By Maya Nakra
Many thanks to Maya Nakra for permission to share her thesis about the human-dog conflict in India.
The entire paper is available to view below.
One of the earliest references to dogs in Indian mythology is in the classic narrative of the Mahabharata which tells the tale of the Svana or stray dog that joins the epic’s hero, King Yudhishthira, in his final pilgrimage across the Himalayas after he renounces his throne. In the anecdote, the King wins entry through the gates of heaven by proving his devotion to the dog, thereby demonstrating his worthiness.
The story thus preaches the lesson of valuing the stray dog as a loyal companion and its consequent advantages. Not just the Mahabharata but indeed several ancient religions have traditionally promoted rituals of feeding homeless dogs as a means of retrieving blessings and benefits.
The position of the stray dog in modern day India, however, is quite different and has in fact increasingly acquired a negative association. The topic has gained attention, with the Supreme Court hearing a host of petitions relating to orders passed by various civic bodies on the culling of street dogs in light of the alleged rise in dog bite cases especially in Kerala and Mumbai. Nothing short of a war has erupted in the country between those who advocate the complete, and often violent, eradication of strays and those who lend a voice to homeless dogs, fighting for their right to live. So which side of the debate deserves precedence in this human-dog conflict? The answer is complex and deserves sufficient space in public discourse and policy.
Historically known as the Indian Pye or Pariah dog, this species of dogs is the naturally selected canine breed of the Indian sub-continent. Today their population can be measured at almost 20 million in the country. Packs of dogs can be seen in every city, sharing sidewalks, market places, parks and residential colonies with humans. Homeless and hungry, these dogs rely on their natural instincts to survive and carve a space for themselves in cities bustling with people. Given the limitations of space in urban settlements, there is a constant clash between humans and dogs.
The problem has escalated recently in certain parts of the country with vigilante groups taking matters into their own hands by forming barbaric ‘stray dog eradication committees’, arming civilians with airguns to kill stray dogs in large numbers. There have even been reports of these groups providing training to young children, encouraging them to participate in these horrific killings. In some cases matters have taken a sadistic turn with members of political groups brutally killing street dogs and displaying their carcasses as a symbolic protest.
Animal rights groups have in response joined forces with lawyers to submit petitions against these mass killings and vie for some kind of legal protection for homeless dogs in the country. However, giving legal legitimacy to these appeals must be accompanied by a general understanding of the issue at hand which may be achieved by answering some key questions – why is there such a high population of stray dogs in India? Do these animals actually pose a threat to society? Is mass killing and eradication an effective solution? And finally, what are the ways in which humans and stray dogs can co-exist?
Sharing the urban space – Scientific study helps unfold the often misunderstood human-stray dog conflict
Pye dogs have lived in Indian villages and cities for thousands of years but their numbers have escalated notably with the development of urban cities. Urban spaces present the dichotomy of a limited physical space with enabling conditions for the multiplication of stray dogs. These conditions can be broadly divided into – insufficient administrative action, poor sanitation standards, irresponsible pet ownership and animal welfare without responsibility.
The stray dogs and their ‘menace’ have grabbed many headlines – their brutal killing of infants or them being mercilessly butchered by people. But who is to blame in this human – dog conflict?
Dogs are regarded as man’s ‘best friend’. Being the descendants of wolves, they are primarily carnivorous and scavenge for their food. They are intelligent and have a superior sense of smell, hearing and vision than us – making them capable of helping the blind, guarding the house, rescuing hikers on mountains or detecting a bomb in a suitcase. They are also one of the most preferred pets around the world, some even trained to detect seizures and diabetes!
But when and how did this furry friend end up with a lot of fury? How did they become a menace in our cities? As the saying goes –‘you can’t solve a problem until you’re asking the right question’; here we delve on some pertinent questions regarding this challenge.
An extensive field research was done on stray dogs, studying their role in an urban setting, and their behaviors and the reasons behind the increasing human-dog conflict.
Stray dogs – A case study for behavioural ecology
Dogs are a good model system for addressing many basic questions in behavioural ecology. In India, they are easily available, easy to work with and inexpensive.
Dogs were the first of the animals to be domesticated by our early ancestors, sometime around 15,000 and 32,100 years ago. Since then, they have lived with us, sharing our habitats. The process of evolution from wolf-like ancestors to the modern day dogs through domestication is not understood clearly, though there are several hypotheses. That’s what makes studying free-ranging populations interesting. It can provide insights into this mystery and the adaptations that they have acquired to live with us.
