A voice for Chennai's street dogs

"What does it say about ourselves when we demand that street dogs must be made invisible," asks activist Radha Rajan. File photo  

Chennai city showed the way to the rest of the country in 1995 when Chennai Corporation decided not to kill street dogs anymore. The “catch and kill” policy was given up in favour of the path-breaking Animal Birth Control-Anti-Rabies (ABC-AR) programme. By voluntarily opting to make this radical shift in the way the city administration looked at street dogs, Chennai lived up to the noblest of all civilisational values – ahimsa, the conscious decision not to injure the weak, voiceless and vulnerable.

The same Corporation is now toying with the idea of removing all dogs from the streets of Chennai and isolating them in government-run “forever” pounds – a place from where there is no return. The retrograde idea first raised its head in the time of P.W.C. Davidar who took over as Commissioner, Chennai Corporation, in December, 2011, but failed to take off when Mr. Davidar was replaced within four months, in April, 2012 by V. Karthikeyan.

The idea is now making a serious comeback again, but this time the person behind it is not the Corporation Commissioner, but the Mayor of Chennai, Saidai Sa. Duraisamy.

To kill or not to kill

The Tamil Nadu government’s position on how to deal with the issue of street dogs has evolved from the implacable “catch and kill” policy which prevailed until 1996 to the willingness to consider more civilised options such as Animal Birth Control; from arrogating to itself the sole right to make decisions without discussion with animal welfare organisations to a position where it is willing to engage with them and listen to alternate views. This evolution is heartening and is still the only hope in the current crisis.

In a scholarly paper on the origins of the ABC-AR programme, Dr. Chinny Krishna, former Chairman, Blue Cross of India, and now Vice-Chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), traces the path of Tamil Nadu’s evolution from “catch and kill” to ABC-AR. The Chennai Corporation began to kill dogs from 1860 for reasons as varied as rabies, aggression and not wearing a license-tag. From killing one dog a day on an average in 1860, the Corporation was killing, on an average, as many as 135 dogs every single day as of 1996.

In the paper, Dr. Krishna quotes S. Theodore Baskaran, the former Post Master General of Tamil Nadu, as follows: “In the early 1970s, the number of stray dogs destroyed by the Corporation was so high that the Central Leather Research Institute, Madras, designed products such as neckties and wallets from dog skins”.

From administering Sodium Pentothal directly into their hearts, poisoning them, electrocuting them, clubbing them to death and burying them alive in pits covered with bleaching powder and pesticides, successive governments in Tamil Nadu, as well as non-State actors, have employed every one of these horrific methods to kill street dogs. It took the Chennai Corporation 136 years to travel from ‘kill’ in 1860 to ‘not kill’ in 1996. At the end of this arduous and challenging journey, Chennai showed the rest of India and the world, the successful and civilised way to deal with the issue of street dogs: the number of human deaths in Chennai due to rabies dropped from 120 in 1996 to zero in 2007.

Blue Cross of India showed the way

Horrified by the number of dogs killed every day and the methods employed to kill them, Blue Cross of India (BCI) in 1964, persuaded the Chennai Corporation to try capturing street dogs, neutering them and administering anti-rabies vaccine before discharging them as an alternate method. This would simultaneously arrest the increase in their numbers and also help to reduce and eventually prevent human deaths due to rabies.

The Corporation refused to consider this alternative and the Blue Cross decided to begin work on this programme. The BCI began to spay and vaccinate street dogs rescued by them and also persuaded people who had dogs (or were taking care of street dogs) to bring them in for the treatment free of cost. It would take the BCI another thirty years before the Corporation would open its mind to ABC-AR as a workable alternative to catch and kill.

In 1995, the then Corporation Commissioner S. Abul Hassan agreed to let the BCI carry out the ABC-AR programme in South Madras with the rider that the Commissioner would personally monitor the process and result. In 1995, even as the BCI started the ABC-AR programme in South Chennai, street dogs in other parts of the city were still caught and killed.

The ABC-AR method of dealing with street dogs yielded visible results and the Corporation finally agreed to give up its catch and kill policy and implement ABC-AR throughout Chennai city, starting September, 1996. This was the much-needed breakthrough and served both humans and dogs well.

The ABC-AR programme has convincingly demonstrated that it does not have to be humans versus street dogs and that human welfare and animal welfare need not be a zero sum game.

Spread of ABC-AR throughout the world

Heaving a huge sigh of relief that Chennai may have finally found the most effective solution to the twin issues of rise in the number of street dogs and the concomitant increase in the number of human deaths due to rabies, other cities in India and around the world invited the Chairman of the BCI, not only to share his experience and expertise, but also to initiate the ABC-AR programmes in their cities.

Dr. Krishna, as the then Chairman, BCI, was invited to share his expertise in international conferences in Bratislava, Cairo, Sophia, Orlando, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Bali and Chengtu. The world, it would seem, was waiting for just that breakthrough.

