Imagine a group of early humans sitting around a fire and enjoying a hearty meal after a hunt. While most of the kill would be used, either as food or as raw materials for clothes, weapons or vessels, some scraps would be produced, which would be enough to feed one or two animals lingering in the shadows when the people sleep in their cave, with a fire burning outside to keep the animals away. Some of these animals could choose to follow the hunters when they migrated, choosing the life of scavengers around humans, rather than be at the end of the hierarchy in their own group, shifting from a hunting to a human-dependent scavenging lifestyle. Some of these animals could get lucky because some human would take a fancy to them and start throwing them a bone or two, the beginning of a long-term relationship, where the animal would begin guarding the cave as part of its territory, helping the humans in their hunts by flushing out small game and retrieving kills and would, in turn, be fed by the humans. This is the idea behind the “self-domestication hypothesis” for explaining the evolution of dogs from wolves.
Dogs have lived around humans for centuries, and some genetic evidence suggests that people have bred herding dogs for thousands of years. However, the multi-million dollar industry of dog breeding to produce desired features – whether physical or behavioural – and maintaining pedigrees is a much recent phenomenon, going back to the Victorian age. Today, we seem to have forgotten our long, shared history with dogs and can only imagine them as the pets that we raise and nurture for our pleasure.
Growing up in India, I have been used to having dogs come to our backyard to feed on the leftovers after meals, people calling out to specific dogs to feed them a little extra, and dogs patrolling the streets, barking, howling, sometimes fighting, and being quite a nuisance on some nights. People would chase them, threaten them, pour water on them to disrupt mating, but also feed them and pet them. In the course of our research on the lives of dogs on the streets, students of the Dog Lab have encountered people who have been fiercely protective of their neighbourhood dogs, people who are generally tolerant of them and people who find them quite disgusting. On the whole, a perception survey tells us that most people are quite neutral in their responses towards dogs – they don’t show overt love or hate, they might allow a dog to take shelter in their garage when it rains, give a little extra food to a pregnant female, but will not be ready to house puppies in their courtyard and will be irritated when dogs bark too loudly. This has been the overall scenario of dog-human interactions in the country for generations, and dogs living around humans have probably not changed much, from the mythological Sharama or the dog following Yudhisthira to heaven to the “streeties” of today.
In recent times, there has been a rise in two cults of urban people – the dog lovers, who feed dogs on streets in bulk, vaccinate and neuter them, give them blankets to sleep on and advocate the adoption of stray dogs. The other group is that of people who vehemently oppose the very idea of stray dogs for various reasons – they cause rabies, they bark and bite, are a threat to children in the urban setting and to wildlife in the rural and wild setting. Interestingly, both groups believe, in their own way, that dogs don’t belong on streets (or wild areas), but need to live within human homes.
In the last 10 years, I have been contacted by at least a dozen educational institutions across the country, with the same story. There are invariably two groups of people on campus who are in a tussle over the rights of dogs, and the administration wants a quick and easy solution to the “dog problem”. It amuses me to see that in most cases, administrators arrive at the same solution – identifying specific “feeding sites” where dog lovers can feed dogs. This leads to more trouble because dogs are territorial and the sites are not planned taking this into consideration. So, dogs move across territories to feed, which leads to aggressive encounters, escalating the debate between the two factions on campus.
The dogs live in small groups that have intricate dynamics, of aggression and affiliation, much like the great Indian joint families. There are aunts and grandmothers, even “fathers” adding to the mother’s care for pups. As the pups grow and gradually wean, mothers begin to compete with them for food – a classic case of the evolutionary theory of Parent-offspring conflict. Group members fight and bark together to maintain territorial boundaries, mark over each other to express dominance, compete over mates, often share food and compete for food with others. Humans play an important role in the lives of dogs. The dogs are good at understanding human gestures and postures, and they often adjust their responses to humans, based on the cues we give them, either actively, or subtly. Every winter, the dog numbers in a neighbourhood might seem overwhelming, with a large number of pups, but most of the pups die and the population stabilizes.
However, we the dog lovers choose to interfere, with vaccines, medical support, food, shelter and care, ensuring that they survive more and often, as biologically inactive entities, because we do not have any qualms about neutering them. We want to take care of them and feel good about it, but we don’t want them to have a full life, because that is inconvenient for us. We have strong feelings about the rights of dogs, but somehow, the rights do not include the basic biological function of life – to procreate. We think the best we can do for them is to take them home. We refuse to understand that they have homes, on the streets, under trees and park benches, in our backyards and garages, wherever they can feel safe to rest and give birth, wherever they can live independent lives, in their own families and groups, interacting with their neighbours and the humans they like or dislike, being dogs, not people. I am disliked by most dog haters because I work on dog behaviour, and the dog lovers don’t see why I am not on their team. I am happy to be in this “Trishanku” stage, with my love for dogs not clouding my ability to objectively analyse the facts. I hope, that the general spirit of Indians, of letting things be, will allow the dogs that have lived amongst us for centuries the right to a life they can own.
The writer is Associate Dean of International Relations and Outreach, IISER Kolkata