All creatures great and small

(This post was sparked by a story in The New York Times on the stray dog “menace” in India; and by reading Jai Arjun’s post on human cruelty/ indifference towards animals.)

Naming the problem: Stray dog populations have risen in India over the last few years; as the population rises, some urban and rural areas see a rise in territorial, aggressive behavior among the dogs. The fear of rabies, dog bites and attacks has led to a growing demand in the media that the “stray dog menace” be tackled.

For people who have been bitten, know someone who has died of rabies or are just afraid of animals, the fear of strays is very real, and needs to be acknowledged. A death from rabies is particularly horrifying, and India has among the highest incidences of rabies cases in the world. But it should also be acknowledged that most stray dogs are not feral, or vicious; the majority are surprisingly forgiving, very affectionate and make loyal friends.

… and accepting responsibility for it: Calling it the stray dog problem or menace ducks a central issue. Humans are responsible for the rise in the stray dog population—not the dogs. From 2004 onwards, scientists and then journalists began tracking the apparently inexplicable deaths of vultures, carrion birds who used to be ubiquitous across India. By 2008, The New Scientist estimated that India had lost 95 % of its vulture population. The vultures were dying because they were feeding on dead cattle that had been given diclofenac, a drug that is toxic to many species of vultures. With the chief scavengers gone, stray dogs began to feed on dead cattle—and cases of rabies among dogs rose, even as the population of strays rose.

There’s a chain of cruelty at work here that most humans who talk about the stray dog “menace” don’t want to see. Diclofan is often given to cows in the last stages of their lives, because it reduces joint pain and prolongs their working lives. Even though there’s a ban on the drug, even after it was demonstrated that it killed vultures, diclofan continues to be used. The few vultures left are still in peril; the dogs who contract rabies from the carcasses of dead cows die just as horribly as humans do.

…our solution, having killed the vultures, is to want to kill the stray dogs. The problem with this solution is not just that the cold cruelty involved in culling dogs is abhorrent. (Most municipal councils don’t have the funds for painless euthanasia, so when dogs are culled, they are often poisoned—or, as happened in Bangalore, bludgeoned to death.) The problem, as wildlife experts have pointed out time and time again, is that this doesn’t work.

As Delhi knows with its urban monkey problem, removing animals from their territory—either by transporting them elsewhere, as is done with monkeys, or by killing them, as many want done with stray dogs—is ineffective. The langurs and monkeys of Delhi shuffle around in a constant arc of movement, as unsettled as this city’s beggars and slum-dwellers. Shift the old monkeys or dogs out, and new ones come in. Succeed in killing all of them, and other predators have an open run—rats, for instance.

Stray dogs are an easy target, because they’re not protected by religion. Monkeys, especially in parts of urban India, are far more aggressive than most dogs; cows are as ubiquitous. But in Hinduism, cows are sacred, and monkeys are seen as incarnations of Hanuman. The dog has no temples, and does not accompany any of the Gods. People who would not dream of demanding that monkeys be killed or cows be culled have no problem with demanding the death of dogs.

The garbage menace: The Indian practice of leaving mounds of garbage out in the open acts as restaurants for dogs, leopards, monkeys and other animals, with temples, hotels, restaurants, vegetable markets and meat shops being major offenders. If we were serious about making a particular neighbourhood unattractive for stray dogs and other animals, it would help if we cleaned up our backyards first.

Effective solutions versus visible solutions: One of the reasons why the dogcatcher’s van, or culling, appeals to many Indians as a solution is because they can see steps being taken, hear dogs yelping as they’re carted off to be killed. It will take at least some months before other strays move in, and for those months, people feel like they’ve achieved something. But most animal’s rights organisations are aware of the problems that accompany a drastic rise in animal populations. They’re also aware that a more permanent way to deal with high populations is threefold: a) neuter the dogs so that populations drop over time b) vaccinate the dogs so that even in the event of a scuffle, humans will not run the risk of rabies c) and this, for many Indians, is counterintuitive, be kind to the strays in your area and they will accept you far more easily as a member of the “family”, not to be harmed.

Dominion, and its opposite: This last argument is never a popular one, but it might be worthwhile making it anyway. The assumption that the world — and our neighbourhoods — belong exclusively to humans is not just arrogant, it’s untrue. Many Indians are ferocious in their expression of the view that animal rights should not matter more than human rights. Fair enough. But how about caring *almost* as much about animals? How about accepting that most neighbourhoods in India have had their animal settlers—cows, sparrows, bulbuls, dogs, cats, insects, cheels—for at least as long as they have had human settlers?

I often wonder why we’re so attached to the idea that the world was built for the exclusive use of humans. We’re not the fastest, prettiest, most astonishing or even most resourceful species. We’re not the only ones with the capacity to love our young, and our kind, or even the only animals with the capacity for empathy.

We’re the ones with the most weapons, though, and with the most control over the earth’s surface, and with the biggest egos. We assume that we have a right to do what we please with other species: because animals are voiceless, and because we can.

But there are few human pleasures greater than being able to connect with members of another species, to feel the simple pleasure of sharing the world with more than just your own kind. “The stray dog menace” sounds unpleasantly like “the Jewish problem”, or “the slum encroachments”. And in that, there is consistency: we’re as rough on the weak, the voiceless and the voteless among humans as we are on animals.

