“The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.” – Charles De Gaulle
Tete-a-tete with Derek Demitrius, Founder of Pune Pet Park
For long, Lohegaon was better known for the Pune International Airport as also for 2 wing, one of India's oldest Air Force bases. Now the place is best known for Pune Pet Park, co-incidentally the brainchild of an ex-Air force maverick, a safe haven for pets that we discovered in the course of trying to do our bit for the wonder dog Ricky from our society premises.
Derek grew up in the cosy, reassuring company of dogs. His canine love became more pronounced when he joined the Indian Air Force in 1984 when he relished every opportunity to interact with and look after the dog squads. In 1995, he was released from the Air Force (not retired, as it was his own request to call it a day). A father of two sons, he eventually moved to Pune for good after spending a few years in New Delhi as a family man.
Derek did some crash courses and ended up becoming a merchandiser, and had brief stints as Country Manager for a couple of reputed companies. He eventually formed his own venture in the UK, a company called Black Scorpion Limited trading in interior accents like clocks, vases, furniture and the like. It were the Black Scorpion proceeds that went into the making of the Pet park project. When the financial needs of the park were beyond Black Scorpion's capacity, Derek dissolved the company and placed all faith in his inherent skills and competencies to get his pet project moving. He knew everything about developing a value chain of vendors and getting other things in place, but he lacked construction experience. So he spent time on research and soon found out that construction was no rocket science. With the right labour, you can achieve what seems impossible otherwise. Thus began an elaborate search on the internet: for designs, electrical fittings, plumbing, and drainage systems. Derek commenced construction on the site in March 2016 and completed the design, layout, electrification and plumbing of the entire park all by himself.
Today, Pune Pet Park has an Aviary, a walk-in Bird Cage approximately the size of one and half times of a 20 foot container, 12000 square feet of space for dogs to run around freely, a 600 foot cage-free, closed air conditioned kennel with another 2000 square feet play area around the kennel. Above all, the Pet park is also equipped with a crematorium and would soon incorporate an Incinerator, prayer Room and memory Room, probably the first for pets in India. Right now we are managing cremations with wood but would eventually move to gas.
The under-construction structures include a small cafeteria, a 4 feet deep, 2000 square feet swimming pool (one of the largest in India) complete with a filtration plant, a Dog Spa and a grooming parlour, Cattery to accommodate 14 cats at a time with individual suites, a rooster for Rabbits hamster and guinea Pigs, an emergency clinic to cater to vaccinations and small surgeries, a Pet store for sale of food and accessories. The entire facility should be full operational end of June next year.
Excerpts from the conversation with Derek:
On the inception of Pune Pet Park...
During 2006-7, Pune witnessed a remarkable inward migration, when co-habitation suddenly became an insurmountable problem. Before people realized, housing societies ceased to be 'co-operative', though the statutory nomenclature continued to suggest the contrary. These imposing residential structures now became an unabashed show of power, money, influence and lifestyle for most inhabitants. During this painful transition, a pet in the house proved a big solace for many emotionally drained individuals who had been suffering the wrath of their callous counterparts for long. Lonely and depressed, all they had for company was their pet dog or cat. The dog especially was now a family member who roamed about freely doing things he took for granted; among other things peeing and pooping at will. The owners had no qualms about this indulgence either.
This was the trigger point for people not used to what they believed were nasty things: doggy smell, poop pee et al. On the other hand, the pet owner likened the odour to the incense offered in a temple. This glaring divide between pet owners vs. non pet owners invited regular altercations between society dwellers. Pet owners hardly acknowledged the need to bathe their pets, clean up their litter while the non pet-owners were in no mood to relent either. What ensued was a huge squabble that has now been conveniently included under the generic term of "Animal Cruelty".
This dichotomy sparked the idea of incepting a Park dedicated to Pets, where people could let their pets poo and pee without causing civic disruption, and also learn more about their responsibilities as pet owners. Thus was born Pune Pet Park and the rest is history.
