Indian streets happen to be a battleground between humans and dogs owing to high rabies-related fatalities but with planning, the conflict may be unnecessary
We invariably conclude that it is 'Canine culpability' whenever we come across poignant incidents like the recent ones in Vizag – an 8-year-old was mangled to death by a pack of street dogs; they sumptuously feasted on a one-year-old healthy baby; a pregnant woman died of rabies. Thus, scared of their bites and rabies, we largely approve of their killing by the civic authorities. These fears are not unfounded. India still accounts for more than 36 per cent of the annual rabies deaths in the world as the World Health Organisation reiterated on September 28, the anti-rabies day, to put an end to it by 2030. Are the poor canines really culpable? The animal activists think otherwise.
The PM stated at Houston that 'all is well in India' when millions of people still live in squally conditions in slums and on pavements of streets. Likewise, millions of stray dogs too manage their lives on streets, at the mercy of civic authorities; like how kind-and-compassionate Mumbai helps them to forage for perishable foods in about 500 tons of uncollected garbage every day. With abundant gratitude, they too serve society, albeit indirectly by reducing waste that could otherwise be a source of contamination for people and keeping away potentially dangerous rodents. However, countries that have garbage kept in bins and cleaned regularly are not so kind to their destitute cousins.
While these street dogs try to do good, at the same time, unknowingly, they outrage people – with rabies, bites and also nuisance – stinking defecation and urination, fights, barking and howling. Therefore, even though it is illegal to kill a dog in India since 2001, people still indulge in such cruelty. A medical student from Chennai threw a dog from the rooftop of a building and another friend filmed the entire act. In another case, a woman in Bengaluru flung eight innocent puppies on a boulder, smashing their skulls in the process. People even condone actions like shooting them dead and throwing their carcases in the Arabian Ocean by Kovalam people; injecting potassium cyanide to kill 40 dogs in Kannur; inhumanly discarding 78 dead dogs as per orders of 'civic authorities' in Telangana and beating them to death and taking away their bodies in sacks by people hired by irate residents of plush colonies in Gurugram even though they all go against dignity, hygiene and is unscientific mindless slaughter.
People argue that human life is more important than that of a stray dog, although studies reveal that the majority of dog-bites come from pets. We do not even pity the young puppies when we see them roaming through the streets, feeding off food scraps, cardboard and plastic bags, trying to survive the bustling roads and blistering heat – desperately clinging to every inch of life. Nonchalantly, we pass by dogs that are wounded, blind, have missing limbs, and are bleeding from open lacerations, even when some of them lay on the roadside to die and decay.
Fortunately, for these voiceless destitute, it is the animal activists who do the pairvi. They defend them saying, 'It is only when they mate or fight among themselves that pedestrians and other humans in the vicinity get attacked or become aggressive and bite only if provoked'. They also maintain that, on the contrary, these human-fearing dogs are virtuous, gentle and friendly, with a playful demeanour and further that they are highly intelligent, adaptable, quick learners and protective of their guardians. More importantly, they also tend to be free from many of the health and behavioural problems that plague their pedigree cousins. Thus, they plead that they would make loving and loyal companions if adopted.
Although some confused dogs are the cause for certain accidents, most of them are accustomed to the flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic. In Moscow, they can even use Metro and bus services and are known as Metro dogs. Surviving in hostile conditions, facing the vagaries of the wrath of humans and of nature, they have evolved into a hardy species. But it is such survival and proliferation that is also their nemesis since India accounts for 1.7 lakh dog bites annually and also for 20,800 rabies deaths out of 59,000 world-over. Incidentally, dogs are 99 per cent of contributors for rabies cases. Most of these deaths are avoidable but for the ignorance of people and for the lack of timely supply of rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin.
People, in general, still do not know that this viral infection causes inflammation of the brain, leading to delusion and then death. In one form, initial symptoms would be a fever with pain and unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking, or burning sensation at the wound site. As the virus spreads to the central nervous system, progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops. There could be hydrophobia or aerophobia but ultimately it would be a cardio-respiratory arrest. In another form, there could be paralytic rabies, atrophy of muscles, which usually takes a longer course, starting at the site of exposure but eventually leads to death. Since diagnosis is difficult until the virus spreads and symptoms are clear, it is only the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) which is the immediate imperative. According to it, extensive washing and local treatment of the wound as soon as possible after exposure, a course of potent and effective rabies vaccine that meets WHO standards and the administration of rabies immunoglobulin (RIG) is required.
Experts say, although the virus continues to be the deadliest killer, the work done in the country is well short of the desired goal. We have not implemented rabies-prevention strategies successfully, be it vaccination and sterilisation of dogs or providing free medicines to all rabies victims. There is a 20-80 per cent short-supply of vaccines, especially Rabipur and VaxiRab N. While WHO mandates that at least 80 per cent of dogs need to be vaccinated annually to break the cycle of transmission, our achievement is only 2.4 per cent over the past 10 years.
Worried people thus feel that these culprits need to be exterminated, while governments and few active NGOs are only grappling with this mammoth problem since they proliferate quickly and in plenty. A female dog litters twice a year, 6-10 puppies each time, and creates a family-tree of 67,000 dogs in six years! It is no wonder then that India roughly has about 25 million dogs and rising. Killing is not the option since it is found that for every dog killed, another comes in to take over its territory.
Culling, through poisoning, electrocution or shooting, was the way in the past. Since this has been proved ineffective and considered barbaric, now the mindset has changed to the humane method of sterilisation. However, some countries adopt the middle path. Japan has a nil rate of rabies cases since they get trapped dogs either adopted or euthanised. In US, they try to get them back to the owner or get them adopted or even settle them in shelters if space permits; failing which, they are euthanised. While 3-4 million dogs and cats are adopted by shelters, an equal number is euthanised annually. Even in Australia, 0.25 million dogs are killed every year. Although shooting stray dogs was the practice in Russia until recent times, they have now changed to sterilising and providing adequate food for their survival, believing that they keep cities free of food leftovers and rats. 'Trap, neuter, release, manage,' is the new norm in Singapore to control their 7,000 street dog population.
In India, Animal Birth Control is the strategy. Large scale vaccination and sterilisation programmes in Jaipur and Mumbai have led to a significant decrease in rabies deaths. Chennai succeeded in bringing down the number of such deaths to zero in a matter of four years. Among the states, Sikkim is distinguished with 'zero rabies', thanks to the sustained efforts of the government.
However, the problem persists everywhere else since we depend entirely on civic bodies, whose work is not so laudable. Painfully, one even has to bribe someone to trap stray dogs. With dubious statistics of sterilisation, vaccination, etc., siphoning of funds is also common. Added to them is the limited capacity of shelters. Thus, the pace of government action does not match with the speed of proliferation.
We perhaps need to think of better alternatives like promoting the concept of 'community dogs'. If every housing society, market association, etc., in a town or city, adopt a few street dogs and takes care of their food, sterilisation, and periodic vaccination with their collective funding, most of them would not be homeless. Mobile units may visit these societies to help them in this task. With some basic training in discipline, these dogs can also be utilised along with their security guards for enhancing security. The dogs, in turn, would reciprocate their love and gratitude for all that done. And, this humane gesture would also help children to develop positive attitudes of love and compassion. It all requires only simple coordination. No longer would there be any fear of rabies, their multiplication or nuisance.
At the same time, funding, providing incentives and rewards by governments would give a fillip to this movement. Canines would no longer be thought culpable.
(Dr N Dilip Kumar is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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