Photo Credit: HSI
Of late, stray dogs in Kerala have found themselves in the eye of a storm as reports indicate that state officials intend to "cull" them in response to allegations of nearly 40,000 dog bites in eight months. However, Kerala's plan faces stiff opposition from lawyers, animal welfare advocates and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) which has a responsibility to enforce India's no-culling law. In this regard, what are the issues that arise from public perceptions (mostly incorrect) of a burgeoning street dog population and how can we resolve the challenges in ways that are beneficial to both people and animal?
The ubiquitous Indian street dog has evolved into a hardy species battling an unforgiving environment, both intolerant and loving humans, and the vagaries of nature. Their ability to thrive in great numbers in the most trying of conditions has resulted in a problem of plenty. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated India's stray dog population at approximately 25 million. Humane Society International (HSI) has conducted numerous surveys across South Asia and suspects that the street dog population is probably several-fold higher. A recent survey puts the population of street dogs in Haryana state (with 25 million people) at approximately 1.75 million (around seven dogs per 100 people). But these are not "unwanted" dogs who are perceived to be a nuisance. Dogs are generally tolerated but neither the government nor the public wants to take up the challenge of providing for their welfare.
"Dogs are generally tolerated but neither the government nor the public wants to take up the challenge of providing for their welfare."
Meanwhile, these dogs have made the streets their own, making a living mostly from handouts provided by good Samaritans. Unsterilized populations of dogs on the street can contribute to a high number of dog bites, especially during the breeding season when females defend their puppies from unwelcome human attention. While hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom treat around 100 dog bites per 100,000 people every year, Indian hospitals typically treat from 500 to more than 1,000 dog bites per 100,000 people annually. Also, among pets, dogs that are tethered or confined to a small space (to act as guard dogs) are more likely to bite. These dogs are likely feel threatened because their mobility is limited and they cannot avoid potential threats.
Civic corporations as well as private citizens would employ inhumane methods like poisoning, clubbing/beating and electrocution to "control" dog populations. These initiatives rarely produced the desired results. In Chennai (formerly Madras), street dogs were routinely caught and killed beginning in the 19th century up until 1994 when the municipality gave the Blue Cross of India the go-ahead to start an Animal Birth Control (ABC) program. In the 1990s, the Madras municipality was killing more dogs every year proportionally to the human population than ever. Fear of disease and dog bites aside, this brutality may have been based on cultural/religious taboos or simply an intense intolerance towards dogs. Despite these "remedial measures", stray dog populations remained unchanged or even rose. Research shows that when dogs are removed from their ranges, others move in to fill the ecological gap provided by the empty space. Moreover, the increased availability of resources enhances survival of both puppies and adults in the remaining population. The use of a safer, humane method that combines ABC and anti-rabies vaccination, or ABC-AR, has shown more success in the fight against rabies and the effective management of street dog populations. In Jaipur, where Help in Suffering (HIS) implemented an ABC-AR program at around the same time (later supported by HSI), human rabies cases also fell to zero and, more interestingly, the number of dog bites treated in city hospitals fell from around 700 to less than 200 per 100,000 people.
Photo Credit: HSI
The Blue Cross of India's report on Chennai's ABC program revealed incidences of rabies deaths to have come down from 120 to five between 1996 and 2004 (and was down to zero in 2012). The report also cited the example of the Bangalore Municipal Corporation which recorded a substantial decrease in dog bite cases after launching an ABC programme in 2000. There is very little data on the effect of ABC programmes on street dog populations but the ABC-AR programme implemented by HIS in Jaipur resulted in a 28 percent decline from 1995 to 2003 in the city's street dog population (as of 2014, the measured decline was 50 percent).
This approach gained legal validation with the promulgation of the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules (2001) under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. This law lists detailed guidelines to be followed when conducting ABC-AR drives while also disallowing killing or displacing of dogs to bring down their populations. Apart from the obvious inability to reproduce, the absence of breeding behavior leads to lower levels of aggression in dogs. Moreover, being territorial in nature, sterilized and vaccinated dogs within a particular area will prevent unvaccinated animals from moving in, reducing the risk of the spread of diseases like rabies.
ABC-AR has emerged as the most logical mean of managing street dog populations and curbing the spread of rabies. Despite its success, few municipalities in India are aware of the potential to manage street dog populations more humanely and effectively. A successful ABC-AR program requires adequate funding and investment in the training of veterinary personnel.
While the success of ABC-AR depends on several factors, sterilizing and vaccinating street dogs and returning them to their territories on the streets undeniably allows for a natural reduction in their population over time. Without rabies or the urge to reproduce, treated street dogs are more socialized and healthy. As the saying goes, happy are the dogs that wag often and bark less.