Rauf Ali disputes the role of street dogs in the city, and the efficacy of sterilisation.

A couple of articles have appeared over the last fortnight in The Hindu, an Op-Ed by Radha Rajan (June 10) and a Sunday magazine feature by Maneka Gandhi (June 23). Both make the same set of points:

Chennai had a successful Animal Birth Control-Anti Rabies (ABC-AR) programme. Somehow this controls rabies.

This programme has been abandoned in favour of impounding stray dogs, which is inhumane. But having dogs is good for the ecology of urban spaces!

I have no quarrel with the point that the dog population needs to be reduced. However, both these activists make the point that having stray dogs in a city is actually good for the city!

Firstly, it is claimed that, in Surat, the dogs were removed and so the rats came back. This resulted in the plague of 1994. Is there a scientific study to support this this? A search on Google Scholar failed to find any. Actually, the Google Search seemed to suggest that dogs could also be carriers of both plague and leptospirosis. A little thought would indicate that both stray dogs and rats (and monkeys) live largely on garbage, and reducing their populations in an environmentally sound fashion would involve the proper disposal of garbage. This would involve the design of garbage receptacles that these animals cannot enter, as well as proper means of transport and disposal. Sixty six years after Independence, isn’t it time Chennai took responsibility for its own civic amenities?

It is worth making an additional point here. Dogs are introduced. They are not native. They, like cats, cannot be part of a natural ecosystem. There is no such thing as an urban ecosystem in which the dogs’ natural role is that of scavenger.

Secondly, it is claimed that rabies was not controlled by impounding or killing of dogs, but by the ABC-AR programme. According to WHO, about 70 per cent of the dogs need to be vaccinated within six months or one breeding cycle before there is a decline in rabies incidence. The fact that ABC-AR tended to show better results is, perhaps, that the management of these programmes was better.

However, there’s no proof for this. Rabies numbers may have declined because rabies victims were not incarcerated in padded cells in hospitals. Instead they are treated in the outpatient facility of hospitals. They are sent home with tranquillisers to die a peaceful death. There is no systematic collection of data on rabies deaths.

The other reason could be many localities do not want the dogs that have been fixed, back. These dogs are released elsewhere, frequently in neighbouring rural areas, forests, wherever. Also we don’t know the post-operative mortality of dogs.

In any case, no city in India has the capacity to sterilise 70 per cent of its dog population in six months. So the claim of animal welfare activists, of reducing population and rabies are suspect in the absence of an audit/scientific study.

Why wasn’t the Government able to continue with them? Why wasn’t there pressure from animal welfare groups to ensure that these programmes were run properly?

The third howler is that if city dogs are reduced, dogs from outside come to replace them. The source of this information is a supposed “secret” document from the Delhi Government. Why is it secret? Does it involve matters of national security that an RTI cannot overcome?

The ABC-AR programme was abandoned in Chennai. What were the reasons, and what is needed to make them work again? Rabies control, according to WHO, requires a cross-sectoral approach. Apart from the human health component, there is an animal health component that includes surveys, vaccination campaigns and a dog population management strategy. Community involvement to promote responsible dog ownership and to assist in mass vaccination programmes is necessary.

Animal rights activists would be playing a much more valuable role in ensuring that civic agencies prepare plans on these lines, and ensuring that the funds for these are properly utilised. They do not need to resort to the scare-mongering done in these articles. We have a joke that animal rights activists are wannabe ecologists who never bothered to get an ecological education. Learning a little science would serve them in better stead.

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