Misplaced compassion and animal welfare – a guest post on the enormous free-ranging dog problem in India

The following is a guest post by Abi Tamim Vanak, Ph.D. Fellow, National Environmental Sciences Program, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, and Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. Dr. Vanak’s research focus is on the conservation of mammalian carnivores. His work addresses the huge population of free-ranging dogs in India and the challenge they pose to wildlife conservation. Here he challenges misplaced notions of compassion championed by animal lovers that can perpetuate and amplify the problem.

A pack of free-ranging dogs in Kashmir, where their numbers have doubled since culling stopped in 2008. Photo by Abid Bhat, via Tehelka.com

Young Maitreyi Sundar, a class VIII student living in Chennai, wrote a heartfelt letter, published in the Pet Pals section of The Hindu (26 Nov 2013), about the demise of her beloved dog Bambi that was unfortunately run over by a “monstrous large car”. This was clearly not an isolated incident. Everyday, hundreds of such dogs, some beloved, some less fortunate, meet a similar fate or are left painfully and permanently disabled. Who is to blame for this? Surely it cannot be the cars whose right it is to use these roads. Remember, roads after all are made for vehicles of transport and every automobile owner pays a road tax. Indeed, the flip side of this coin, are the hundreds of accidents, sometimes even fatal, that motorists and two-wheeler riders suffer while trying to avoid dogs.

Thus the onus to keep street dogs out of harm’s way lies squarely with the people who befriend them. Millions of dog lovers across India are highly responsible and nurturing of their pets. They treat their dogs as family members and provide them with regular healthcare, take them for regular walks, but do so on a leash, because they are mindful of the dangers that roads pose. However, millions more still, would rather take the easy way out and enjoy the supposed guarding benefits of street dogs, without owning up to any responsibility of maintaining and housing them. Instead, they pretend to be compassionate, and gain “punya” by feeding street dogs, rather than the actual responsibility of keeping a pet. This, combined with various other factors such as poor sanitation and garbage management, is why India has a free-ranging dog population of more than 58 million (Source: M. E. Gompper 2013, Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation, OUP).

Is this then the lot of Man’s best friend? To forever beg for the odd scraps of food from well-meaning but irresponsible residents, suffer from easily preventable diseases, become the targets of anger and stones of those who are less tolerant, while dodging the inevitable brush with death on the roads?  On the other hand, dogs are not a benign neutral presence.

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A man feeding dogs in the street. Click on image for original photo.

India still has the highest incidence of rabies in the world, and an estimated 20 million people are bitten by dogs annually. Going by recent surveys in rural areas, this is still a massive underestimate.

The public outcry following a dog attack on a child (often from a lower economic stratum) is quickly lost in the even louder outcry against catching dogs (usually from those who are economically well off). Thus it seems that a silent vast majority continues to suffer the detrimental affects, because of a highly vocal minority who champion the cause of street dogs.

Indeed, these negative effects are not limited to humans alone. More and more evidence is gathering that free-ranging dogs can be very detrimental to wildlife and endangered species, not just as predators, but also as reservoirs of disease causing pathogens.

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Free-ranging dogs chasing a Wild Ass in its sanctuary. Click on image for original photo.

Animal lovers and animal welfare activists often quote Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line about the greatness of a nation judged on how it treats its animals. Perhaps it’s time to turn his comment around. By keeping and perpetuating dogs on streets, are we showing true compassion, or instead, are we simply assuaging our own sense of guilt by throwing a few scraps of leftover food? What does it say about people who insist that their beloved friends are left to fend for themselves on the streets?

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A dog ranging freely in the wilds of Rajasthan. Click on image for original photo.

Few people know that in fact Gandhiji was strongly in favour of ridding streets of dogs. Writing in his weekly, “Young India”, he said  “…it should be a sin to feed stray dogs and we should save numerous dogs if we had legislation making every stray dog liable to be shot. Even if those who feed stray dogs consented to pay a penalty for their misdirected compassion we should be free from the curse of stray dogs.

