Chitra didn’t plan to be a hero, but she is. In fact, she’s been a hero for over 1600 four-legged canine and feline friends. But, as often happens, Chitra’s heroism began with one small act of kindness over 25 years ago. It was shortly after arriving in the U. S. from her native Sri Lanka that a chance meeting with destiny changed her life — forever.
The chance encounter occurred while returning from her job as a clinical social worker. Her path home took her through the streets of Harlem. As Chitra passed by one of the delapidated buildings she heard a strange sound. She paused for a moment, but was about to continue her journey when destiny whispered to her again in the form of an almost imperceptibly high-pitched whine. Walking over to the nearby paint-pealed door, Chitra peered through its small keyhole, and met Teddy for the first time. Teddy, a shepherd crossed with who-knew-what else, had been left to guard the building from intruders.
It was love at first sight for Chitra. As a Buddhist-born woman, she’d been raised to respect all forms of life equally. It didn’t seem right for such a friendly dog to be expected to stay by himself day and night behind locked doors. In the moment of gazing into Teddy’s sad brown eyes through the keyhole, Chitra decided to help Teddy gain his freedom.
The vow set Chitra on an arduous journey. For weeks she visited Teddy on her way to and from work, carrying a small bag of dog food kibble. For hours she would sit on the other side of the door, poking the small morsels of food through the keyhole — piece by piece. Soon, Teddy learned to hold his tongue under the hole to catch the food. Chitra’s only reward for her efforts was his occasional high pitch whine. It was enough.
Eventually Chitra learned from people in the neighborhood who owned the building and Teddy. Cautiously she approached the man and introduced herself, being careful not to anger him or make him feel guilty about Teddy. After a couple of weeks she convinced the man to let her take Teddy home with her for the weekend. After all, she had a nice place in Manhatten where Teddy would be well cared for, at least for a couple of days. The man agreed after Chitra promised to bring his dog back early on Monday.
Thus began Teddy’s weekend excursions to Manhatten, where Chitra pampered him like a grand child. Then one weekend Chitra picked Teddy up from the ramshackled building that had been his prison for so long and never returned.
For weeks Chitra suffered verbal abuse and threats of physical violence from Teddy’s owner, but she refused to return the dog to him, knowing Teddy would only be imprisoned again. Instead, she pleaded with the man to have compassion and to let her keep Teddy. Finally, he relented. Chitra kept Teddy for several months, but realized it would be impossible to keep such a large, rambunctious shepherd in her small Manhatten apartment. Even though she knew she could not be Teddy’s owner, she prayed for someone to appear that could give Teddy a good life, a life that a dog with such a big heart deserved.
And then one day, her prayers were answered. He was a kind, soft spoken Spaniard who worrked at the United Nations. Chitra instantly like him and felt in her heart he’d make a good owner for Teddy, but even so, she conducted a thorough background check and insisted on meeting the man before she’d decide whether to relinquish Teddy to him.
Finally, the fateful day arrived; the day Chitra and Teddy would meet the man with the gentle voice. Chitra’s heart strings were taunt with conflicting emotions. She longed for Teddy to find the perfect home where he could live out the rest of his life in luxury, but at the same time her heart ached at the thought of losing him. But with a simple prayer, she promised to do whatever was right and trusted that she’d know what that was once she met the man face-to-face.
They three met in a park not far from Chitra’s apartment. The meeting did not start well. The Spaniard appeared nervous and ill at ease. Was he hiding something that I should know, wondered Chitra? Teddy also seemed a bit concerned, sitting next to Chitra and partially hiding behind her legs. Finally, after a few minutes of chit-chat, Chitra was about to call the whole thing off, when the man’s attention switched to Teddy. He bent down and coaxed Teddy to him. Slowly the dog crept closer to the man, whining softly. As he did so, the man reached into the pocket of his trench coat. If he pulls out a leash what will I do? Chitra asked herself. I’ll pull Teddy back, she realized.
But it wasn’t a leash the man had reached for, but a few small nuggets of dog food. Seeing and smelling the food, Teddy scurried closer. As the man held out a nugget between his fingers, Teddy gently reached out with his tongue for it, as he had done hundreds of times before. But this time, there was no door between Teddy and the rest of the world. And in that moment, as Chitra gazed at the kind man and the dog, she knew she’d fulfilled her vow. Teddy was finally free.
Destiny was far from finished with Chitra. Not long after Teddy exited her life she noticed other dogs being used as “living burglar alarms.” Tried as she might, she could not turn her back on them, nor has she. For over 25 years Chitra has continued her crusade to save the “junkyard dogs and cats” of Harlem.
In the process she has helped rescue over 1,600 animals, many of them starved and physically abused, while she, herself, has been threatened and more than once attacked for her efforts. Still she perseveres. In 1991 Chitra founded Sentient Creatures, Inc., “a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity to help pets and people live harmoniously together.” Destiny called and Chitra couldn’t help but answer. After all, Teddy had left indelible paw prints upon her soul.