Anyone on a road journey through Kerala these days is likely to see banners and posters at many junctions showing gruesome images of children bitten by dogs and calling for a wholesale culling of street dogs. The media have played host to heated debates where everybody, from the common man on the streets to the political heavyweights, have weighed in on the need for mass culling to get the State rid of what everyone appears to have decided is a public menace. Amidst the furore, there are also frail voices of Gandhians and animal lovers trying to remind the public that dog is man’s best friend and the reasons for such a massive increase in the population of street dogs have not been completely understood. There is an astounding level of ignorance among the public about the issue.
Going by World Health Organisation (WHO) norms of 2003, one person dies every 30 minutes due to rabies across the globe, and there occurs one instance of dog bite every two seconds. India accounts for a lion’s share of death due to rabies. But, rabies deaths are relatively less frequent in Kerala, thanks to intense post-exposure vaccination.
In India, almost every case of death by rabies is caused by dog bites. Rabies is a disease of canines and spreads to other species, including humans, only through bites. Rabies virus normally stays in the host for up to 90 or 95 days. A rabid dog’s saliva carries the virus 4-5 days before the symptoms appear and 4-5 days that follow, after which it dies. A ‘chance infection’ is possible if a pet infected with rabies licks a person. Rabies can appear in both ‘dumb’ and ‘furious’ forms. The dumb form is when dogs hide in some dark corner but seldom bite, unless provoked. The furious form is when dogs that wander aimlessly bite people, but after provocation.
There is a widespread perception that all dogs appearing in public places are rabies-prone, and that domestic dogs are safe. To that extent, a domestic dog that dies from dumb rabies can go unnoticed; and a stray dog barking at a citizen can be branded rabid and killed. In the prevailing uncertainty in India, medical professionals are forced to advice Post Exposure Prophylaxis (called vaccination or PEP) in cases of contact with a dog or cat. In the case of a delayed medical attendance, one may have to go for immunoglobulin injection around the wound, costing up to Rs.30,000. Apart from the cost, the loss of man-hours and the burden on public funds, the imminent anxiety for the victim and his family is unbearable.
The problem of an unmanageable street dog population and the resultant human-animal conflict in urban settings needs to be seen not just as a social question, but as a developmental challenge as well. The sharp increase in dog population in many urban clusters in the country has to do with slipshod urban planning and a failure on the part of local and State governments to put in place an efficient waste management system. When poor civic sense is added to this, the problem can get out of hand, creating a fear psychosis among the people.
The haphazard manner in which civic bodies have handled the issue gets reflected in their failure to implement the Dog Rules. Few civic bodies have formed implementation committees, as specified in Rule 4, or followed the prescription for culling dogs, as contained in Rules 5 and 10. None of the stakeholders have cared to present their views before the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) or the State Animal Welfare Board in Kerala.
This is a multi-factor problem, inseparable from issues related to disease ecology; the movement of wild, feral and stray animals; and the changing behaviour patterns in the community, particularly with the changing lifestyle and rampant urbanisation. Breeding season, age and gender have a significant effect on the behaviour of stray dogs. With solid waste piling up on account of poor and inefficient waste clearance, street dogs turn out to be an effective scavenging agency and act as a check on the growth of rodent population. If there is mass culling of street dogs, there would be a natural increase in the latter’s population.
In Kerala, and perhaps in most other places in India, there has so far been no attempt to address the issue of the rising population of street dogs as a composite developmental challenge, one that calls for a multi-dimensional approach. While the role of the veterinary professionals is clearly laid down, that of the civic authorities and the political leadership at the local and broader levels needs to be delineated with greater clarity. While culling as envisaged under Rules 5 and 10 may become necessary, there must be a broad acceptance of the fact that culling by itself would not solve the problem.
The root cause of the problem — uncontrolled urban waste accumulation in public spaces — should be tackled at the level of the local governments. Simultaneously, State authorities should initiate steps to neuter the dog population so that their presence in the streets does not create panic among the public and there is no public clamour for mass culling. The timeless bond between dogs and humans cannot be sacrificed at the altar of societal ignorance and administrative inefficiencies.
(The author is founder-secretary of Veterinary Council of India and former president of the Indian Society for Veterinary Surgery.)