He then went on to say “I am therefore strongly of the opinion that if we practice the religion of humanity we should have a law making it obligatory on those who would have dogs to keep them under guard and not allow them to stray and making all stray dogs to be liable to be destroyed after a certain date.”

It seems quite ironic then, that animal welfare organisations, many founded in western countries and funded generously by international donor organisations, continue to propagate massive falsehoods about free-ranging dog control. Countries such as England and Japan, have almost no street-dogs. This was achieved through massive and sustained culling campaigns in the early and mid 20th century. However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.

Recent studies have shown that to achieve a 70% reduction in population size over a 13-18 year period, it is necessary to sterilize 90% of the dog population. Less than 40% sterilization coverage will only maintain populations at current levels. In India, there is very little systematic and robust research to even determine the levels of sterilization coverage. Rough estimates based on reports suggest between <5% to 40% coverage, with only one properly documented case of up to 86.5% in Jodhpur.

If we want our streets to be free of dogs (which not everyone agrees with), then clearly what is required is a multi-pronged approach. This should start with (as Gandhiji suggested) a strict regulation on dog ownership, a penalty on allowing owned dogs to range freely, capture and confinement of free-ranging dogs, strict penalties for feeding dogs in public spaces, and finally, a concerted and sustained campaign that includes education, responsible pet ownership, trap and neuter and humane euthanasia where necessary, especially in critical wildlife habitats. Our best friends don’t just need our compassion, they also need a good home.

The street is no place for a dog.

26 thoughts on “Misplaced compassion and animal welfare – a guest post on the enormous free-ranging dog problem in India

  1. anonymous

    Its amusing how humans decide who can live and who cannot. This is nothing but one more conservation mind washed soul’s rant!! Funny, these guys take the authority to decide which species need to be conserved and which to be culled. If anyone or any species needs to be culled, its humans. Do a favor, and start it from yourself!

  2. Dhaval Momaya

    The problem with conservation biologists is that they won’t love a species until it is either rare, endangered, vulnerable, or endemic.

    “However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.”

    http://www.hsi.org/…/pdfs/eng_abc_animal_birth_control.pdf
    http://www.bluecrossofindia.org/abc.html

    And many more if the researchers cared to look for studies.

    And here is a paper that studies culling in relation to the spread of canine Leishmania in Brazil, advocating use of vaccines instead.
    http://www.arca.fiocruz.br/…/Moreira%20ED%20Jr…

    Out of current topic, but goes on to show that emotional reactions like culling aren’t a solution.

    And coming to the practicalities of culling, you are kidding yourself if you believe 100% culls are possible. There will always be leftovers who will bounce back in population, albeit a genetically weakened one. To say nothing of dogs that will migrate from far off to occupy the cull areas.

  3. Mini Vasudevan

    This article while attempts to articulate many ills associated with proliferation of street dogs, does not address the single most important reason for uncontrolled multiplication of street dogs – open garbage system and very poor waste management practices. Without that enforced, culling or removal or ABC will be ineffective. Moreover, the author needs to do his home work to understand better how ABC is the most effective solution that is followed all over the world to prevent uncontrolled proliferation of dogs. It is very disappointing to see qualified people ignoring the single most significant cause for this problem.

  4. Madhu Ganesh

    Sad to see such a shoddy report from some one who is a Doctor of Philosophy. First of all there is a law that is prevailing in the country that tells what one ought to and ought not do.
    Secondly, ABC is the only proven humane method of reducing ABC. And all NGOs are not generously funded. Scientific proof is there for those who want to see, not for those who want to act blind.
    No solutions suggested, No mention of the root cause…

  5. Mona

    ” However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.” – Please go through the links below.

    http://www.hsi.org/assets/pdfs/eng_abc_animal_birth_control.pdf
    http://www.bluecrossofindia.org/abc.html

    And here is a paper that studies culling in relation to the spread of canine Leishmania in Brazil, advocating use of vaccines instead.
    http://www.arca.fiocruz.br/bitstream/icict/3268/1/Moreira%20ED%20Jr%20Assessment%20of%20an%20optimized….pdf

    Out of current topic, but goes on to show that emotional reactions like culling aren’t a solution.

