Food waste on the streets is the root of Kerala’s stray dog threat, experts say
The Disaster Management Act 2005 defines a disaster as a catastrophe, accident, calamity or serious occurrence in an area, arising from natural and man-made causes…and is of a nature or magnitude such that it exceeds the adaptive capacity of the community in the affected area. A few days ago, the government of Kerala decided to invoke the provisions of this law to deal with a ‘disaster’ – the growing conflicts between stray dogs and humans in the state. The government has decided to take over vacant buildings belonging to its various departments to set up temporary shelters to house “stray dogs”.
An alarming number of dog bite cases have been reported in the state this year. In the first seven months, almost 1 lakh people suffered dog bites and there are currently around 170 dog bite hotspots in the state. Over the past two or three weeks, this has turned into mass hysteria as the issue has received more attention in mainstream media and social media. For many in the state, culling the dogs is the only permanent solution. But is the mass culling of “street dogs” the answer to the problem? Experts say no.
The root cause of the disaster
Dr Narayanan MK, Director of Entrepreneurship at Kerala University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, says this whole problem was created by human beings. “The changes in attitudes and in the social system that we have have led to this crisis,” he says. “Dogs never had a life away from human beings. They were always dependent on us. And it was a brave animal among the animal population to follow or lead man in his nomadic times. never left human beings. Human beings, however, left dogs in between. They are all community dogs. They were dogs living with human beings. However, we separated them from the human community and have stopped the socialization aspect of the dogs. So they roam the place we call streets. We dumped trash on the same streets, and in and around those food sources, the dog population increased. It there is no dog called “street dog.” If there is no food available on the street, there are no street dogs either.
The number of strays, according to official records, is around 2.89 lakhs. However, NGOs and animal welfare organizations say this is a gross underestimate and the number of dogs on the loose may be between 6 and 8 lakh. “The increase in dog population was the result of natural selection,” says Narayanan. “They have all the favorable situations for their breeding on the streets. Food holding capacity – the food available to a group – is what determines the number of dogs. When the holding capacity is higher, they are more likely to reproduce.
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 heaps were important predictors of height. of the dog population. And the study’s suggested solution for dog population reduction was to “decrease the carrying capacity of the environment by targeting these food sources.”
Since the increase in population is the result of natural selection, mass culling of dogs cannot solve the problem, Narayanan says. “We cannot annihilate all the dogs. It is against nature. Nature will then find other alternatives,” he says. “If our approach is to kill dogs in the community by poisoning them, other dogs [that are less socialised with human beings] would replace them. And these dogs could be the ones with abnormal and unsocialized behavior. And that would lead to more conflict.
Problems with the existing approach
Vanak, an animal ecologist and conservation biologist, and senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, says human-dog conflicts in the country have increased due to flawed and unscientific policies implemented by governments. successive. Interestingly, the Animal (Dog) Birth Control Rules 2001 – intended to control the dog population – were introduced by the Ministry of Culture. “It was a unique example of a ministry, which had nothing to do with the problem of stray dogs, adopting a set of rules about it,” says Vanak. “If the dogs carried diseases, the rules should have come from the Ministry of Health. But the rules were introduced by the Ministry of Culture because Maneka Gandhi was the head of it then.
Vanak adds that the ABC rules themselves are based on a faulty assumption. “It assumes that if you castrate the dog population, reproduction will decrease and over time the population will decrease. It works if you’re on an island, where no new dogs arrive all the time,” he says. “But when you have a country that has over 60 million free-roaming dogs, how are you going to sterilize enough animals to keep the population down? Also, even after sterilization, we put them back on the same streets they were caught from. Their behavior has not changed. They are still the same animal. They can still bite and they can still chase people. Thus, none of these problems disappear by sterilizing these animals.
