President. Thane Community for the Protection & Care of Animals
Lately, our society has been riddled with newspaper reports of street dogs biting children, and a few of them have also been about pet dog bites. The reports are not fabricated, and my condolences are for the families who have lost their loved ones to mishaps concerning dogs, irrespective of the reason for the attack. The exploding population of community dogs and their subsequent attacks on humans, not just in India, but in many other places in the world, seems to have transformed into a national security issue, eclipsing much larger issues looming large on humanity. Dogs have always been a part of the social fabric of the developing world, for millennia. They have been recognised as the most comfortable companion animal for humans. Then why this persecution of man’s best friend? Is there a solution at all, and if there is, what is it? Let us look at the whys and hows of the issue, without a blindfold.
Dogs were domesticated by humans approximately 20,000 years ago, whether for companionship or as a hunter’s ally is immaterial. They became an indispensable part of our families and communities. Today there are an estimated 30 to 35 million street dogs in our country. Street dogs are of two types – those that are born and live their lives on the streets and those that are abandoned by owners on the streets. Street dogs may be fully independent, or maybe partially dependent on humans for their survival. The percentage of street dogs that have been abandoned has been on the rise in India, and might even be the highest in the world.
It is clear then that dogs are here because of us, and we are wholly responsible for their well-being and population explosion. No amount of fighting the issue out in courts or in the media will bring about a solution. Why do dogs bite? Why do humans harm others of their species? There is no answer to a random aberration of behaviour in any species. To punish all of a species for the fault of a few is unreasonable and culling to control the population is out of the question. Firstly, because it is unethical and has massive environmental consequences, and also because the vacuum created by culled animals will be promptly filled up by new dogs, as the holding capacity of street animals of none of the areas will be kept empty by nature. This also means that when there is no surgical intervention to reduce the population, the number of street dogs will not vary much over the years.
Then why do we see large numbers of dogs in some areas, and not in others? Clearly due to external factors such as failed Animal Birth Control Programme, garbage generation, open wet markets, and assisted caretaking of dogs.
Worldwide, birth control is the only solution that has resulted in a positive reduction in the number of street dogs and of rabies incidences. Accordingly, the Government of India has a meticulously drafted Rule named the ABC Rules, 2023, which makes it a mandate for every administrative body to carry out animal birth control for street dogs and cats within their locality. The Rule is very exhaustive and theoretically, covers every angle to make it a successful programme. The problem is in the implementation, in a vast country like ours. We will also have to agree that local bodies do not have an adequate budget for other obligatory responsibilities, leave alone divert the funds towards Animal Birth Control. But if a number of street dogs is perceived as a problem of national importance, the programme needs to be strictly implemented and a separate budget be allocated for the same.
It is a tedious challenge to search out for dogs in our cities and towns, which have a maze of unending lanes and by-lanes. Clearly, then, citizens need to get actively involved in the programme, befriending dogs for catching them for the surgeries. Since feeders face a lot of intimidation while feeding street animals, the Animal Welfare Board of India has legalised feeding activities by issuing Colony Feeder Cards. However, it is also the duty of feeders to work responsibly within the ambit of the rules prescribed.
As a high percentage of strays are dependent on garbage, its scientific management by local administrative bodies will play a crucial role in street animal population management apart from having a positive impact on human health. The government has already started the Swachhata Abhiyaan and very positive reports have been circulated about a cleaner India. The Govt should implement stringent pet-keeping policies, mandatory licensing and microchipping of pets and severe penalties for pet abandonment. Rampant breeding should be restricted and the adoption of Indian breeds and street dogs should be advocated.
It is estimated that 20,000 humans die due to rabies each year. Although the data is questionable, nevertheless, rabies remains one of the deadliest diseases. While it is a completely vaccine–preventable viral disease found in over 150 countries of the world, rabies can be 100% fatal once clinical symptoms start showing. It is endemic throughout India. Though domestic dogs are persecuted as rabies carriers, it is prudent to note that rabies can affect and spread by both domestic and wild animals. So, what has the Government of India done to prevent rabies? Under the 12th Five Year Plan, the government has approved the National Rabies Control Programme, which will have both human and animal health components. The most important elements of the strategies of the “National Action Plan For Dog Mediated Rabies Elimination (NAPRE) from India by 2030” are:
i. Provision of rabies vaccine & rabies immunoglobulin through national free drug initiatives,
ii. Training on appropriate animal bite management, prevention and control of rabies, surveillance and intersectoral coordination
iii. Strengthening surveillance of animal bites and rabies deaths reporting, and
iv. Creating awareness about rabies prevention.
While the availability of rabies vaccines will tackle the problem of mortality arising from the virus, training programmes and supervision will act as a deterrent to bite-related incidents. A viral awareness tide must be unleashed on netizens about the reasons for dog bites and preventive mechanisms. The government has launched a very ambitious programme to eradicate rabies, we need to be patient to see the effect of the programme. We need to be humane and feel the pain of both the victim of bites just like we feel for the dogs.
It is time to educate ourselves, cooperate with authorities, not lose our sense to reason, establish camaraderie, broaden our empathy, and meet in the middle. That’s where all solutions are found.