In 1990, the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) brought out their “Guidelines for Dog Population Management” followed by WSPA’s guidelines for “Stray Dog Control”. And this is what the report, authored by Dr. K. Bogel, Chief Veterinarian, Public Health Unit, WHO, in Switzerland and John Hoyt, had to say: “All too often, authorities confronted with the problems caused by these dogs have turned to mass destruction in the hope of finding a quick solution, only to discover that the destruction had to continue, year after year with no end in sight”. Catch and kill was not working.

That catch and kill was not working was accepted in 2013 by Mauritius, which wrote to the BCI asking for help to deal with street dogs. This is what the Minister of Agro Industry and Food Security, Republic of Mauritius, wrote to the Chairman, BCI, in his letter dated May 6, 2013:

“We have been apprised of the successful implementation of ABC-AR by the Blue Cross of India as an alternative to the catch and kill method for the control of stray dogs. In view of your experience of the ABC-AR programme I am soliciting your assistance to introduce a similar programme in Mauritius to reduce the number of stray dogs. So far the only method being used for the control of stray dogs is ‘catch and kill’. However the method has not proved to be effective.”

The Chennai Corporation had adopted ABC-AR as the only way to go and other cities and countries were ready to follow.

Mayor’s pound is not the golden mean

There is a visible decrease in the number, and in some parts of the city the total absence, of street dogs. The incumbent Mayor could make note of the fact that human deaths from rabies in Chennai is fewer than five; and even those numbers, admit health officials, were those who were bitten by rabid dogs in moffusil areas where local municipalities have not implemented the ABC-AR programme. The Mayor should also be mindful of the domino effect his actions may have on other cities and other countries.

On February 16, 2013, representatives from four animal welfare organisations met with the Mayor and the Corporation Commissioner. Far from discussing how to carry forward the ABC-AR programme, the discussion, as initiated by the team of government officials, presented street dogs as a continuing problem.

The Minutes of the Meeting show that the government was seriously considering complaints from people who wanted old, “infected” and diseased dogs to be killed. The Commissioner went so far as to observe that because less than five per cent of the total dogs caught were euthanised, NGOs must now start euthanising more dogs if they were found to be “terminally ill”.

At this meeting, the Commissioner for the first time raised the issue of dog pounds, which he declared were planned to be built in every zone. The Commissioner said the first dog pound would soon come up in Madambakkam and this pound would house 2000 “homeless, old and sick dogs”.

Every street dog is a homeless dog; so the stated intention of the Chennai Corporation, as recorded at the meeting, was to remove all street dogs from the streets and confine them within these “forever” pounds. The magic number 2000 comes up again as does the “five per cent of total dogs” and this time in connection with the “forever” pound which is already coming up in the >Kannamapet crematorium.

Animal activists fear that the Chennai Corporation may use these government-run dog pounds to euthanise dogs as a short-cut to cut down the numbers of dogs and want to know what would happen to an old dog that is healthy and does not suffer from any crippling physical handicap. Skin infections, called mange, are common among street dogs and are treatable. Agreed, dogs with mange are not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but if the skin infection does not pose any threat to the health of humans or other dogs why should mangy dogs be euthanised?

Until the office of the Mayor issues a detailed and unambiguous statement that the Chennai Corporation will abide scrupulously by the PCA Act (1960) and the Dog Rule Act (2001), we have to assume that the Mayor intends to put in action what he conveyed in words to two senior officials representing two animal welfare organisations and to a group of animal activists who met him last week at the Ripon Building.

From what these officials told the writer, the Mayor intends to build dog pounds in every zone across Chennai city. He told them that all dogs would be removed from the streets in stages and housed in these pounds. When the officials expressed their unhappiness the Mayor concluded, "Don’t tell me what I can do and what I cannot do. These dog pounds will come up. Let me know what you can do to make this work well."

News of this spread quickly and a group of eight animal activists decided to meet the Mayor to express their serious reservations about these proposed dog pounds and to hear what the Mayor may have to say in response.

The discussion between the Mayor and the group of animal activists on June 4, 2013 is summarised >in this blog.

The blog remains online and the office of the Mayor has not refuted the report. After declaring that he was determined to remove all dogs from the streets of “his city” into these dog pounds, the Mayor assured the activists that every newborn pup in these dog pounds would be removed at once and handed over to be adopted. He said he would also launch an extensive campaign promoting the adoption of Indian dogs.

The Mayor may think his idea of confining street dogs within dog pounds is the middle path between killing dogs and allowing them to live on the streets, but the experience of Jodhpur and Bhutan say otherwise. The Mayor’s dog pounds are not the golden mean.

