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 the member 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.





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