Horrible attacks and growing threat "India plans to tackle wild dog problem"

Horrible attacks and growing threat “India plans to tackle wild dog problem”

Gruesome attacks and the growing threat of disease means a day of reckoning beckons for the country’s 60m street dogs

The toddler’s father had left him alone for mere minutes – but that was all it took.

Sensing blood, the pack of dogs nudged the playing four-year-old to the floor before sinking their teeth in. His bone-chilling screams alerted passersby but it was too late. Severe lacerations to his neck meant the toddler died before he reached hospital.

The horrific incident, which occurred last month in downtown Hyderabad, one of India’s largest cities, was caught on CCTV and shared widely on social media, igniting a rare national debate about what to do with India’s out-of-control dog population.

“The CCTV recording is clear that stray dogs are attacking and killing humans and there is no ambiguity in it,” said Vikramjeet Singh, a wildlife advisory official from the north of India.

“This Hyderabad attack is a watershed moment and will certainly help strengthen the opinion for culling or for more effective ways of tackling the dogs.”

For generations, Indians have lived side-by-side with stray dogs, which, by 2021, numbered 62 million across the country.

This coexistence is effectively codified in India’s constitution, which implores compassion for animals and sets strict protection laws, but is also rooted in religion. Hinduism, practised by 80 per cent of Indians, teaches that living creatures are holy and should be revered.

But following a spate of highly publicised dog attacks, with the number of dog bites almost doubling between 2012 and 2020, according to Indian government data, many are now challenging the nation’s long-standing canine reverence and asking whether more should be done to put human interests first.

“India has this odd balance where the protection of the dog is supreme and this comes at the expense of a public health standpoint,” says Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of One Health Trust, an Indian public health research body.

“There needs to be more common sense, where we protect animals but also spay, neuter and vaccinate them.”

As per India’s Animal Welfare Board, stray dogs should be sterilised so they can’t reproduce, while vaccines are recommended to control the spread of disease, such as rabies, which still kills tens of thousands of Indians each year.

But without the resources to effectively implement this approach, as is the case across much of India, many are starting to consider culling (which remains illegal, for now) as a means to claim back the country’s streets.

Bite of passage

Throughout rural and urban India, packs of stray dogs roam the streets. They are often territorial and can attack people who walk through their patch, particularly at night when the temperature drops and they are more active.

In Delhi, it was a painful rite of passage among the foreign correspondents to have been bitten by one of the city’s street dogs. One unlucky reporter was infamously attacked on his first day in the country.

More than 6.8 million Indians were bitten by stray dogs in 2020, according to Indian government data, up from 3.9 million in 2012. Yet the latest figures are still believed to be a considerable undercount.

These attacks can sometimes turn deadly. On Tuesday, two stray dogs entered a hospital ward in the Sirohi district of India’s western state of Rajasthan, before mauling a one-month-old baby to death while his mother slept.

And, two weeks ago, in Uttar Pradesh, a seven-year-old boy was killed by a pack of dogs while playing near his home in the village of Bilaspur.

Clearly, the attack in Hyderabad was not unique – and only captured the attention of the public having been caught on camera and then shared via social media.

But violent attacks aren’t the only risk associated with India’s stray dogs. Rabies poses an even greater threat, with the country accounting for over one-third of global deaths from the disease.

Rabies, which is transmitted in the saliva of an infected animal and causes inflammation of the brain, proving fatal if not treated immediately with vaccination, still kills around 20,000 Indians annually, according to the World Health Organisation.

“India has the highest rabies burden in the world and it is because of the street dogs who are protected quite strongly by law. But these same street dogs cause tens of thousands of bites in major Indian cities every day,” says Laxminarayan.

Although vaccination is an effective tool for combating the spread of rabies, many Indian states have rolled back their inoculation campaigns in recent years.

Kerala, which ranks highest on India’s Human Development Index, has seen the number of dogs in the state infected with rabies double since 2017, according to government data.

Public health experts from the region cite a shortage of doses and a lack of vaccinated healthcare professionals.