  6. Abi Vanak

    From WHO – http://www.who.int/rabies/dogs/en/index.html
    Dog destruction alone is not effective in rabies control. There is no evidence that removal of dogs alone has ever had a significant impact on dog population densities or the spread of rabies. In addition, dog removal may be unacceptable to local communities. However, the targeted and humane removal of unvaccinated, ownerless dogs may be effective when used as a supplementary measure to mass vaccination

  7. Suraj

    The author seems to take a ‘Westernized’ approach to a ‘dogged’ problem. Get rid of the damn dog. That kind of attitude is what us ‘humans’ are capable of today. It is highly unfortunate that we think we are the owners of everything around us just because we buy stuff and pay tax! So we dump our garbage on the streets and expect it to vanish since we pay tax.

    Such an ‘elitist’ mindset from a ‘Fellow’ researcher clearly shows that our children need to be removed from such ‘schools’ of thought and made to connect more with Nature.

    Genuine people working on the ground are clearly trying to educate the ‘elitist’ people like you who get funded to come up with such garbage. I just don’t know which dog will what you just blurted out. To think that you were funded to ‘research’ on this subject, clearly shows that you have no idea, what the problem is and yet you have come up with a solution… ‘Shoot the damn dog’. Wish I could say the same.

  8. Roxanne Davur

    Here, information on the incompetence of enforcing the current Law of the Animal Birth Control programme with greedy and illiterate Municipality and Councillors is ignored or neglected. His information of generously funded NGOs is also taken from the air it seems..what is generously funded for a job that never ends.? Here is a classical example of lack of common sense and ignorance cloaked in educational titles. This blog should be challenged with facts and figures. Even his comment on rabies is in highly educational English, absolute codswallop. There is still no Law that any hospital or Doctor reports rabies. Most animals suspected of rabies are rarely if ever tested and even in the recent tragic case of the young man dying of rabies, went to a doctor who gave him the wrong advice and medication. He should be sued by the family.

  9. sehej

    with the population of country bursting at the seams and rampant cases of gang rape, acid attacks, and rising crime,it seems only proper that mass culling of free ranging humans should be first undertaken who r busy destroying the habitat of all non humans and then taking the moral highground of being the superior species

  10. mahendra

    illogical and utter nonsense worst part is he quoting MK Gandhi….. if people like him can write like what will be the future… unimaginable.. this post will make my day…

  11. anand siva

    This is one hell of a short sighted view, and a completely myopic view of the problem. Here are some vital issues this article overlooks. One, what makes the author believe he has the authority (as a human being) to establish a pecking order on the ecosystem? To hell with anything that anybody said, even if it is the Great Mahatma himself – lets stop using these so called quotes to convenience and feather selfish motives. There is a life out there, there is hunger, there is pain – and animal welfare workers are not jobless characters going around doing stuff for an award. Hunger needs to be fed, pain needs to be relieved – no matter what the consequences. And they myopic view of feeding disorders needs to give way for a larger view of ending the problem. More resources and better deployment of the resources to push ABC and reduce litters. Two, how is it that for every problem the planet has, its everybody except man thats the cause problem? Arent we outnumbering ourselves every three years? Havent we added geometrically to our numbers, in spite of the fact that the government was propagating ‘we tow and ours two’ – by the author’s views and measure, we ought to be pulling out every child after the second across indian homes and culling them. Frankly, i dont have a problem, it must be done. Havent we occupied more outdoor open spaces to build apartments and facotires, complexes and warehouses and shamelessly taken over their space? And we now want them to go? The same Mahatma said QUIT INDIA and I can hear the dogs say the same thing – QUIT MY PLACE. Will you?

