Wildlife & Biodiversity

Wayward domesticate: The Hyderabad dog attack is a reminder of India’s flawed stray policy

Notwithstanding thousands of years of camaraderie and the strong dog-human bond, dogs as strays have become a menace to people. They need to be removed from the streets

By Narendra Patil
Published: Friday 24 February 2023
A screen grab of the dog attack in Hyderabad on February 19, 2023. Photo: iStock

On February 19, 2023, a 4-year-old boy in Hyderabad was viciously attacked by three dogs. He was mauled on a deserted street and was brought dead at the hospital.

The video doing ‘viral’ rounds on Twitter is graphically vivid. The dogs initially snap at the boy standing barely a foot taller than them. Then, when the child falls to the ground, the dogs bite his neck and vigorously yank sideways as if to tear. Finally, two dogs, with opposite ends of the boy’s body in their jaws, tug away till the boy becomes still like a lifeless rag-doll.

A section of Indian society, from the safety of their cars and gated apartments, cherry-picks benign instances of interaction with stray dogs to say they are harmless. They also believe that dogs belong on the streets and a fraudulent ontological construction of “street / community dogs” is made out of these unfortunate strays.

This conjuring seems to be the ultimate justification for keeping dogs on the street. And, there is an attempt to legalise this entity with amendments to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, where ownerless dogs become “community animals”.

Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), notwithstanding their evolutionary history, have no role to play ‘outdoors’ in modern human societies. In addition, considering the lack of welfare for strays, if any humanism can be brought to the debate — it should be in seeing these stray dogs as ‘abandoned’, and not as naturally belonging to the streets.

Dogs spread disease among people and wild animals. They are a nuisance on urban streets. In the most dramatic form of threat, these dogs can attack and kill humans too.

Dogs don’t belong to the streets

There are 35 million dogs in India. The number of dogs per suburban unit area in India compares with that of the United States, while the number of dogs per person is less in India.

“The difference is that in India, the dogs are mostly outside; in the United States, they’re mostly indoors,” hence the impression that dog density is higher in India, reports an article in The New York Times.

As a result, free-ranging dog populations in India contribute to a third of 59,000 annual rabies deaths globally, while the United States reports having eliminated the canine rabies virus.

Because of the erroneous idea that strays belong on the streets, India is expected to eradicate rabies, while keeping dogs on the streets. Both, the Indian government itself, and the animal rights organisation PETA take this position.

Also, we hear supercilious comments that with economic prosperity, intolerance towards dogs on the streets is growing. This unacceptability of dogs as “strays” on the streets is a desirable disposition among people for whom dogs have become a menace.

There is nothing uniquely different about India that should compel people to be tolerant of dogs in their environment. Almost all developed countries have transitioned from having hunting dogs and herding dogs to not having stray dogs in the modern socio-economic context. This is a requirement of urbanisation, and not a west-centric approach, and there is no different “Indian way” of doing it.

India has high human density and high wild animal density which speaks for the unique Indian culture in facilitating coexistence between wildlife and people. To a great extent, sharing of space by humans and wild animals is without conflict. This is not to say that people are “expected” to live alongside ownerless stray dogs.

Trivially, stray dogs are not wild animals. The evolutionary relationship of humans to dogs is one of total human control over them — this is what dogs as species worked out for themselves through the process of self-domestication.

This is not so with wild animals. The relationship between humans and wild animals is exactly the opposite — the lack of human control over them. Even if one thinks in human-centric ways, it is evident that wild animals play an important role in the health of ecosystems, and thereby in securing ecosystem services. Dogs perform none of these functions in the physical ecosystem.

So, it is the responsibility of governments, in developing countries, to remove stray dogs, along with many other elements — for example, waste. Both, for the same reason of providing a hygienic, and safe environment for people in their habitations.

In addition, what the developed countries have achieved — through a combination of strict pet ownership rules and removing stray dogs — is better welfare for dogs after their numbers are made manageable.

A little leak, which could be dogs escaping controlled systems, can be managed most humanely by further adoption or by euthanising. This is a workable strategy — and the vague notion of “street dogs” that naturally belong on the streets should not come in the way of developing countries adopting this strategy.

Developing countries have neither different goals nor different methods for getting there. The mass removal of street dogs is inevitable, before settling down to the business as usual of humanely managing wieldy dog populations.

Experts have been writing for years about the inefficacy of reducing dog numbers only by resorting to sterilisation — as deemed by the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme. However, the government has gone deaf, it seems. The government’s obstinacy in persistence with an ineffective strategy stems from its supreme ignorance and the piddly egos of those in authority unwilling to consult experts.

“To neuter or not to neuter” is not the question

Some people believe that a mass anti-rabies programme is required for developing countries. A member of the Lok Sabha and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and a proponent of the ABC programme, Maneka Gandhi, disagrees.

For The New York Times article she says, “In India, it will never be possible to do it in a disciplined and effective manner because that costs too much and it needs an army [of workers],” adding, dogs that are vaccinated but not sterilised “will have 12 puppies in the coming year and then the process starts again.”

The irony is that it is the same lack of disciplined implementation of the ABC programme that has failed the attempts at mass sterilisation and has already cost the country crores of rupees.

The minister is incapable of deducing that sterilised dogs can continue to bite. Thereby, the consequence countrywide is ineffective sterilisation coverage and much lesser vaccination coverage, but with much larger populations of wayward dogs.

Presented with the tragedy of a child mauled brutally, the officials from Hyderabad Municipality continue to parrot these official lines.

Ambika Shukla, a Trustee, of People for Animals, says in a TV debate that the ABC programme is sound but the implementation has been less than perfect.

Rahul Sehgal, Humane Society International — Asia director, tells The Guardian, “A massive amount of money is needed to do this, and [implementation of spay-and-neuter] has been sporadic there. You work for a year, you stop for a year. By the time you are coming back to it, the dog population has multiplied again.”

But if the efforts are sustained, Sehgal says, “it just cannot fail.”

It is two decades since ABC became an official policy, and there is ample evidence to show that sterilisation alone does not work in reducing stray dog numbers, and yet the government persists with baseless optimism — which is tantamount to pig-headedness.

This obduracy should remind us of the “infinite monkey theorem” which states that a monkey at a keyboard randomly pressing the keys will almost surely produce the complete works of William Shakespeare, given infinite time.

But, it helps to realise that we live in a finite universe.

Narendra Patil is a freelance writer. He writes on ecology, wildlife and nature conservation

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

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