Political Inaction Leads to Surge in Dog Population; Attacks on the Rise

 

Article Highlights

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Last week, as Bisma and her sister Farhana, both under 10, ventured out of their home in Srinagar they were attacked by stray dogs. Bisma, bitten in face and left buttock, was treated at the local anti-rabies clinic. Farhana did not fare as well. She received a serious injury to the face and was treated at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences Srinagar, SKIMSS, where she underwent plastic surgery to reconstruct her chin.

Bisma and Farhana are just two of more than 650 people in Srinagar this year who suffered because of the escalating tensions between the human and dog populations, both of which are growing rapidly.

Everyday the people of Srinagar, a city of nearly one million people, encounter stray and rabid dogs. “The number of stray dogs in Kashmir is on the rise,” says Dr. Salim Khan, a lecturer of social and preventive medicine at the Government Medical College in Srinagar. Population estimates indicate that there are more than 100,000 dogs in the city of Srinagar alone. “At present, we have the highest dog to human ratio in India,” says Khan.

As human enterprise, like buildings and construction projects, create conflict between stray dogs and humans, the issue of what to do with the out of control dog population has come to the fore. While a large segment of citizens and physicians advocate for bringing back the controversial practice of culling — where dogs are captured and then poisoned — animal rights activists, who put a stop to culling in 2008 in Kashmir, continue to advocate for the use and implementation of a practice known as ABC — animal birth control.

Attacks Increase as Populations Spike

In the state of Kashmir, there is one stray dog for every 14 people. In Srinagar, one of the capital cities, there is one dog for every nine people. The rest of India averages approximately one stray dog for every 40 people.

As the stray dog population grows rapidly, the number of people who are bitten is also on the rise. In the last five years, the anti-rabies clinic in the Hospital of Srinagar registered 18,601 dog bites cases. Many of those people, 30 percent, were children ages 10 and below.

In the first three months of 2010, records from local hospitals indicate that 657 people have been treated for dog bite-related injuries. Two people, including one six-year-old boy, died after being attacked.

For Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and founder of PETA India, the increase in attacks can be attributed to growing construction projects and a boom in the human population. “Street dogs are being forced out of their home territories,” she says. Newkirk believes the stray dogs of India have long had a compatible relationship with local residents, but recognizes that there is “a new found aversion” to dogs in India. Newkirk, the prominent and often controversial face of PETA, grew up in India.

The politics of dealing with the stray dog population is inconsistent throughout India. In Kashmir, civil authorities used to force smaller dog populations by poisoning large numbers of dogs, a process known as culling.

According to a source at the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, thousands of dogs were killed every year until the practice was halted in March of 2008 by animal rights activists. Led by the prominent Indian politician Maneka Gandhi, the chairperson of People for Animals, India, the issue of stray dogs became political and there has yet to be a solution.

Gandhi and her team of supporters, which often include famous Bollywood stars, have lobbied nationwide for the effective implementation of animal sterilization and vaccination, as opposed to culling. Ghandi says culling traumatizes dogs. Frequently in public speeches she has detailed mass poisonings and strangulations by local authorities throughout India.

Javed Iqbal, a local politician and vice president of the Srinagar Chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, was part of the team to successfully lobby ending the practice of culling. “Culling,” he says, “is no solution to the problem.”

Iqbal says projects like the Animal Birth Control program which is supported by PETA and the World Health Organization, can make the biggest difference in controlling wild dog populations. He adds that the program has been successfully adopted by a number of third world countries and some states in India. “In some places the dog population has gone below average,” he says. Standards for ideal dog populations are generally regarded as less than two percent of the human population. Current dog populations in Srinagar are nearing 15 percent.

Iqbal was not available to comment on the frequent dog attacks on people and children in Srinagar.

Newkirk says while tragic, human injuries do not justify extermination. “It is dirty and shows [we] are not the thinking, magnanimous animal we tell our children that we are,” she said in a telephone interview. Newkirk added that the best advice is to avoid attack is “live and let live. We advocate that people give the dogs room,” she says.

While political viewpoints remain mixed and a major court case is yet to be decided, local physicians say that killing wild dogs to control the population is the only way to stop human deaths and injuries. Khan, of the APCRI, says many other countries have used the culling technique to control animal populations. Australia has culled Kangaroos and camels by shooting the ever-expanding populations via helicopter in recent years. Last year, Iraq and China embarked on dog culling drives. The process, while fairly common, is extremely unpopular with animal rights groups worldwide.

Culling, however, is notorious for yielding only temporary results. “It does not stabilize the population,” agrees Newkirk. The WHO has produced extensive field studies indicating that sterilization and vaccination limit human-to-animal tensions, reduce disease and control population growth. “It is a common sense solution,” Newkirk says. “It promotes a sympathetic relationship. Even someone who hates dogs will find it hard to tell their children they support cruel extermination when there are other options.”

 

Humane Solution Receives Mixed Reviews

In 2008, the SMC made headlines when they announced a plan to kill 100,000 dogs as a part of an anti-rabies campaign. The relatively unknown Indian city was trying to curtail the skyrocketing number of stray dogs — an urban animal population that was nearing more than 100,000.

