By Atish Padhy
At 4 lakhs, Bengaluru boasts of the largest stray dog population among metropolitan areas in the Indian subcontinent. If one ventures out after sunset in the city, chances are you will spot a pack of dogs fighting over a bag of putrid garbage, spilling its contents on traffic-clogged and pothole infested roads, often scaring passersby.
India has the largest number of strays in the world, with over 35 million. At almost 21,000, India also accounts for more than a third of all rabies-related deaths. India could be fighting a lost battle against rabies, because with only 15% of all stray dogs vaccinated, a rabies-free South Asia by 2020, as is the WHO’s dream, looks far from reach.
“They come out at night. They chase cars and bikes and sometimes jump right in front of vehicles,” says Bhanu, a driver with Uber and Olacabs. “I’ve run over a lot of dogs. It doesn’t feel good but I can’t risk an accident by suddenly halting my car,” he adds.
“I hate dogs. Everyday, when I go to work, they chase my bike. Last year, two of these dogs even tried to bite me,” says Surinder, who works with Hewlett-Packard. “I called BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the minicipal corporation] over a dozen times. They showed up well after a week, and took away those dogs. But a few days later, they released those demons again. BBMP is useless,” he says.
Although the stray menace is evident, what is also clear is the lack of knowledge and information among the general populace. For instance, most are unaware of the tenets in the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules 2001, one of which prohibits the relocation of dogs.
While the FBI enlists animal cruelty as a group 1 felony in the US (alongside homicide and arson), acts of cruelty towards animals in India comes with a paltry Rs 50 fine as per the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. This shows the conditions most strays have to encounter. Last year, a medical student threw a dog from the rooftop of a Chennai building, filming the entire act. In Bengaluru, a woman flung eight puppies on a boulder, smashing their skulls in the process. Both perpetrators got out on bail after paying a fine.
But these are not isolated incidents.
Acts of cruelty against stray dogs have risen sharply in the last couple of years across the country, most of which are soon forgotten, even if they draw some initial outrage.
Where is the love?
“All dogs should be loved and taken care of,” says S. Theodore Baskaran, author of The Book of Indian Dogs, a guide to the history and present-day status of around 25 Indian dog breeds. Yet, when one reads the appendix of this comprehensive guide, Baskaran takes on a cold, pragmatic (some might say menacing) tone to lists the many grave dangers stray dogs pose in the modern world (motor accidents, threatening wildlife), and calls for the adoption of the, failing which, he believes euthanisation is the only viable option.
This appalled many dog lovers, like Ayesha Christina, founder of the not-for-profit Neighbourhood Woof. “Attempting to neuter all of them is like trying to empty a vast lake with a bottomless bucket,” Baskaran writes. At first sight, one might smirk at the ruthless comments, but his comments come from some truth; India’s stray population is huge and birth control has proven futile. Adoption is terribly slow and limited as many people only want foreign breed dogs. So then is euthanisation the only option?
A problem of many
“Garbage and irresponsible ownership are the culprits,” said a worker with CUPA, a animal welfare centre, on the condition of anonymity. “No matter how many dogs we sterilise, more will be born. There are just too many of them.”
“Our ABC-ARV programs are clearly failing,” says Sajesh of Animal Lives Are Important. “Municipal Corporations do too little, too late.”
The CNVR (catch neuter vaccinate and release) method, many claim, calms the animal and reigns in its aggression, when performed before it hits puberty, but the fact that most of the animals that are sterilised are post-pubescent remains an unspoken fact. The effect of sterilisation on sexual aggression, a major factor that drives dog attacks, is at best inconclusive.
India’s rabies problem is on a whole new dimension altogether. With more than 21,000 people falling prey to this deadly disease, leaving it to be tackled by the municipal corporations is foolhardy. NGO efforts have been focused on urban centres, with little attention to rural areas. Dogs continue to roam the streets of rural India unneutered and unvaccinated.
There are many cases of rabies, but it is difficult to know the exact number since many cases go unreported. The problem is also financial. In a country where most people struggle to earn enough to meet their most basic needs, a rabies antibody will prove too expensive. Worse still, India has only one lab diagnosing rabies in animals in the Veterinary College of Karnataka, Bangalore. Even vaccination is beyond the means of the poor. The general three-dose rabies vaccination course costs more than Rs 100 rupees, and thus most rural children, the major victims of this terrible disease, remain unvaccinated. Indians are exposed to 17.4 million dog bites a year, but only 15% of all dogs are vaccinated. And according to WHO, 70% of the dog population needs to be vaccinated in order to limit rabies.
What can be done
Although local administration efforts to steralise stray dogs have improved in recent years thanks to collaborations with animal welfare groups, there is a lot more to be done. For starters, there is a desperate need for more staff and funds. Besides steralisation, efforts must also be focused on adoption. And we must find some compassion to help resolve this crisis humanely.
Atish Padhy is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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