“Forever pounds” are death mills – Lessons from Jodhpur, Surat and Bhutan

When the blog report of the meeting between animal activists and the Mayor was tossed in the public domain, there was huge consternation amongst the people involved with animal rights and animal care. Reacting sharply to the Mayor’s proposal, Maneka Gandhi, former Union Minister, narrated what happened in Jodhpur and Surat. While Jaipur followed Chennai’s example and adopted the ABC-AR programme to deal with street dog issues, and like Chennai, is a zero rabies city, Jodhpur decided to confine them in “forever pounds”, called “kutte ka burra”.

Not surprisingly, healthy dogs that were confined, without any avenue for energy outlet, soon turned ferocious. Dog turned upon dog. The sound of dogs fighting, the stench from dead dogs deterred the official feeders and persons employed to clean the pounds from going in. Food was thrown over the wall, bigger and more assertive dogs grabbed all the food, smaller and weaker dogs remained hungry. The pound could not be cleaned and soon the dogs were inches deep in their own faeces. There was an outbreak of parvo and distemper and the end result was the tragic death of hundreds of dogs because of disease, dog-fights and starvation.

The Jodhpur pound had to be shut down and today the premises have been converted into a center for the ABC-AR programme, which is yielding excellent results.

The incumbent Chairman of AWBI added that the same happened in Bhutan. When the country was confronted by the same catastrophe as Jodhpur, the Government of Bhutan gave up the idea and invited Indian NGOs to train their civic bodies to implement ABC-AR.

In a mail to the writer, Maneka Gandhi described the Surat pandemic thus:

“It took just one Commissioner and one Mayor to cause the Surat plague pandemic. They killed all street dogs in one month. When we remove a species unnaturally from the environment, it always results in a catastrophe where humans are primary victims. The rats came to the surface and we know what followed. The Surat Corporation came to its senses and had to bring in dogs from outside Surat to locate them on the streets of the city. They had to bring back the dogs to deal with the rats. This is how balance in any ecological zone is maintained. The Mayor of Chennai must learn the right lessons from Bhutan, Jodhpur and Surat.”

Jodhpur and Bhutan should provide the Mayor with enough proof that no matter how spacious the dog pound, how good the food (and all this is still in the domain of good intentions), a prison is still a prison with all attendant physical, emotional, psychological and medical trauma that comes with prison life.

Voice of street dogs

The Mayor is reported to have told the group of animal activists who met him on May 4, that in a democracy, he has to attend to the needs of those who voted for him. But is not good governance in a democracy also about being responsive even to those who did not do so? And what is the place in any democracy of the disempowered, the voiceless, and the vulnerable, whether two-legged or four-legged, winged or web-footed, locomotive or stationary, if they do not vote because they cannot vote?

Seventeen years of caring for street dogs in Adyar and Besant Nagar in Chennai confers upon the writer the responsibility to be the voice of street dogs. Caring for them entails feeding them, vaccinating them against rabies and other viral diseases every two years, spaying them, and attending to all their medical needs.

Till date no one has asked the Mayor why the Chennai Corporation allowed the ABC-AR programme to slide in Chennai. For the last two years, the Corporation dog squad has not undertaken routine dog-catching for ABC-AR. The writer noticed this and drew the attention of the BCI to this departure from routine which has shken the very foundation of the Dog Rule Act (2001).

Upon enquiry, the Chennai Corporation communicated to the BCI that the dog squad will henceforth pick up dogs for ABC-AR only upon receiving requests or complaints. The Minutes of the February 16 meeting with the Commissioner make mention of a steep increase in the number of street dogs in Chennai; the answer lies in this largely unnoticed departure in policy implementation.

Question of intolerance

In all these years, while the writer never came across even one instance of dog bite or death of any human due to rabies, I did confront hostility to feeding street dogs on the streets, dislike and even unabashed intolerance to their presence. But what is rarely reported is that for every human who is hostile, there is another who cares. This article is not about listing why we must allow street dogs to live, but about holding up the red flag of intolerance.

This article poses the question – what does it say about ourselves when we demand that street dogs must not be fed on the streets, must be removed from the streets, must be put down, or at the very least, must be made invisible.

Every dog that I feed has a face; and with that face comes a distinct identity and a distinct character. I know assertive dogs, sissy dogs, timid dogs, gentle dogs, bullying dogs, quarrelsome dogs, affectionate dogs, insecure dogs, brave dogs, protective dogs, frightened dogs, friendly dogs, injured dogs, grumpy dogs and grieving dogs, dying dogs, old dogs and sick dogs. And they have all given me only unqualified, unlimited love. Are they different from humans? A resounding yes!

Dogs don’t lie, don’t machinate, don’t murder, don’t wage war, don’t conspire, don’t sit in judgement, and don’t destroy nations; Street dogs are not terrorists, smugglers, thieves, rapists, kidnappers or blackmailers. They don’t want to rule the world or enslave humans. Above all else, they don’t say eliminate humans or make them invisible. They can live with us. Can we?

(The writer is a political commentator, author and animal activist.)

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 9:27:03 AM |

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