The city initially opted for sterilization of dogs, as most activists prefer, but that plan was limited to a pilot project that failed due to poor infrastructure and lack of funding. Then, as the population of stray dogs continued to rise, the SMC began poisoning hundreds of dogs each week. According to a ward official with the SMC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from his employer, local strays were fed poisoned chicken legs on the streets. Once the dogs died, they were taken to Pampore, a village about 15 kilometers from Srinagar where they were buried in large numbers. “We had a target of killing 100 dogs a day,” he says. “This kept their numbers in check. Since we have been stopped to do it [sic], we are helpless. What can we do?” he asks.

Dr. Riyaz Ahmad, a health officer with SMC, refused to answer any question, stating that the issue has become too controversial and is pending before the High Court of Kashmir, which bars him from making public comment.

“It is going to be a major public health problem in next five to 10 years considering the uncontrolled growth of dogs, especially in Srinagar District,” says Khan. “In five years, Srinagar will have more dogs than humans.”

Officials at the anti-rabies clinic confirm that they see several people who are bitten by dogs every day, indicating concerns over disease and infection are also on the rise.

“The rights of animals are fine, but what about human rights? Human lives are at risk,” Khan adds.

Risk of Rabies

Dog bites expose the people to rabies, a deadly viral disease. While there is a vaccine for rabies, the disease can still be fatal to both humans and dogs. “Dogs tend to attack the face, head and upper limbs of victims,” says Khan. “This can be quite dangerous if the dog has rabies because the virus needs less time to travel to the brain. In such cases even vaccination can’t save the victim.”

In March of 2010, Danish, a six-year-old Kashmiri boy, was attacked by a stray dog while walking down a public street. Bitten in the face and head, Danish died two weeks later as a result of infection, according to his physician, Mohammad Yousuf Mir. Danish did receive the anti-rabies vaccine after his attack, but the disease is known to have a faster onset in children.

While India leads the world in rabies-related deaths, Newkirk of PETA says, “Rabies clinics can be more of a threat than the dogs because of the filth.”

According to the WHO, more than three billion people are at risk for rabies in over 85 countries and territories worldwide. Approximately 60,000 humans die from rabies annually and India accounts for more than 50 percent of the world’s rabies-related deaths.

In Kashmir Valley, the culture of dogs as pets is rare. Newkirk says PETA asks people to adopt Indian dogs, but she admits that Labradors and Pugs are common among the more affluent here.

With dog populations steadily rising in the wake of political inaction — neither culling nor vaccination and sterilization are being practiced here — food shortages and aggressive human actions have caused local dogs to increase their hostile behaviors. Local animal rights activists report shopkeepers throwing acid on stray dogs while local residents report dogs charging at them as they walk down the streets.

“They run after people carrying a bag or anything they mistake for food,” says Mohammad Hussain, a teacher and resident of Srinagar. He added that going out in early mornings and evenings can be quite risky.

Newkirk says she is aware of the increased hostilities between dogs and people here. “When there is a disrespect for dogs, like throwing rocks at them, they become defensive,” she says. “Instead of being dogs, they become weary and aggressive.” She recommends local residents should carry tea biscuits in their pockets to tame hostile dogs. “The biscuits are cheap and the dogs love them,” she says. Adding, “Talk softly and be on the look out of you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood.”

Litigation is Pending, Government Action Remains Stalled

Throughout India there is no national standard or body of statistics that speak to the issue of stray dogs and how to handle them. The local SPCA and PETA chapters say that many cities in India, including Mumbai and Bangalore, have admirable ABC programs, while other places continue to cull dogs. “Some local governments continue to be extraordinarily cruel,” says Newkirk.

In Kashmir, a local NGO recently filed a public interest litigation claim, asking the High Court of Kashmir to penalize the city mayor, the SMC and the secretary of urban development for their failure to adequately address the local dog menace. The PIL cites a local clinic in the Magarmal Bagh neighborhood in downtown Srinagar that received 18 people who were bitten by dogs on a single day – February 15, 2009.

Ghulam Mohammad Wani, the chairman of Public Interest Litigation Forum, the NGO that filed the claim, says the presence of dogs everywhere, even around hospitals and residential neighborhoods, along with the recent attacks on children, prompted his organization to take action.

Wani says he doesn’t care if the government decides to kill the dogs or to sterilize them. He just wants to see some progress. “The [administration] needs to look at the causes and dangers,” he says, citing the lack of a proper waste disposal system as one reason so many dogs congregate on the streets. Wani says he hopes the court case will also draw attention to the fact that there is a shortage of the anti-rabies vaccine in Srinagar.

“Not all dogs should be killed,” admits Khan, who provided The Press Institute with photos of people who were bitten that were deemed too graphic for publication. “They should be there for scavenging. We need to have a balance where they are useful to us.”

Newkirk agrees that stray dogs can be useful scavengers and even neighborhood protectors. PETA is working with local governments to step up community education programs. “It’s quite simple,” she says. “Print up posters and have town meetings to advise people how to behave.” But Newkirk adds that widespread illiteracy can hamper such community outreach projects.