Unleashed: India’s all bark, no bite dog population control programme may still hold answers

Kerala has reported a string of dog bite cases, setting off a debate on whether this calls for drastic measures such as culling.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri , Shaju Philip | Updated: September 4, 2016 7:19 am
Kerala, kerala stray dogs, kerala dog deaths, kerala stray dog deaths, kerala news, kerala stray dog deaths, kerala news, india news In Kerala, where the man versus dog debate is raging, there is empirical and anecdotal evidence to back the argument that the stray population is getting out of hand.

What a death. To be torn apart by stray dogs,” says Selvaraj, sitting outside his hut on Pulluvila beach at Karinkulam in Thiruvananthapuram district. The fisherman, his face cupped in his palms, shudders at the thought of how his 76-year-old mother met her end two weeks ago, soon after she stepped out of their house around 7 pm to go to the toilet. “When she did not return till half an hour later, I went looking. On the beach, I saw a pack of dogs digging into something. As I approached them, I realised it was my mother they were mauling. Suddenly, the dogs lunged at me and I jumped into the sea. By the time I raised an alarm and our neighbours rushed to the spot, my mother was a lump of flesh. She died on the way to the hospital,” he says.

The death shook up a state that had already been debating the rising number of stray dogs, its media saturated with horrifying images of people scarred by dog bites. The administration swung into action, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan directing his officials to take “urgent steps”. Local Administration Minister K T Jaleel called a press conference to say his department’s secretary had been authorised to issue orders to civic bodies to cull violent street dogs. “We have to face the issue at any cost,” he declared.

With that, as has happened several times in the past, the lines got stark, the debate polarised. On one side are those who think there’s no strategy better than cold-blooded killing to get rid of stray dogs, that this is a human rights verus animal rights issue and that the government can’t be humane to a fault. On the other side are those who believe that the answer lies in neutering and vaccinating ‘free-living dogs’, and that the rising number of street dogs points to the failure in implementing what is the “most logical solution”.

Gone to the dogs

A 2015 report in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, says that about one in 143 Indians is bitten by a dog at some point in their lives.

Cities and towns across the country have had trouble handling their stray dog population. In June this year, animal activists alleged that the residents of Kolkata’s Behala area killed at least 15 stray dogs. In Chandigarh, which reports nearly 500 dog bites a month, a five-year-old died last March after being bitten by a stray. Earlier this year, MPs complained of dogs and and monkeys in their bungalows in Lutyens Delhi, following which a Rajya Sabha House Committee invited suggestions from experts and the public on “management of monkeys and dogs”.

“The committee met a few times but there was no real outcome. For any plan to be successful, the Urban Development Ministry and the Ministry of Environment and Forests have to work together. The problem is that there is no core team,” says Renuka Chowdhury, the Congress MP who was part of the panel.

In Kerala, where the man versus dog debate is raging, there is empirical and anecdotal evidence to back the argument that the stray population is getting out of hand.

In April this year, the Supreme Court appointed a three-member committee headed by former high court judge Siri
Jagan to look into complaints of dog bite victims in Kerala and to see if hospitals are equipped to treat victims. The court was acting on a petition filed by Jose Sebastian, a native of Kottayam in Kerala, who had moved court for compensation after his wife Dolly, 54, died last October following a dog bite. The court directed the government to pay Sebastian a compensation of Rs 40,000.

“Dolly was returning home after a function when a dog bit her. The same day, she went to the government medical college, where she was given an anti-rabies injection. She got two more doses. But a week later, her hand got swollen and soon, she was put on ventilator. She died a month later,’’ says Sebastian, a bus driver and a father of two. “A dog killed my wife and now I have a debt of Rs 3 lakh.’’

Last month, the Siri Jagan committee submitted its interim report to the SC and pegged the stray dog population in the state at 2.5 lakh. The committee also said 3.35 lakh people have been bitten by street dogs in Kerala since 2013 — 31,000 in the first five months of this year. Forty-nine people have died of rabies since 2012 and the state has spent Rs 19.34 crore towards anti-rabies vaccine from 2013 to now, the report said.

