Dogs may be man’s best friend, but their stray counterparts are despised nearly everywhere in the world. In the last few months, stray dogs seem to have become a major menace in Kerala, to the extent that the Supreme Court had to arbitrate in the ongoing human-dog conflict.
The bias against strays is culturally ingrained. Even our languages have choicest mongrel epithets reserved only for those held in utter contempt. In another age though, almost 60 years ago, stray dogs were literally on top of the world. They hit the headlines world over.
From the streets to space
In November 1957, Laika, a stray dog picked up from the streets of Moscow and trained only for a week, was sent into space in the Sputnik 2 rocket launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Laika became the first living being to orbit the earth. In the 1950s, the race for the conquest of space was primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union, and at that moment a stray was leading the charge on behalf of the latter.
Laika was among the first of about 36 dogs sent to test the conditions in outer space for longer and safer human space travel. All these strays were picked up from the streets of Moscow for their tenacious ability to survive hunger and extreme cold weather. Most of them did not survive the space travel for various reasons, but the data collected from these live-animal experiments gave sufficient confidence that humans can indeed undertake a space odyssey and return safely back to the earth.
Pioneers who helped
Today, astronauts routinely spend several months in the International Space Station orbiting outer space, thanks to stray dogs like Laika and its ilk, whose pioneering ventures paved the way for humans.
For its part, Laika died within a few hours of the rocket launch, but in 1960 two more stray dogs from Moscow, Belka and Strelka, for the first time triumphantly returned alive to the earth and led a normal life thereafter.
In 1961, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin undertook the first ever human space flight, but by then stray dogs had already been there and seen it all. By the time American cosmonauts landed on the moon in 1969 there was no apprehension about human survival during space travel, guaranteed by the best friends of humanity.
A minor footnote to the brave history of canine space travel is the Belgian fictional detective Tintin’s and his dog Snowy’s space flight to the moon in 1952 much before Laika’s space sojourn. Unlike Laika, Snowy is a privileged dog and enjoys decent fan following even today.
Strays are despised and condemned as a health hazard for humans and for their ferocious ways ignoring their unwitting contribution to our scientific pursuits and welfare. If the inhospitable outer space could be conquered with a little help from our stray friends, there must also be more compassionate ways of handling the stray dog problem here on earth, than eliminating them.
We must find creative solutions to such issues, giving primacy to compassion ahead of emotion.