Against this backdrop, Kerala has broken with tradition in recently petitioning India’s highest court, the Supreme Court, to cull stray dogs – a proposal that has infuriated the country’s animal rights groups.

Over 200,000 people in Kerala, home to 33 million people, were bitten by a dog last year, according to state government data.

The death of a 12-year-old girl in the state from rabies, in September, triggered a particularly visceral outpouring of anger.

Television channels in Kerala ran daily segments about dog bites in each district of the state, while local businesses even tried to cash in on the crisis.

One advert from a Kerala-based flour brand showed that a local resident was only able to outrun a barking street dog because he had consumed their product.

“Stray dogs are wandering everywhere and many of them are rabies affected, vicious and dangerous,” argues VK Biju, a senior Indian lawyer from Kerala.

“We see who the victims are, it is the poor and daily wagers who wake up for work early in the morning when it is dark, children, women and those on motorbikes.

“That poor young girl who died in Kerala in September, she had only walked several hundreds metres to fetch milk for her father when she was attacked. We are giving more importance to stray dogs than human beings.”

Ultimately, in the case of Kerala, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the dogs and against culling. But, it is clear that the issue is far from over.

Culling continues to enjoy growing support in the state and Mr Biju intends to file another legal petition soon.

Multiple pro-culling petitions are also expected in the upcoming months from other Indian states, including Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Although culling is the most extreme option for attempting to control India’s dog population – sterilisation is the current preference – there is growing appetite for its deployment across the country.

Ahead of the pack

Despite the growing clamour to take action against India’s canines, it is evident that stray dogs and humans can coexist safely if the political will and resources are both available.

Mumbai has not seen a rabies death for five years while the number of dog bites recorded in the city has fallen by 30 per cent since 2018, according to government data.

“In India, we do have laws and rules in place but it comes down to an issue of how well they are being implemented and if every municipality was sterilising and immunising dogs as well as we are doing in Mumbai or in states like Sikkim or Goa, then we wouldn’t have this stray dog issue,” explains Abodh Aras, the CEO of the Welfare of Stray Dogs, a non-profit trust.

“When was the last time you saw a pack of dogs in Mumbai? Or, the last time you saw a puppy roaming the streets here? The system has been implemented consistently here and it has worked, it can’t be one year on and one year off.”

Mr Aras’s NGO is situated in Mumbai’s Sewri neighbourhood. A cacophony of barking welcomes you into its headquarters, where approximately 90 stray dogs are housed.

There, the animals are sterilised and receive a host of vaccinations, protecting them from contracting rabies and, in turn, preventing the onward transmission of the disease to Mumbai’s human residents.

 

The Welfare of Stray Dogs has treated more than 150,000 of the animals since 1985 and works in tandem with Mumbai’s local municipal council, combing the city’s streets for unvaccinated dogs.

The Telegraph joined Mr Aras’s team on a city patrol. Headed by Raunak Rangnekar, a 25-year-old who turned down the opportunity to study an MBA in Australia to volunteer with the organisation, the unit works methodically in picking up dogs from the streets.

“I’ve been bitten several times while doing this job but it doesn’t change my belief that this is my calling,” adds Mr Rangnekar.

In a city as famously tolerant and cosmopolitan as Mumbai, the stray dogs still make up a vital part of the picture – and for many of its roughly 50 per cent of residents that still dwell in slum settlements, they are a lifeline.

Tears fill the eyes of Rekha Pimpri, 36, as she clasps her four-month-old puppy, Dolly, while her five children play next to the tarpaulin tent she calls home, adjacent to the city’s famous Oval Maidan cricket pitches.

“I love her so much,” she says, tears filling her eyes. “She protects me and my family from anyone who tries to steal from us or come into my home at night.”

However, despite the comfort that India’s stray dogs can bring to the poor and displaced, it does seem that the weight of public opinion is increasingly swinging against them.

Unless India’s state governments and local municipalities act soon, prioritising the sterilisation and vaccination of strays and allowing human and animal to coincide, the country’s dogs may soon have had their day.

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