Wildlife & Biodiversity

Killing with compassion: Why feeding dogs in public places must stop!

It is time for individuals to accept personal responsibility in stray dog management

By Shireen Bhalla, Abi T Vanak
Published: Thursday 02 July 2020

“You know, there’s a little dog that has started sitting outside our door. My son feeds him a little bit now and then. How do I get the dog to go away?” asked Divya (Name changed), who lives in Jakkur layout, Bangalore. 

Few people can resist those puppy eyes, the upward raised eyebrows and the wagging tail. Hence, most give in and throw a few scraps of food, or a packet of biscuits. And, dogs, having evolved to elicit exactly this response, become dependent on these handouts.

This scene is repeated in neighbourhood after neighbourhood, outside every chai stall or corner bakery. The “regulars” show up, and waiting for them are wagging tails and loving licks. A packet of glucose biscuits, or a bun is gratuitously offered and the transaction is done. The dog has received a little bit of food, maybe even an affectionate pat and the human goes away having done her / his good deed for the day.

Others take feeding dogs more seriously, with almost karmic devotion. They become de facto carers of these dogs — preparing home-cooked meals, investing substantial amounts of their earnings, driving around neighbourhoods (sometimes late at night) and very occasionally, even doing the right thing by making sure the dogs are vaccinated and sterilised. Many of them even carry certificates as “Colony Animal Caretakers” issued by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI).

A third category of dog feeder is the private home owner (or college hosteller). Their own pet dogs (often pure breeds), are kept indoors and walked on a leash, but outside their houses you will see the children of the lesser dogs.

The “streeties”, the “Indies”, the ones who are fed leftovers on the street, the ones who “enjoy” a free life, coming and going as they choose, forming alliances and barking through the night to ward off intruding packs.

These dogs are meant to keep streets safe from strangers we are told. However, they will bark and chase any passer-by, be they morning joggers or someone returning home late at night. Yet, the homeowner who feeds these dogs takes no responsibility should a person get chased or attacked at night.

A strong argument can therefore be made that the presence of these dogs interferes with a constitutionally guaranteed right to free movement and that no one should have to face dangers from animals on the street while going about their daily business.

From an animal welfare perspective, most of these dogs receive very little else other than food — they don’t get vaccinated nor are sterilised. Indeed, in many cases, feeders or homeowners directly or indirectly prevent municipal authorities from catching dogs for sterilisation.

Most people who feed dogs violate the conditions set forth by both the AWBI (2015) and Delhi high court (2010). These stated that dogs should not be fed at places frequented by people, on public streets, common areas at the entrance to houses or where dogs are herded to be fed.

Indeed, the Delhi High court (2017) ruled that feeding dogs, even in private property, should not cause nuisance to neighbours. A Supreme Court judgement banned the feeding of pigeons even from one’s own balcony due to nuisance that it can cause to other occupants. The feeding of dogs in public places should attract a similar ban.

There are two main reasons that the AWBI uses to promote feeding of unowned dogs. One is performing a duty under Article 51(g) “to have compassion for living creatures”.

The second is because they expect that it will allow for easier implementation of the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme — both by having feeders act responsibly for implementing the ABC programme and by making dogs easier to catch under the assumption that well-fed dogs are friendlier with humans.

Both points must be called under question. Is it compassionate to commit these dogs to the street where their lifespans are short, diseases spread quickly and where they are at risk of being run over or pose a grave danger to the safety and lives of citizens?

And does feeding by particular individuals in fact make dogs on streets more friendly to all? Also, do feeders take personal responsibility for the dogs, especially if there is conflict with people who may view these dogs as dangerous or as a nuisance?

There have been countless examples of conflicts between feeders and other citizens over attacks by dogs that are fed in such an irresponsible manner. Particularly residents inside complexes who have street dogs gathered around the entrances.

In February this year, hundreds of residents of a housing society in Ghaziabad protested against stray dogs attacking a pregnant woman. The residents said that dogs had also bitten 4-5 other people in the area in one week. In April, Bengaluru residents similarly tried to prevent feeding of dogs.

In May there were two fights, days apart, between members of two separate residential complexes in Noida against feeders from within the complex. In each case, residents reportedly witnessed aggressiveness in street dogs that were being fed or felt threatened by dogs that would bark and follow them for food.

When residents complain against individuals who feed dogs, there is often a counter complaint of harassment and physical violence that is foisted on the hapless victims of dog attacks (for instance from Pune, where a confirmed rabid dog bit seven residents).

We cannot ignore the fear that the dogs can cause and the aggressiveness they can display. In 2006, it was estimated that nearly 20 million people are bitten by dogs every year in India and nearly 21,000 deaths take place due to rabies, the highest in the world. Furthermore, children are bitten nearly twice as often as adults.

There are, therefore, many strong reasons to start getting stray dogs off the streets and into shelters.

The COVID-19 lockdown would have been a good time to do that. With less garbage on the streets and fewer regular feeders, the street dogs were going hungry and becoming more aggressive.

Instead of using this as an opportunity to move dogs into shelters and decrease the number of food sources in the environment, organisations and individuals were urged to feed the dogs. If these individuals continue to feed these dogs after the lockdown, the capacity for dogs will increase further.

People have come to assume that dogs are a natural part of our urban environment. Following that logic is the conviction that ‘the dogs are there, so they must be fed somehow.’ Many people from across the three types of feeders believe that the dogs eat trash first and biscuits second, so by feeding them one is merely supplementing their ‘natural diet’. This has big implications.

There is an ecological concept called the ‘carrying capacity of the environment’. It is the population of a species that can be supported by a particular environment given the resources and habitat.

Assuming, as many people do, that trash piles are the biggest source of stray dogs, why were stray dogs going hungry during the recent lockdown? Why did teams of citizens go around feeding the dogs?

The reality that we found evidence of in our research is that people have been artificially propping up the dog population this whole time. Whether it is by occasionally giving a pack of biscuits to some dogs outside a bakery or driving around regularly to feed certain packs of dogs, humans are directly increasing the capacity for stray dogs in our environment.

Born out of ‘compassion’ is a more than 0.3 million stray population (just in Bengaluru), that is often sick, badly treated, and growing in numbers.

Many people assume that the ABC programme will control the dog population and that it is primarily the responsibility of the civic authority. But it has been nearly 20 years since the ABC programme was supposed to have been rolled out in cities across the country and still, the scene on the streets has barely changed with respect to dogs.

If anything, dog numbers are up. People believe that the ABC programme is the ‘scientifically proven’ way to go. The reality that research shows is that it takes a very high level of continuous implementation for the programme to be effective.

If 62-87 per cent of stray dogs in an environment were kept sterilised continuously, it would still take 13-18 years for the population to decrease by 69 per cent (Totton et al., 2010).

What we see in reality, taking the example of Bengaluru, is that 46 per cent of the dogs in the city had not undergone the programme in 2019. Furthermore, the overall population had gone up from 0.18 million dogs in 2013 to 0.3 million dogs over only six years. Belief in the efficacy of the ABC programme  is worsening the problem at an alarming rate. We need to move past the illusion that this will work and use a better solution.

The bottom line is that as long as resources are available in the environment, dogs will continue to enter the environment. It is time for individuals to accept personal responsibility in stray dog management.

If they can’t be a part of the solution, either by adopting dogs, or making sure they are sheltered by animal welfare non-profits, then they certainly shouldn’t be feeding the problem.

Shireen Bhalla is a former undergraduate student who studied dogs as part of her Capstone thesis research in Bengaluru

Abi T Vanak is a Clinical and Public Health Fellow, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance Program & Convenor of the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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