Urban Menace: India’s policies on free-ranging dogs risk public health

Aiding stray dog populations thrive is a case of misdirected compassion 

By Meghna Uniyal
Published: Friday 23 June 2023
Photo: iStock__

 Meghna Uniyal is the director of Humane Foundation for People and Animals

A serious public health crisis in India today is 60 million free-roaming dogs that attack millions of Indians annually and are mauling citizens to death in public places with disturbing frequency.

They are also decimating wildlife, are the second biggest cause of traffic accidents as per insurance data and make India the rabies capital of the world.

The laws meant to protect people as well as dogs are state municipal Acts and the animal-welfare inspired Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, that mandate the removal of stray/unowned dogs from public places and allow for their humane euthanasia.

This was until 2001, when the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 were instituted by the Ministry of Culture. The revised Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules, 2023 were instituted by the Department of Animal Husbandry.

Both ministries have nothing to do with public health and safety.

The number of misrepresentations and falsehoods in the foundational document of the ABC Rules by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) is staggering. It deceptively conflates the benefits of owned dogs with unowned dogs, underplays the negative impacts of stray dogs on humans and the environment, misrepresents international research and policy regarding dogs and blames citizens for stray dog attacks on themselves.

Alan Beck, in The Ecology of Stray Dogs, writes, “As free-ranging dogs rummage through garbage they create a poor appearance for the neighbourhood, lower trash collection efficiency and also provide easily accessible food for roaches and rats … Dogs and rats obviously enjoy a symbiotic relationship.”

However, animal rights groups promote stray dogs as garbage and rodent control mechanisms even though stray dogs carry the same diseases that rats do and cause far greater human fatalities.

Globally, the elimination of food sources is the first important step towards control of stray animals and pests. But the AWBI pushes for stray dog feeding in public places, thereby effectively converting a human health and safety issue into a stray dog promotion policy, with disastrous consequences.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has labelled dog faeces as a highly toxic pollutant, in the same category as toxic chemicals from vehicles and pesticides and estimates that just 2-3 days’ worth of waste from only 100 dogs can contribute enough bacteria to temporarily close a bay and all watershed areas within 20 miles.

So, while laws in India now require dog owners to pick up after their pets, 60 million stray dogs continue dropping about 30,000 tonnes of pathogenic dog faeces on our streets every day.

Animal rights activists promote the idea of stray dogs in public places and preach about “compassion for voiceless stray dogs.” Ironically, in the same breath, they blame even dead children for being cruel to animals and thus deserving of horrific attacks on themselves.

While ‘co-existence’ for stray dog feeders means driving around in their cars, throwing food on the roads and then going back to the safety and comfort of their homes; contrarily, it means disease, bites, accidents and death for lakhs of not-so-privileged Indians, perhaps the real ‘voiceless’ sufferers of stray dog activism.

Article 51A(g), often cited by activists, places an unenforceable duty on citizens to “protect and improve the natural environment and have compassion for all living creatures.”

This would clearly mean protecting the environment and wildlife from invasive species like free-roaming dogs and most certainly does not refer in any way to throwing food in public places or maintaining millions of stray animals on the streets.

Complex issues, especially those that might cause mutilation, injury or death, loss of livelihoods and impinge on the freedom of movement to citizens (all protected under the enforceable Article 21 of the Constitution), require more than highly subjective and legally undefined expressions of compassion to resolve. Any notions of ‘Compassion’ are therefore to be used judiciously and thoughtfully with regard to policy.

Coexistence does not mean forcing people to suffer stray animal attacks or to live with diseases. Dogs as a species are not meant to be homeless. They’ve been bred to be owned, hence their Latin name Canis lupus familiaris, meaning dog (or wolf) of the household.

But in India, the ABC policy has led to urban spaces being turned into “stray dog territories” with devastating consequences. It has also allowed for the rise of activists who often use the ABC policy to infringe upon the rights of others, leading to cascading negative effects on citizens, the environment and, paradoxically, on to millions of dogs, forced to live miserable, homeless lives.

The AWBI admits under the RTI Act that despite handing out massive funding to animal rights NGOs over decades, it does not keep records regarding vaccinations, rabies, sterilisations or dog attacks. Therefore, enormous sums of money are consumed and abject failure of policy, not success, is the justification to ask for more funds — a never-ending cycle of crisis, chaos and conflict, benefitting neither people nor animals.

The animal rights lobby, using the AWBI, has created false expectations for stray animal population management and continues to persistently falsify, misrepresent and create dishonest research so as to further an animal rights agenda of ‘no kill’ and ‘animal liberation’ over any practical agenda to reduce stray animal populations or achieve genuine animal welfare.

Even if we were to judge the ABC policy solely by its intentions and not its consequences, what comes across is not any measure of greater purpose but a crude, animal-rights inspired idealism, expressed through an even cruder elitism, leading to suffering, conflict and death for Indian citizens, wildlife and dogs.

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This article is part of a cover story first published in the 16-30 June, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

Meghna Uniyal is the director of Humane Foundation for People and Animals

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

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