According to the World Health Organisation, death due to rabies in India accounts for 36 per cent of the world’s figures. Public health experts say India could be the spoiler as the WHO attempts to eliminate rabies from South East Asia by 2020.

A leading public health expert who spoke on condition of anonymity says, “Ninety-five per cent of the rabies cases in India are caused by dog bites. To check the spread of rabies, dogs need to immunised every year, which is very difficult in India. In countries such as the US, dogs are given oral vaccines through the year.”

The media in Kerala, meanwhile, have been reporting, on an average, a bite a day. Of a four-year-old who was attacked by a pack of dogs while he was playing outside his house; a six-month-old who was attacked when her mother, who was giving her a bath in the courtyard, stepped inside the house for a moment; morning walkers being forced to change routes and routines; and accidents that happened when two-wheelers and autorickshaws swerved to avoid hitting dogs.

K T Jaleel, the Kerala minister whose comments on culling had animal rights activists up in arms, has since toned down his prescription. “We have asked local bodies to handle ferocious dogs using all legally permitted ways. Priority will be given to sterilisation of street dogs. There will be mobile sterilisation units covering all local bodies. The dog population can be contained only after conducting the sterilisation drive for three or four years continuously,’’ says Jaleel.

The law, its teeth

To control the population of street dogs, the British are said to have resorted to mass killings in the early 19th century, wiping out as many as 50,000 dogs a year. Experts say the exercise continued well after Independence to control the population as well as the spread of rabies. Even after the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, came into effect, the cullings continued.

“It was only around 1993-94 that the government realised that culling wasn’t working. Human deaths from rabies had increased and the population of street dogs had grown. Despite that, indiscriminate methods to kill these dogs continued. Finally, the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 — called ABC rules — came into force. Sterilisation and vaccination are now the only authorised methods of controlling dog population,” says M Ravikumar, secretary of the Chennai-based Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body that advises the Government of India on animal welfare laws and provides grants to animal groups.

The ABC rules, Ravikumar says, ban culling of stray animals to control their population and only permit spaying, neutering and vaccinations. Spaying refers to the removal of the reproductive organs of female dogs, while neutering is the removal of the testicles in male dogs.

In March this year, the Supreme Court directed states and local bodies to take steps to sterilise and vaccinate stray dogs under the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

However, questions are now being raised about the effectiveness of this model.

Kerala-based industrialist Kochousep Chittilappally, who heads a ‘Stray-Dog-Free movement’, blames the ABC rules for the “mess you see on the roads”. “Earlier, local bodies could kill dangerous dogs. Following the ABC rules, only sterilisation is permitted. There are strict and strange guidelines for sterilisation too. There is no guarantee that a sterilised dog won’t attack,” says Chittilappally, who had earlier announced legal aid for those facing cases for killing stray dogs.

Over the years, several states have sought culling of street dogs to control their population. In 2008, the J&K government was accused of planning to poison dogs. In 2009, the Meerut corporation faced the same charge of trying to cull dogs.

Experts argue that far from controlling the problem, culling worsens it. Says Mandy Seth, president of Friendicoes SECA, an animal welfare NGO that works with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), “Dogs are extremely territorial in nature. When you kill stray dogs, they are replaced by dogs from neighbouring areas. This leads to clashes between the two groups, making dogs aggressive and triggering dog bites. That’s also why, under the ABC programme, when municipalities pick up a dog to sterilise it, they release it in the same area. You don’t want them to get into turf battles in a new area. Plus, when a female delivers puppies, which is twice a year, she gets aggressive. Then too, cases of dog bites see a spike. The solution to both these problems is spaying and neutering.”

Why then has the ABC’s spay-and-neuter programme failed to show results after 15 years of its implementation?