There are extensive studies on pet dogs and their social interaction with humans. And these results are extrapolated to the entire dog population, which is not quite correct. As pets, these dogs are habituated to humans intimately since birth, and do not have to undergo the ‘struggle for survival’. In order to understand the biology of a species, one needs to study them in their natural habitat, where they exist as freely breeding populations. India, like many other countries, provides that perfect opportunity.
Stray dogs are often regarded as carriers of various diseases including rabies. But they play a very important role in the ecology of our cities, clearing up the organic waste in our garbage dumps. They feed selectively on animal proteins, and thus are good scavengers. Though they typically don’t hunt in urban settings, occasionally seen and found them kill rats and frogs. Perhaps if there were to be no dogs, populations of other scavengers like rats, cats and crows would increase rapidly.
Dogs are highly territorial and protective about their territory. They help keep intruders in our neighborhoods away, especially at night, thus keeping our streets safe. In rural areas, there are instances of dogs that help keep away jackals and other predators.
Living in harmony with the strays
The territorial behavior of dogs is what puts them at odds with us – chasing vehicles and attacking humans. They mark out the boundaries of their territories using urine and recognise each other’s territories by these markings. If dogs are chasing your vehicle, they are doing so because they are smelling the scent mark of other dogs on your vehicle, there is no need to chase them away rather just drive through and move away.
Territorial fights are also common among dogs, owing to their behaviour. When dogs are engaged in a territorial fight, or are mating, it’s best to let them be. Getting in the midst of them might lead to one getting attacked unnecessarily.
A common reason why people get in trouble with dogs is when they have puppies, as mothers are very protective of their pups. Some bitches are more protective than others, and one can get bitten if he/she is too close to a den.
Often there are instances where people feed strays or jump to adopt young pups, just for fun. Dogs are social, and the pups learn important lessons of survival from their mothers and other adults in the group. Adopting pups when they are very small and abandoning them later will put their life at risk. Since they would have remained protected at a young age, they are likely to face a lot of problems when they are left to fend for themselves – without being accepted in established groups, knowing how to forage, and unable to hold their own in fights.
Interference of any kind, good or bad, can affect dogs – a fact that most dog lovers don’t understand. The bottom line is to leave the dogs by themselves and not to interfere too much in their private lives unless one adopts them for life.
Controlling stray populations – a stop to the ‘menace’?
Most city corporations believe controlling stray dog population can help resolve human-dog conflicts. According to Prof Bhadra’s research and a 5 year long census in West Bengal, only 19% of the pups that are born actually reach sexual maturity due to human influence. Pups and adult dogs are often poisoned, beaten or taken away. Hence increasing dog population may not be the real problem. The problem arises when male pups are selectively adopted and later abandoned giving them a low chance of survival. This means there are more female dogs reaching sexual maturity and giving more births. And this skewed ratio influenced by human interference results in more growth in the population.
Animal Birth Control (ABC) programmes that neuter or sterilise stray dogs, are widely implemented in cities, have shown minimal results. Why? We don’t have effective animal birth control programmes that span the whole country, and given the size of our country, that is difficult to achieve. Often, dogs in pockets are neutered by the locals, but this does not work in the long run. It is important to know the breeding cycle of the dogs in order to understand which time of the year should be targeted for neutering. Moreover, long term studies are to be carried out to understand how neutering affects the behaviour of the dogs in the context of their social lives.
So what can cities do to make programmes like ABC successful? If local municipalities have to implement ABC programmes, they need to put in concerted effort, so that neighboring areas do not have breeding populations, and this is easier said than done. Also, there needs to be an understanding of the health hazards that the dogs might face if they are neutered too early or too late.
Beyond ABC: Tackling Human-Dog Conflict in India
In India, there are approximately 20 million dogs, most of whom are either strays or partly owned but free-roaming. Like it or not, dogs and people have to co-exist in our cities and villages, and sometimes there is conflict between them. Conflict includes not just the killing of dogs (like in Kerala), but also neglecting dogs in distress, beating and stoning them, and displacing them from their territories.
The first approach that comes to mind when most people think of resolving this conflict is Animal Birth Control (ABC), or sterilisation. And rightly so – it has shown documented success in reducing dog population in several cities in India. But if after decades of ABC, cities still face this conflict.
We have to ask the question: what are we missing? Even in places with successful ABC programmes with adequate budgets, competent staff, and government support, dogs continue to get beaten, neglected, displaced, and sometimes even killed. Over the last year, FIAPO consulted and visited some of the aggrieved communities, in order to figure out why. They listened to people who have been bitten by dogs, who are scared of dogs, dog-lovers, health officers, vets, NGOs and municipal corporations alike. It was observed that dogs were not persecuted just because of their population. Instead, that people were more concerned about contracting rabies, about being able to navigate their neighborhoods without fearing packs of dogs, and if they are bitten, about being able to get support and medical assistance. Dog-bite victims need immediate help and support that the long-term solution of ABC cannot offer.
