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Food waste on streets root cause of Kerala's stray dog menace, say experts

Dog population increased around such food sources

Stray dogs Representational image | Josekutty Panackal

The Disaster Management Act of 2005 defines a disaster as a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in an area, arising from natural and man-made causes… and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area. A few days back, the Kerala government decided to invoke the provisions of this Act to deal with a “disaster”—the increasing stray dog-human conflicts in the state. The government has decided to take over vacant buildings owned by its various departments to arrange temporary shelters to house “stray dogs”.

An alarming number of dog bite cases were reported in the state this year. In the first seven months, close to 1 lakh, people suffered dog bites and there are around 170 dog bite hotspots in the state now. In the past two-three weeks, this has turned into mass hysteria as the issue received more attention on mainstream media and social media. For many in the state, culling dogs is the only permanent solution. But is mass culling of “street dogs” the answer to the problem? Experts say no.

The root cause of the disaster

Dr Narayanan M.K., director of entrepreneurship at Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, says that this entire problem was created by human beings. “The changes in attitudes and social system of ours resulted in this crisis,” he says. “Dogs never had a life away from human beings. They were always dependent on us. And it was a courageous animal among the animal population to follow or lead man during his nomadic age. Dogs never left human beings. Human beings, however, left the dogs in between. They all are community dogs. They were dogs living along with human beings. However, we segregated them from the human community and arrested the socialisation aspect of dogs. So, they are wandering in the place we call streets. We dumped waste on the same streets and, in and around such food sources, dog population increased. There is no dog called a 'street dog'. If there is no food available on the streets street, there are no street dogs also.”

The number of stray dogs, according to official records, is around 2.89 lakhs. However, NGOs and animal welfare organisations say that this is a gross underestimate and that the number of free-ranging dogs can be anywhere between 6 to 8 lakh. “The population increase of dogs was the result of a natural selection,” says Narayanan. “They have every favourable situation for their breeding on streets. Holding capacity of food—the food available for a group—is what decides the number of dogs. When the holding capacity is more, they are more chances of breeding.”

A study published by researchers Shireen Jagriti Bhalla, Roy Kemmers, Ana Vasques and Abi Tamim Vanak in 2021, also supports this view that the density of houses, bakeries and garbage piles were significant predictors of dog population size. And the solution the study suggested for a reduction in the dog population was “decreasing the carrying capacity of the environment by targeting these food sources”.

Since the increase in population was the result of natural selection, mass culling of dogs cannot solve the issue, says Narayanan. “We cannot annihilate all the dogs. It is against nature. Nature will find other alternatives then,” he says. “If our approach is to kill the community dogs by poisoning them, other dogs [that are less socialised with human beings] would replace them. And those dogs could be ones with unnatural and non-socialised behaviour. And this would result in more conflicts.”

Issues with the existing approach

Vanak, an animal ecologist and conservation biologist, and a senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, says that human-dog conflicts in the country increased because of faulty and unscientific policies implemented by successive governments. Interestingly, the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) rules of 2001— envisaged for controlling the dog population—were introduced by the ministry of culture. “This was a unique example of a ministry, that had nothing to do with the problem of stray dogs, passing a set of rules on it,” says Vanak. “If dogs were carriers of diseases, the rules should have come from the health ministry. But the rules were introduced by the ministry of culture because Maneka Gandhi was at the helm of it then.”

Vanak adds that the ABC rules themselves are based on a flawed assumption. “It assumes that if you neuter the dog population, then reproduction will reduce and over time the population will go down. This works if you are on an island, where no new dogs are coming in all the time,” he says. “But when you have a country which has over 60 million free-ranging dogs, how will you sterilise enough animals so that the population will go down? Also, even after sterilisation, we put them back on the same streets from where they have been caught. Their behaviour has not changed. They are still the same animal. They can still bite, and they can still chase people. So, none of these problems go away by sterilising these animals.”

