There was no recourse or closure for Nabi who was then just 11.

Such violence was part of daily life for those born in the early 1990s in Indian-administered Kashmir. Thousands in the Muslim-majority region had taken up arms against the Indian government. Tens of thousands have died in the decadeslong conflict, with many more injured and maimed for life. To this day, violence on Kashmiri streets is not uncommon, and the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic have only made things worse for people here.

Until Ranger came into his life, Nabi felt something of a black hole in his mind that was both growing and gnawing at his sense of self. "I felt so alienated from the people around me that I did not want to communicate with anyone, I started becoming reclusive, and that is when self-harm came... I feel uncomfortable talking about it now," said Nabi.

This was despite therapy and his burgeoning career as a musician. "I was doing great in music, my life was good, too. But just because of where we live and how we live, things did not seem well and that is something which leaves an impact on the mind," he said, recalling thoughts so dark that it leads to a "depressive state of mind."

Top: Kashmiri musician Zeeshaan Nabi enjoys a moment with his Siberian husky, Ranger: Bonding with dogs is hard for many Muslims, who are often taught that dogs are unclean. Bottom: Unlike dogs, cats are revered by most Muslim societies, especially in Kashmir. (Photos by Mugais Malik)

What transformed his life was the arrival of Ranger. "Watching Ranger run feels so liberating. It is a sense of freedom. ... If I spend one hour with him, I feel relieved. I run after him, he runs after me. It helps relieve that constant burden."

It is against the grain for Muslims to own dogs, with many taught to avoid touching them because they are considered dirty. Even for Nabi, owning a dog did not come easily -- it took him several days to persuade his parents. After his brother brought a beautiful dog to the family, finally his parents relented. But not without setting a few rules: they could not take the dog inside, and they had to wash his hands every time they touched Ranger. "And now my parents love Ranger as well," said Nabi.

Still, Nabi is among hundreds of Kashmiris who have sought comfort in keeping dogs and other pets.

According to a 2015 study by Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Srinagar-based Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), nearly one in five people in Kashmir show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2016 study published by the institute and ActionAid estimated that 11% of the population had a mental health disorder, substantially higher than the national average of around 7%.

This mental health crisis worsened when India imposed a security lockdown and communications blackout in August 2019 after it abolished Kashmir's autonomous status. Not long after that, the coronavirus pandemic struck and Kashmiris once again found the walls closing in.

A "ticking time bomb" is how IMHANS clinical psychologist Zoya Mir described the state of mental health in Kashmir. She says she has seen a surge in patients since August 2019, and that around half of them have been affected by the Kashmir situation directly or indirectly. "The number of patients visiting the outpatient department has doubled, today 350 to 400 patients visit the OPD, earlier the number would be around 200," Mir says.

Given that the benefits of pet ownership are so well-documented -- pets help to reduce loneliness and anxiety; they offer owners a focus and structure for the day; and importantly, they also encourage their owners to play -- it is no wonder that over the past five years there has been such a sharp increase in the number of pet shops across Kashmir.

"It is a way to cope up with anxiety, loneliness and stress," said Farah Qayoom, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Kashmir.

Dr. Shahid Hussain Dar, a veterinarian, said that when he joined his government-funded animal hospital in 2010, he would treat only a handful of animals each month. Today, he and his colleagues are seeing around four to five pets daily, with many more in private clinics.

"There has been huge demand [for veterinary services] among Kashmiris since 2017, and people come here from across the region to get their pets treated," says Dar. Civil unrest reached a peak in Kashmir in 2016-17, with more than 100 people killed, and up to 15,000 people injured in violent street protests.

Top: When Shahid Hussain Dar began working as a veterinarian in 2010, he treated only a handful of animals a month. Now he and his colleagues four to five animals a day. Bottom: Bashir Ahmed and his daughter, Batool Fatima, with their cat, Jaani, at Dr. Shahid Hussain Dar's clinic. "She is my other child," says Ahmed. (Photos by Mugais Malik)

Journalist Syed Shahriyar survived being shot at covering a protest in the turmoil of 2016. One colleague was not so lucky, blinded by a pellet gun used by paramilitary forces. "He was lying right in front of me in a pool of blood, writhing in pain," recalled the 28-year-old Shahriyar.

While his colleague lost his sight, Shahriyar says he lost his peace of mind, "For years I was on antidepressants. I could not sleep for days after that incident," says Shahriyar, visibly nervous.

Prescribed a course of medication, Shahriyar was unable to shake his anxiety until he finally found calm taking care of his cousin's cat, Kitty. "I did not like pets, but Kitty senses my mood, purrs in front of me when I am down. It is wonderful to feel the love from an animal," said Shahriyar.

For the elderly, pets also provide companionship. Bashir Ahmad, 63, believes his cat has helped him keep his sanity during the long empty days of the COVID lockdown through 2019 as well as the days afterward. Unlike dogs, cats are revered and well loved in Muslim society. "If not for Janni, I would not have made it," said Ahmed of the successive lockdowns.

"During the first wave of the pandemic, everyone told me not to keep her at home, but I was clear that she had to live with us, even if it meant catching the virus," said Ahmed, looking at videos on his phone of his cat playing with him. "She is my other child," he added, with his daughter, Fatima, nodding vigorously in agreement.

Today, as Jammu and Kashmir reels from a lethal second wave of the pandemic and India records upward of 300,000 new cases a day, the country's health system is on the brink of collapse.

With authorities imposing a raft of new restrictions -- but still short of a complete lockdown -- the pandemic has only added another layer to the uncertainty to a life of hardship faced by so many Kashmiris over the last three decades.

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