So here we go again. An elderly lady was tragically mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs, and the Kerala state government has decided to take the easy way out and do a mass culling of stray dogs, just like last year. Animal lovers and welfare groups are trying their best to advocate the right to life of these dogs, again just like last year. Those who support the state government's decision emphasize that stray dogs are a continual menace to society, just like last year.
Yes it's true that many stray dogs do bite humans and people do end up dying from contact with rabid animals. But it is also true that many stray dogs do not bite and those who form friendships with these dogs generally have a brighter day.
Why has the stray dogs matter got to where it has, so that a state government can so openly defy the Supreme Court?
India has not been alone in undertaking mass culling of stray dogs as a measure to combat rabies and prevent human deaths. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have also culled stray dogs recently. This has been despite it being well established that mass culling of rabid dogs is not the answer to combating dog rabies nor is it the answer to controlling the burgeoning population of strays.
It is also well documented that stray dog populations rise due to reasons such as sterilization and vaccination efforts not keeping pace with animal numbers (which could be because the money allocated for sterilization and vaccination is not used for that purpose), poor waste disposal and management, lack of adoptions and general public apathy.
If these facts are known, then why is Kerala (with the highest literacy rate in India), resorting to a course of action that will only lead to stray dogs from other areas moving into neighbourhoods vacated by the culled animals?
There are several reasons why this may be the case.
Firstly, the Kerala government feels that powerless sentient beings unable to assert their own interests can be exploited because the current Indian laws regulating how animals are treated can be disregarded. And this is surely a consequence of the fact that animal welfare in practice is not taken seriously in India
Secondly, it could be that vested interests are at play and these interests are incompatible with the interests of stray dogs. And if such is the case, then the Kerala government is taking a punt on the fact that eventually the general public will move their attention to other important human-related issues.
Thirdly, the Kerala government is just following the precedent set by other state governments in the past in undertaking mass culling of stray dogs in defiance of the law. If this is the case, then it can be suggested that the Kerala government simply does not care what anybody else thinks.
Culling vs. the law
The question which arises is why has the stray dogs matter got to where it has, so that a state government can so openly defy the Supreme Court?
Though the Kerala government's decision is illegal it can be viewed as expected given the mess that animal welfare is in India.
The answer is simple. The animal welfare movements in many countries are dominated by the principle that sentience is the basis for moral status. Given this, animal welfare allows humans to use animals each year for food, sport, entertainment and research, while at the same time advocating for the affected animals to be treated as humanely as possible. In Western countries and many others including India, the development and implementation of animal welfare legislation has been shackled by this paradigm, particularly in determining which animals and what suffering is a matter of moral concern.
This has then led to a situation where some animals are afforded differential protection than others. This has also led to the situation where in any human-animal balancing act the interests of animals are given unequal consideration and rarely prevail. It is this framework which disadvantages animals and prevents them from being the primary object of justice, even when their lives are at stake. So though the Kerala government's decision is illegal it can be viewed as expected given the mess that animal welfare is in India.
Towards effective solutions
So what can be done to address the stray dogs matter more effectively?
Some have argued for legally enforceable rights for animals but this is not the answer. It should be noted that in Balakrishnan v Union of India, the Kerala High Court recognized animal rights. And the decision was upheld on appeal in Nair and Ors v Union of India by the Supreme Court. But despite this, there has been an increase in the number of documented cases of animal cruelty in India recently.
The law is there to be used wisely, for today stray dogs are the problem. Tomorrow it could stray cats or worse, YOU.
It is clear that the current laws regulating how animals are treated in India require extensive reform. But reform should not just be about symbols like increased penalties but rather should focus primarily on changing cultural attitudes and behaviours. The population of stray dogs is so much less than the 1.27 billion human population of India. Does this not say where the problem lies? There are serious ethical and moral consequences associated with end of animal life decisions and the wider community needs to be educated about it. Otherwise, the legislative intent with respect to animal welfare legislation will continue to be unrealized.
In the meantime anyone who wants to do something about cruel acts to animals, including abhorrent and unacceptable actions like mass culling, can rely on the fundamental duty given under Article 51A of the Constitution of India to protect living creatures and do whatever is reasonable to give effect to that objective. The law is a constraint on state power and a hallmark of a civil society. It is there to be used wisely, for today stray dogs are the problem. Tomorrow it could stray cats or worse, YOU.