“It would be unfair to say that ABC has failed. Suitable infrastructure, along with uninterrupted financial backing, are basic necessities. Besides, the programme is simply not about catching, operating and releasing a dog. We have failed this model by calling for tenders from interested agencies simply based on the lowest financial bid without considering the technical expertise required to carry this out,” says Rahul Sehgal, Director, Humane Society International (HSI), one of the largest animal protection organisations in the world which has conducted several sterilisation programmes in India.

The machinery, officials complain, is far from efficient. To begin with, says Sehgal of HSI, there are no numbers. “Unless a survey is carried out to understand the size of the dog population, how can you comment on whether the programme is successful?” he says. HSI has now been roped in by the SDMC to conduct a dog survey.

In March this year, former Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar told the Lok Sabha in a written reply that there are 1.71 crore stray dogs in the country. But in the absence of a national or even state-level surveys, the numbers are at best an approximation — corporations conduct individual surveys but there is no coordinated effort to count. The Animal Welfare Board says there are roughly 25-30 million street dogs (3-4 per 100 people) in the country, of which a meagre 10-15 per cent have been sterilised.

R M Kharb, Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board, blames “lack of participation” as a major hurdle in controlling the population of strays. “The 2001 law states that street dogs shall be sterilised and immunised by participation of animal welfare organisations, private individuals and the local authority. Since then, only 60 cities have been conducting the programme,” he says, adding that lack of funds is another hurdle.

While the Board grants funds based on complaints by corporations and NGOs, the money isn’t good enough. “The Board grants Rs 445 to sterilise and vaccinate one stray dog to corporations and close to 69 NGOs. Corporations have to meet any additional expense by digging into their own resources, but these urban bodies are often cash-strapped. Our budget for 2016 is Rs 1 crore and that’s not enough to tackle the numbers,” says Ravikumar of the Animal Welfare Board.

He also blames the poor waste disposal system in cities for the problem. “Garbage is the primary reason for the numbers increasing. Stray dogs are scavengers and the food and meat in garbage help them survive and, in turn, multiply,” he says.

Residents of Pulluvila, the Kerala beach where the 76-year-old was mauled to death, say the number of strays has gone up ever since poultry waste from nearby areas began to be dumped in the village.

Experts say India can, while sticking to the spay-and-neuter model, adopt successful practices followed by other countries. In the New England region of the US, street dogs are put up for adoption. In Greece, communities collectively adopt and care for stray dogs.

Closer home, they say, the sterilisation programme has worked well in countries such as Bhutan. “The Bhutanese government’s nationwide street dog population management programme, running since 2009, has managed to sterilise more than 70 per cent of the street dogs,” HSI CEO & president Dr Andrew Rowan says in an email interview from the US.

Every dog has his…

There are a few happy stories back home too. “In Chennai, at least until two years ago, the stray dog population had been brought under control. The Jaipur and Ooty corporations have controlled rabies to a large extent. Seventy per cent of the stray dogs in Sikkim have been sterilised, which is the only state in the country to achieve the numbers mandated by the WHO,” says Kharb of the Animal Welfare Board.

In March last year, with at least 10 street dogs per 100 persons, Haryana was chosen for the launch of the pilot project of the National Rabies Control Programme. A year later, the state has, with help from two NGOs, managed to vaccinate 1.7 lakh street dogs against rabies and sterilised over 38,000 of them in three districts of Hisar, Fatehabad and Gurgaon.

Officials in the Animal Welfare Board say that if the Haryana project is successful, for the first time, a national-level programme to manage the stray dog population could be launched.

‘Haryana has higher dog density than Kerala but has no rabies cases’

Gauri Maulekhi, co-opted member, Animal Welfare Board of India, who has advised states, including Kerala, on the stray dog problem, tells Arun Prashanth Subramanian that better coordination between stakeholders will improve sterlisation figures

Is culling a way to control stray dog population?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) came out with a report in 2000 saying that the killing of dogs has been going on for centuries but has not yielded the desired result. If there is enough food to sustain 20 dogs, then there will be 20 dogs. You can kill all these 20 but some other 20 will come. Then there will be more fights over territory and more aggression. That is what is happening in Kerala. The state has one of the highest meat consumption in the country, but has no methods for refuse disposal. The dogs are eating it, having good litter sizes and healthy life spans. The solution is the spay-and-neuter method prescribed under the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 (ABC).