A major problem in implementing the ABC rules is that the government has to spend around Rs 70 lakh per year for a single ABC center if all its specifications are to be met. According to the ABC rules and the SOP of the Animal Welfare Board of India, each ABC center must have a fully equipped and air-conditioned operating room, a pre-operative preparation area, a room/area for cleaning and sterilization of instruments, a storage room for medicines and equipment and a 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, injured, sick, or suspected of a communicable disease like rabies. In addition, the ABC center must have a team comprising at least one full-time veterinarian, two para-veterinarians and three animal handlers and catchers. A para-veterinarian must be on site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide post-operative care.
However, many ABC centers in the state were not following all of these adequate measures. Also, Kudumbashree, a grassroots organization of women’s groups in the neighborhood of Kerala, used to get tenders for ABC programs. In December 2021, the Kerala High Court ordered the state government to stop Kudumbashree units from carrying out ABC procedures in the state, citing that none of its members were qualified to carry out the procedures . When Kudumbashree was prevented from doing so, the ABC program itself came to a screeching halt in many places.
Dr Sushma Prabhu, a pediatrician and president of an NGO called People for Animal Welfare, says there has been a prolonged outbreak of distemper – a highly contagious disease – also since 2021 and this has also led to the shutdown ABC programs. All of these have had a cumulative effect on increasing the dog population in the state.
Capture, record keeping, surgical sterilization, post-operative care, release at the place of capture, etc., are the practical issues that make it difficult to implement the ABC rules. It has also been observed that released dogs have to deal with the same dangerous environment, in addition to the stress induced by the surgery. Another important observation is that wild dogs or unsocialized dogs are beyond the reach of dog hunters. And, in many cases, 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 meant to be on the streets. This is against the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
He is also against feeding dogs in public places. “By feeding the dogs on the streets, all you’re doing is increasing the population because now they have the resources,” he says. “Some would say you have to feed them so you can catch them and sterilize them. Our studies have shown that most people don’t. Most people just feed the dogs. They do not act by sterilizing or vaccinating them. So, all these “compassionate” people contribute to aggravate the problem. »
Dr. Prabhu, says animal lovers should get help from the government to sterilize and vaccinate. “Now animal lovers have to pay out of pocket to vaccinate dogs,” she says. “It’s not affordable for many. But if the government is supportive, there will be plenty of people to help with sterilization and vaccination. »
What is the solution?
Narayanan and Vanak both point out that improving human-dog interactions is the first step towards solving the “disaster”. “Dogs are pets. They are not wild animals. You shouldn’t mistreat them,” says Vanak. “If you love dogs, then find homes for them. Adopt them. Keep them indoors. Have strict rules in place for dog licensing and registration. Also make sure there are not a large number of dogs on the streets. Build a shelter and take care of them in the shelter.
Narayanan says only a localized and decentralized approach can help solve the problem. “There are about 20,000 local autonomous neighborhoods. When we divide, we will see that each service will have to manage a small number of dogs, ”he says. “CBA rules say there should be a committee. This committee can also be replicated at the neighborhood level. The committee would identify where all food waste is dumped and where all street dogs are. The number of dogs that the service must manage will be small. It will be easy to identify problematic dogs, which need to be sheltered. If our approach was to kill all these dogs by poisoning them, other dogs would replace them. And these dogs could be the ones with abnormal and unsocialized behavior.
Narayanan is a proponent of early neutering of dogs (END), an approach that can be implemented with ABC rules. Here, the idea is to sterilize the puppies at the age of two to three months and give them up for adoption. “It’s a long-term puppy-centric strategy,” says Narayanan. The END process is performed by preserving the testicles in men (vasectomy) and the ovaries in women (hysterectomy) under injectable or inhalation anesthesia. The puppies are then given up for adoption for better shelter, better nutrition and better vaccinations.
The researchers hope that the active breeding age of dogs lasts an average of six years and that the systematic implementation of END for at least five years will stabilize the dog population. The biggest advantage of the END program is that capturing and controlling the animal is easy here. Moreover, it is more economical because only less resources are needed. Studies show that the process is less traumatic for dogs and there are fewer post-operative complications.