Dogs deserve a lot better

There are about 18,000 deaths due to rabies in India every year.The problem with the street dogs is more complex because it involves a government-public interface

A woman feeds stray dogs at Janpath market, New Delhi, during the Covid lockdown of 2020
A woman feeds stray dogs at Janpath market, New Delhi, during the Covid lockdown of 2020

Avay Shukla

There are certain acknowledged attributes of a civilised and humane society and these have nothing to do with GDP or per capita income or how many billionaires a country can boast of. Yes, prosperity does, or should, take a country up the civilisational ladder but it is not a given, and New India is living proof of this.

Even as we edge towards becoming the fourth largest economy in the world, as a society we are fast losing our gentility and becoming more brutal, to each other and to other living things.

One of the markers of a humane society is the manner in which it treats animals, and in this respect our record is dismal. I will not talk here about the horrendous slaughter of wild animals for “bush meat”, or of the rampant, illegal trade in exotic wild species: these are distant from the lives of the average Indian.

I will talk instead about animals that are closer to us, have been living with man for thousands of years, and have earned the description of ‘Man’s best friend’. I will talk about that one animal which has abandoned its wild and free roaming ancestry in favour of living with homo sapiens, and how we are returning that trust with betrayal and cruelty. Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the humble and loyal dog

India will have an estimated 30 million pet dogs by 2023, and the pet care industry is valued at half a billion dollars per annum. It is harder to arrive at the number of stray/street dogs, the figures varying between 15 million and 60 million, depending on whether you want to believe the government or independent researchers/animal care activists. Our treatment of both categories can be appalling, lacking in compassion, a scientific approach or even a cause-and-effect co-relation.

Most pet/dog owners are caring and responsible, but of late a new breed of nouveau-rich owners has appeared, for whom dogs are as much of a status symbol as their cars and villas. They have no real love for animals, haven’t the foggiest idea of how to care for their pets, but will think nothing of spending a hundred thousand rupees for an exotic breed they can flaunt in their club or kitty party.

But they will not bother to train them or bestow any personal attention on them, leaving them to the careless care of their minions. A dog for them is not a loving companion but a status symbol, to be cruelly discarded when they get tired of the animals or when the animals have served their shallow purpose. We have all seen numberless videos of these types abandoning their dogs on roads or just throwing them out of their houses, with no thought of how these poor domesticated animals will survive on our callous streets.

The problem with the stray/ streets dogs is more complex because it involves a government-public interface. It is a manmade problem, as most civic issues are. Street dog numbers keep increasing because of uncleared garbage on the roads and public places, because hardly any urban body has a proper, science-based sterilisation policy, or thinks it necessary to allocate resources for dog pounds or shelters. Hundreds of crores are spent on gaushalas but not even a pittance for dog shelters. (I am not against the former, but surely all stray/abandoned animals need a humane shelter policy.)

Street dogs are not our sworn enemies, they are our creation, but an increasingly bigger section of the public (mainly the financially welloff who create garbage and abandon animals) would like to see them exterminated by whatever means, no matter how cruel or savage the method. Their hypocrisy and ignorance are all too evident in their behaviour and selective outrage.

There are about 18,000 deaths due to rabies every year in India, and that is 18,000 too many. But they occur not only because a dog bites someone, but because of our failure to innoculate both pet and stray dogs, or to control their population, or to create dog shelters.

I wish there was similar outrage over the 31,000 rapes every year or the 150,000 traffic deaths or the 12,000 deaths in railway accidents every year. More people die every day in Mumbai from falling off overcrowded trains than from rabies, but I don’t see any outrage against the Railway Board or the minister. The helpless dogs are easier targets, aren’t they?

The worst culprits in this respect are the RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations), the gatekeepers of the gated communities which think they can keep the real world out by paying a hefty maintenance fee and hiring a horde of security guards.

Remember, these are the same people who threw out their maids and cooks and drivers during the Covid pandemic and lockdown periods, so perhaps it’s not at all surprising that they now wish to send all the dogs to gas chambers. The couple of recent incidents in NOIDA saw their savagery and inhumanity on full display, lusting for canine blood on primetime TV.

Most RWAs are headed by people who have been irrelevant all their lives to the larger scheme of things, but now behave like petty tin-pot dictators, passing all kinds of illegal directives about pets; some have even banned pets. All these are against the orders and guidelines of courts and the Animal Welfare Board, but these worthies continue to froth at the mouth in front of TV cameras and equally ignorant anchors, whenever a dog bites someone.

The residents of these RWAs are equally bad, parading their pathological hatred of dogs as civic indignation. They continue to burst crackers long after Diwali (the pollution probably causing many more deaths than dog bites), unmindful of the suffering of these dumb animals: at least the pets can cower in their flats, but the poor strays have no hiding place.

This year, a street dog was found dead in front of our housing society the morning after Diwali, dead from a heart attack brought on by the crackers.

The Municipal authorities, of course, are a class apart in their savagery and sadism. When driven to some knee-jerk action by apoplectic anchors, they become dog catchers, lassoing the poor animals and dragging them, screaming and struggling, into their vans with totally unwarranted violence.

After the incident at the Lotus Boulevard Society in Noida last month, a pregnant bitch who was dragged away died of injuries a few days later; there is no news of her pups. Such behaviour is inhumane and totally unnecessary.

There are plenty of animal welfare groups and NGOs that are willing to render their services in feeding, sheltering, treating and even sterilising these stray dogs, but our civic bodies have failed to utilise their services; worse, they are treated like adversaries.

The government should accept that it lacks the expertise, knowledge, motivation and mindset to tackle this problem, and should therefore partner with these voluntary bodies, assisting them financially and in other ways to resolve the issue in a humane, caring and effective manner.

Finally, the judiciary. The courts could have played an effective role in nudging both society and the administration to act sensibly and with compassion, but they have only nibbled at the matter.

Worse, their orders have at times been inconsistent, erratic and with no scientific basis. The Delhi High Court showed both gravitas and solicitude by ordering that stray dogs can be fed by RWAs, but only at designated spots.

But in a recent order that defies belief, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court has banned feeding dogs at public places. It has further compounded this by another irrational direction—that those who want to feed street dogs should first adopt them and keep them in their own houses! For God’s sake, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that any animal that is well-fed is less dangerous than one which is starving.

Feeding strays is a public service, apart from being a kind act. As for mandatorily adopting them, by the same logic we should also be adopting all the beggars and vagrants we give alms to on the roads, or all the victims of manmade and natural disasters for whom we make donations. Citizens can only do so much; for the rest we pay taxes to the government.

It’s not hard to despise these cynophobic people, and the paranoia and ignorance that masquerade as public concern or judicial wisdom. But I also pity them, for they will never know the only pure and selfless love in this world, apart from a mother’s love for her child—the unquestioning love of a dog for his master or mistress. They are the poorer for that, though they are probably ignorant of that too.

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