A major issue in implementing the ABC rules is that the government has to spend around Rs 70 lakh to set-up a single ABC centre if all its specifications are to be met. According to the ABC rules and the SOP of the Animal Welfare Board of India, every ABC centre needs to have a fully equipped and air-conditioned operating theatre, pre-operation preparation area, room/area for cleaning and sterilising instruments, storage room for medicines and equipment and 24-hour water and electricity supply. It should also have the capacity to house a minimum of 50 dogs, and there should be separate kennel provisions for dogs that have been brought in pregnant, wounded, sick or suspected of a communicable disease like rabies. Also, the ABC centre must have a team including a minimum of one full-time veterinary surgeon, two para-vets and three animal handlers and catchers. A para-vet has to be on-site 24x7 to ensure post-operative care.

However, many of the ABC centres in the state were not following all these adequate measures. Also, Kudumbashree—a community organisation of neighbourhood groups of women in Kerala—used to get tenders for ABC programmes. In December 2021, the Kerala High Court directed the state government to restrain Kudumbashree units from performing ABC procedures in the state, citing that none of its personnel are qualified for carrying out the procedures. When Kudumbashree was restrained from doing it, the ABC programme itself came to a grinding halt in many places.

Dr Sushma Prabhu, a paediatrician and president of an NGO named People for Animal Welfare, says that there was a prolonged outbreak of distemper—a highly contagious disease—also since 2021 and this also caused ABC programmes to come to a standstill. All these had a cumulative effect on increasing the dog population in the state.

The capture, maintenance of records, surgical sterilisation, post-operative care, release at the captured place etc, are the practical problems that make the implementation of ABC rules difficult. It has also been observed that the released dogs have to face the same unsafe surroundings, in addition to the surgery-induced stress. Another important observation is that feral dogs or non-socialised dogs are not within the easy reach of dog catchers. And, in many instances, the dog catchers have to implement inhumane capture methods. Vanak points out that the current ABC rules are designed in such a way that dogs are envisaged to be on the streets. This is in contravention of the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals Act.

He is also against feeding dogs in public places. “By feeding dogs on the streets, all you are doing is to increase the population because they have now got the resources,” he says. “Some would say that you have to feed them so that we can catch them and sterilise them. Our studies have shown that most people do not do that. Most people just feed the dogs. They do not take action by sterilising or vaccinating them. So, then all these ‘compassionate’ people are helping to increase the problem.”

Dr Prabhu, says that animal lovers should get help from the government to sterilise and vaccinate. “Now the animal lovers have to pay from their own pockets to vaccinate the dogs,” she says. “It is not affordable for many. But if the government is providing support, there will be a lot of people to help with sterilisation and vaccination.”

What is the solution?

Both Narayanan and Vanak point out that improving human-dog interactions is the first step toward resolving the “disaster”. “Dogs are companion animals. They are not wild animals. You should not mistreat them,” says Vanak. “If you love dogs, then find them homes. Adopt them. Keep them in. Implement strict dog licensing and registration rules. Also, make sure that there are not large numbers of dogs on the streets. Build a shelter and take care of them in the shelter.”

Narayanan says that only a localised and decentralised approach can help to solve the issue. “There are around 20,000 local self-government wards. When we divide, we would see that each ward will have to handle a small number of dogs,” he says. “The ABC rules say that there should be a committee. That committee can be replicated at the ward level also. The committee would identify where all waste foods are thrown and where all street dogs are found. The number of dogs the ward has to handle will be low. It will be easy to identify problematic dogs, which need to be sheltered. If our approach is to kill all these dogs by poisoning them, other dogs would replace them. And those dogs could be ones with unnatural and non-socialised behaviour.”

Narayanan is a proponent of Early-age Neutering of Dogs (END), an approach that can be implemented along with ABC rules. Here the idea is to sterilise puppies at the age of two to three months and give them for adoption. “It is a puppy-centred, long-term strategy,” says Narayanan. The END process is conducted by retaining the testicles in males (vasectomy) and ovaries in females (hysterectomy) under injectable or inhalation anaesthesia. The puppies are then given for adoption leading to better shelter, food and immunisation.

The researchers hope that the active reproductive age of dogs lasts for an average of six years and systematic implementation of END for at least five years will stabilise the dog population. The biggest advantage of the END programme is that capturing and control of the animal is easy here. Also, it is more economical as only fewer resources are needed. Studies show that the process is less traumatic to the dogs and there are fewer post-operative complications.

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