On the milestones of the Pet Park evolution...
In 2007, we (me and a close friend) used to meet every night at a place opposite Koregaon Park police station. Of the eleven dogs, three belonged to her and eight belonged to me, those that I had adopted or rescued. All dogs were basically pedigree, and the heartthrobs of many: one St Bernard, one Belgian Shepherd, one Labrador, two Pugs, one Havanese, one Corgi, one Mongrel and three Lhasas. These were lovely, harmless dogs who loved the outing and the freedom granted to them. In about a month's time, these 11 grew to almost 40 as others joined the rendezvous. The timing was perfect as, after a hard day at work, people found it refreshing to bring their pet out for a half an hour stroll.
Barely three month had passed when disaster struck. People began complaining against us, and soon they had people shouting more than dogs barking. Pune Mirror seized the opportunity and devoted a whole page report which completely threw things out of gear. The PI from the police station was very helpful as he was aware of our noble intentions. He gave us an alternate place but that didn't work out either. We then hired the Don Bosco Basket Ball court in Koregaon Park and restricted the socializing to weekends.
But that was not what I had planned for, so I began hunting for dedicated land for this purpose. In parallel, I conducted dog training and rehabilitation programs. I was time and again approached by PFA to handle some of their dogs. I was handed over the entire pack of Beagles from Lupin for acclimatization and rehabilitation. Although I was helping PFA, they didn't pay even for basics like dog food. I badly needed a place that would sustain itself, I he could no longer manage with his resources. I had to do something and I to do it fast.
We then changed our policies of adoption and made people bring in food or pay for vaccines if they wanted to adopt a pet. I thankfully realized this was a truly effective filter as we stopped getting calls from people that wanted a pet but did not want to pay to look after it. Thereafter, we were flooded only with genuine inquiries, from people who were really concerned about adopting a dog, willing to spend on it and treat it like a member of the family. This change was encouraging and I started scouting for places with fresh resolve. But most places were either too expensive or far-off from the city.
Then one day, I came across this awesome piece of land in Lohegaon. Since the prices were still high, I was initially looking only for 10000 square feet, but one look at the land, and my dreams got bigger. We measured 20,000 square feet to accommodate a pool and a kennel but something was still not right. It would be nothing compared to the kennels I had seen in the UK or on the net. So, we finally bought a whole corner of 34000 square feet on lease for 11 years, renewable for another 11 years.
On key challenges...
The foremost daunting challenge is Finance. In this country, entrepreneurs don't have many avenues for financing their dream projects, with sweet exceptions like those from the IT sector. Securing private investors for a project like this is very difficult but I have been persistent. We are almost 60% complete in construction terms. If we find a committed investor, we may be able to complete the entire construction year-end, else it will take another year to have this proof-of-concept fully ready.
On the appeal to the world at large...
In general, there are no Dog haters, unlike what the media loves to project. We do have one-off incidents that are not surprisingly blown out of proportion by the media for their own benefit. If you look after your dog well and make sure you clean up behind you, I am sure nobody would ever mind you having a dog. To the people conducting these so-called adoption camps, I have a humble plea: force each volunteer of yours to take a dog home, and you would never have any dog on the street. Stop being hypocrites and pass on a dog to someone with genuine love for pets!
On proposed expansion/diversification plans...
All said and done, Pune Pet Park is merely a proof of concept. I am yearning to see this project duplicated (not franchised) in Pune and other cities as well. I wish this projects grows into an industry by itself, and thankfully, I see lot of scope and potential for that to happen.
So that's Derek for you, a thought leader-practitioner, solitary reaper, dreamer and yet a pragmatist..
To the Venture capital/Private Equity fraternity out there, here's one project vying for your attention and money. Like there's sport beyond cricket, there are viable projects even beyond software setups, food delivery apps and e-commerce stores. Do a thorough due diligence of this project and if you are convinced, please help it grow to a size and scale it deserves. For more details visit http://www.punepetpark.com/