Eight years have gone by since the first vultures started dying from diclofan. In that time, we could have put our resources towards sorting out our garbage problem, really banning diclofan and creating better habitats for vultures, or trapping, neutering and vaccinating dogs. All of this would probably also have created better living conditions for humans. Over the next eight years, we could go on demonizing stray dogs, and then deal with whatever species rolls in after them. Or we might want to take responsibility, and change our own behaviour.





18 responses to “All creatures great and small”

  1. Topher Avatar

    Right on all counts no matter where a person lives. Generally speaking most problems with most creatures are a result of either selfish or irresponsible human behavior.

  2. The Voice of Stray Dogs Avatar

    Fantastic to hear this sane voice against that insane NYT writing. Much appreciated by India's stray dogs.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Very well written. Eye opening and true !

  4. colours Avatar

    that's an informative post. I'm still wondering though, Delhi and Bangalore are not really cities where you find cattle easily. why then do these urban areas have such a problem of rabid stray dogs?

  5. Kruthi Avatar

    Well put, nila! I echo your sentiments exactly.

  6. vartika Avatar

    appreciate your thoughts they exhibit logic and a non-biased perspective…but the fact is we kills dogs to massage our egos and settle our frustations which otherwise we cannot…so we attack the helpless…

  7. Ashok Trivedi Avatar

    I am fine with your arguments but lay off the religion angle. So stray dogs is a hinduism problem? Christianity and Islam slaughter animals for their festivals. They advocate it. Be aware of your hypocrisy before slamming one religion.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Since you talk of responsibility, I assume you will compensate all the victims of dog bites? How about the parents whose baby was mauled to death in Bangalore? Stray culling has never been allowed to take place unhindered thanks to misguided upper class people like you who are secure in your homes and cars. So you can easily claim it is useless, you never let it happen in the first place. You should be held criminally liable for all rabies cases in India. Unless you personally take the responsibility to trap, neuter and vaccinate dogs that you are prescribing to others.

  9. Lazarus Kaprah Avatar

    A problem that we created, ignored, and now we are blaming on others. Humane, like always. Kudos to you for putting it so well.

  10. Anjali Lal Gupta Avatar

    Great post, Nilanjana! It feels like I wrote it…In fact just recently I did for a magazine on how much of the populace would rather have street dogs disappear altogether… They don't want dog population controlled… They want it gone….In Hindu mythology Lord Dattatreya the bestower of ultimate truth has four dogs as his companions. Those four dogs are said to represent the Vedas. Also, some incarnations of Goddess Durga are accompanied by a dog.

  11. SusanMcCauley Avatar

    Your words are much appreciated. I just shared this article on my facebook page.

  12. Karan Kamble Avatar

    Thank you for an excellent piece. It was informative and inspiring. Love your writing.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Extremely inspiring. Thank you.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Great post, N. There are simple and cheaper solutions to the problem of the growing stray dog population which doesn't appear to have occurred to the municipal authorities and it is far more cost effective than the cruel methods they employ. Mrs Oberoi, a splendid lady in Dehra Dun's Clement Town, feeds hundreds of dogs everyday but there are no puppies around her area. That's because she crushes Mala D, the contraceptive pill, into the food she serves the female dogs. How easy is that? My other observation is that many people in India are wilfully cruel to other people — the mistreatment of servants being one case. Given that, it is not surprising that they are cruel to animals. kanika

  15. Snig Avatar

    Dogs – black dogs – are associated with Yama in Hindu tradition. The two dogs are called Syama and Sabala. In addition Yuddhisthira was accompanied by a stray dog on his journey to Svarga. Yuddhsthira was refused entryI with the dog. He declined to enter heaven without the dog. The dog was Yama, testing his ethics. I guess the association is with death so stray dogs get short shrift in India. I grew up in a household with dogs – my father would tell these stories numerous times while he affectionately patted the head of the dog of the day! Similarly chipmunks too had a place in Hindu theogyny because a chipmunk helped Sri Rama – they got their stripes when Sri Ram stroked them.Best,Snigdha

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Good one. It is indeed very true, when different sects of people keep playing the blame game, but do not take adequate responsibility to reduce the stray population, co-exist to some degree with a smaller population, take measures to not attract the increase in population of strays. In fact, many strays are also what were once pets. A little responsibility is due out there as well.

  17. Janaki Lenin Avatar

    The main route of rabies transmission is dog to dog. Cattle aren't the reservoirs of the disease. The virus spreads from the saliva of one dog to another, from one mammal (dog) to another (human). Not all dogs die of rabies, many remain carriers for a long time and exhibit no visible symptoms of the disease.Wildlife experts also point out that animal birth control does not work in animals running around freely because you need to fix 70% of the population in 6 months. No city/town/village in India has the capacity to handle these numbers. Besides, irresponsible dog owners dumping unwanted puppies in public spaces is another major source of increasing stray dog numbers. Unless we can jack up our capacity to fix strays and owned dogs and have some system of administering annual booster shots,we are not going to win this battle.Besides, most of the birth control of dogs happens in cities. Even if the situation is brought under control in the cities, you have a vast breeding reservoir in the periphery that will replace the ones that die.True, it is a human-caused problem so it has to be human-solved as well. Garbage is just one of the sources of food for dogs. They are also fed by organizations and individuals who frequently take no further responsibility of the dogs' health or behaviour.It's not without reason that India ranks so high in rabies cases as you mention. And where people are homeless and little children have no protection from packs of dogs, I would expect some sympathy for children's lives as well.There are no easy answers but to portray the situation as being between cullers and birth controllers is doing no one any favours. Both are impractical as the sole means of solving the problem. To deal with a problem this large, several actions require to be taken.

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