One of the arguments for culling of dogs is that you allow other animals, which are declared as vermin, to be killed. So why should dogs be an exception?

Some animals have been declared as vermin but we are already contesting that in courts. Himachal Pradesh declared monkeys as vermin but the high court has stopped the killing. This is symptomatic of the unscientific methods some states adopt. Himachal has six sterilisation centres for monkeys and over the past 10 years, has spent Rs 20 crore. It claims to have sterilised some 80,000-90,000 monkeys but now wants to kill them. We kept on saying that sterilisation is a solution for the dog population, you cannot implement it on wild animals. Monkeys are migratory and have complex social structures. You sterilise a monkey and release it, but not to its old troop as it would have migrated. So you have basically spoilt your relationship with an entire species in the state.

But why do we have such low sterilisation numbers?

Apathy. The easy way out is to just kill the dogs. For at least two to three days (after the dogs are culled), there will be nothing, but by the fifth day, more dogs will come, fight for territory and then bite somebody. You go round and round and ask the same question: ‘What is the solution?’ The solution has been there for 16 years. It is written in law.

According to WHO, 36 per cent of the world’s rabies deaths occur in India. How do we tackle that?

Dogs are not the only reason for rabies. There are bats, cats and from mongoose bites. You cannot start killing dogs to eradicate rabies. Rabies is a threat and it needs to be addressed. So far there has been a bit of a hiccup here because the Centre’s fund allocation for ABC has not been very healthy. We have taken the matter to the Supreme Court, saying that a national coordination committee should be made between the four ministries that have a stake in the issue — the ministries of urban development, animal husbandry, environment and health. These four should make a pooled-in fund and invite proposals from states which want to carry out phase-wise programmes.

Are some states having success with ABC?

Goa is doing an amazing ABC programme under Mission Rabies. Bihar has set up a state animal birth control monitoring committee. In Haryana, where the dog density is five times that of Kerala, there is no conflict, zero rabies.

You advised the Kerala government last year. What were your recommendations?

We made it clear that their decision to leave everything to the panchayats was not the right one as panchayats do not have the nous to carry out ABC method. I advised them that a state monitoring committee be formed with representatives from the stakeholder departments, who could then coordinate with the collectors. They initially said they would do it but then tried to put the ball back in the court of the zila panchayat.

Elsewhere

Chennai
About 50-60 sterilisations conducted every day to combat a stray dog population of over 1.5 lakh. The growing canine population has been blamed on the nearly 2,000 kg of animal waste that the city’s slaughter houses and hotels generate every day

Kolkata
Over 900 sterilisations are conducted in three operation theatres at the Dhapa dog hospital every month. According to Kolkata Muncipal Corporation (KMC), the total number of stray dogs in the city was estimated to be around 65,000 in 2012. It is estimated to have decreased now

Mumbai
Of the 95,174 stray dogs (2014 census), the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) claims to have sterilised 69,239 till May this year. The BMC has been granted Rs 5.22 crore for dog catching, sterilisation and immunisation, but has only spent only Rs 95.6 lakh so far.

Delhi
The last official survey of street dogs, done at least seven years ago by the unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi, put the stray population at approximately 5.62 lakh. 68,000 dog bites were reported by civic bodies in the Capital in 2015. Each corporation gets between Rs 2-4 crore each for stray dog management every year, but officials say that is not enough to support the machinery.

Kashmir
There are approximately 50,000 stray dogs and over 2,000 cases of dog bites are reported every year from Srinagar alone. A sterilisation centre was set up near Srinagar in 2012, but it has since closed due to lack of staff.

With inputs from ENS Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Srinagar and Chandigarh