The solutions for ending conflict situations continue to narrow down to ABC. But it’s clear that to protect dogs on the streets of India, ABC alone is not the answer. Other equally important and more immediately effective measures to end conflict between humans and dogs have to be considered.
Studies show that in order to eliminate rabies from a dog population, 70% of dogs have to be vaccinated against it. Such large numbers are difficult to handle, yet dedicated ARV (independent of ABC) is desperately needed if we want an end to rabies. To be able to assure people that they won’t contract rabies from a dog, it needs to be ensured that the dog is currently immune to the disease. This can happen only through a dedicated street dog vaccination programme.
Dog Bite Prevention Education
There is a dire need to sensitize the community about how to behave around street dogs. Dog lovers may respond differently to the same dog than people who are not as comfortable around them. Some of us have learnt the basics of dog behaviour, while others have not. We have found that much of the ill will against street dogs stems from fear and ignorance. Education is the only way to dispel this fear, and to get people to accept dogs in their communities as the wonderful companions they are capable of being.
Counselling for Dog Bite Victims
Dog bites can be traumatic, and victims of dog bites must be cared for immediately. In the absence of proper counselling, it is found that dog bite victims, their families and their community at large become susceptible to extreme aggression towards all street animals, considering them a menace. Counselling requires more than just educating victims about how to prevent future incidents, though sharing basic knowledge such as how to treat injuries and avoid risky situations can go a long way in helping alleviate their fears and potential hatred toward dogs in their community. Counsellors must act as a support system to dog bite victims and offer their services to the community to help people feel secure and safe, thereby safeguarding both human and animal welfare.
With the national campaign Rabies Free, FIAPO (Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations) is now working throughout India, to not only help implement ABC, but also carry out Anti-Rabies Vaccinations, Dog Bite Prevention Education, and Victim counselling.
A stray-free future – The big question
Dog free streets or controlled population of stray dogs – it’s a hard decision to make. But scientifically, with the current data available, both these do not look to be a promising future. On the one hand, we need more studies to chalk out a proper population control that is sustainable and works, but on the other, we do not yet know the ramifications of a stray dog free city. Will that turn into a garbage dump? Or would it mean more rats instead? But what might work is to learn to live in harmony with these strays that share the cities with us, and if possible, perhaps share lives.
While unsanitary garbage disposal and negligent administrative action are undeniably chief contributors to the problem, the issue is also aided by ignorant and reckless civilians. Irresponsible pet ownership and dog walking often results in pet dogs mating with and impregnating stray dogs thereby adding to the number of litters produced each year on the streets. In addition, the fascination with buying foreign breeds coupled with a lack of knowledge regarding the many positive attributes of the Indian Pye dog, has led to a thriving and often unethical breeding industry in the country.
Sadhwi Sondhi, Co-Founder of Red Paws Rescue in Delhi, says “Street dogs are such a common sight that people see no novelty in adopting them as pets at home. Moreover, most people think strays are dirty and there’s a taboo associated with them”. As a result, Indian Pye dogs continue to throng the streets and fill cages in shelters with little hope of getting a permanent home. We must also recognize the consequences of animal caregiving without taking responsibility for sterilisation and vaccination.
While those feeding street dogs are undoubtedly performing a good deed, it is imperative to fulfil caregiving responsibilities wholly by ensuring that the dogs are inoculated, and neutered or spayed. Feeding strays is just one part of our responsibility. Keeping the population under control through sterilisation and caring for their overall health and welfare are the other two critical parts of being a caretaker of stray animals.
For years, Animal Welfare Organizations (AWOs) and activists have stressed the importance of an effective Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme. Municipal bodies have been bestowed with the responsibility of running vaccination and sterilization programmes, thereby ensuring safety from animal-borne diseases for humans and dogs alike while simultaneously restricting the stray dog population. However, neither has there been an official census of the stray dog population in several years nor does there exist a smooth-running ABC program.
Animal Welfare Organizations have tried to play their part in establishing ABC programmes of their own but face manifold difficulties. AWOs are handicapped by limited funding and rely mostly on donations to conduct their daily operations. Additionally, there aren’t nearly enough ABC centres in cities.
The rapidly growing street dog population does not only lead to conflict with humans but is equally grim for homeless animals who endure daily hardships and often violent human behavior to survive. It thus follows that the solution must be one of balance and equitable respect for all life forms. The Supreme Court of India has recently acknowledged that stray dogs have a right to life, however the judgement will translate into sustainable action only when and if it is complemented by a humane form of regulation and accountable compassion by authorities and civilians alike.
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