    Its a shame to see such articles reeking with human greed and selfish motives getting published. A true testimony to the fact that humans will perish in the hands of humans!

  12. navneet

    in India the major problem is the population of animals belonging to human race, not that of dogs. humans have grabbed almost all the resources which were equally belonging to all animal races; have destroyed wildlifes, their habitant; and there are many in India who still keep on producing 4-5-6-7-8 children despite all awareness campigns regarding control of population. congesting streets, increasing traffic, gloping resources belonging to species and blaming population of dogs for their problems. its the humans who multiphy like anything, enchroach upon habitants of others and than say that they face resource scarcity because of tiger conservation. I just wonder how much percentage of sterilization needed to control free ranging human crowds.

  13. Tracey Stewart

    Didn’t Ghandi also say that a Nation is judged by its treatment of lesser creatures? The sterilisation program (and rabies program by the way) being run in India is spasmodic and patchy at best. It is a wonderful start but needs more backing from the local governments and national government if change is to be seen in the short to medium term. Many organisations help with this. I am proud to sponsor a few of them including Help Animals India and Vets Beyond Borders. Perhaps if more money were put into these programs and governments were willing to allow them to happen within their confines (Varanassi for one), then injuries to humans and appalling injuries and death to animals may not occur and we can continue to live harmoniously. Good Karma.

  14. Dipika

    I wish the authors would follow the logical outcomes of what the myopic nature of their argument.

    Do you want a leptospirosis pandemic?

    Because this is how you get a leptospirosis pandemic.

  15. Abi

    Dipika – I was happy to engage you in the right spirit of debate. However, your comments quickly went the way of everyone else. I don’t have the time to rebut you point by point (which I can very easily), but please please spare us the leptospirosis scare. There is no evidence to show that dogs eat all that many rodents (certainly not enough to suppress populations). Indeed, we found a <4% occurrence of rodents in their diet (Vanak and Gompper 2009 J. Mamm).

  16. Janaki Lenin

    Reply to Dipika –

    Thanks for posting my long-forgotten article links.

    1. It’s called sarcasm, in case you want to get semantics right. There was even a bit of humour, alas unappreciated. But emotional it was not.
    2. I’m not a coauthor on any of Dr. Vanak’s papers. Now the selective reading reference you didn’t like applies.
    3. Leptospirosis? Data would be nice. Or is that also unpublished, and we are supposed to divine what it is?
    4. Stop imagining everything anyone says anywhere is about you. And that was the point I was making with my sarcasm that you seem to have missed.
    5. Surprised that you as a biologist (I’m guessing) think all these rants against Dr. Vanak are okay – you even defended them but now there’s just my word for it because you’ve wiped your comments clean (funny that) – but a reasonable conversation when everyone was curious about what you had to say aren’t.

    I don’t engage in public spats but I think I needed to clarify my position on a couple of erroneous assumptions you made.

    Tata.

  17. Dipika

    “Dipika – I was happy to engage you in the right spirit of debate. However, your comments quickly went the way of everyone else.”

    What a convenient timeline you’ve invented in your head!

    What’s the right spirit of the debate? Mocking the mental health of your commenters for selective reading that you are so happily indulging in as well? Honestly that was not a lot worse than the repeated misinterpretation or complete lack of basic reading skills in your initial attempts at rebuttals.

    Please, go ahead and feel like you’re above all this if your ego wants to believe that the ire is because they don’t understand you, and not because the entire premise and belief system behind this piece is flawed.

  18. Dipika

    There is no evidence to show that dogs eat all that many rodents (certainly not enough to suppress populations). Indeed, we found a <4% occurrence of rodents in their diet (Vanak and Gompper 2009 J. Mamm).

    Not only did you jump to a non-logical conclusion of what I said, but you have the gall to come back with that when there's ZERO evidence behind your claim that intentional feeding enhances population numbers?

    I only got into this debate because I mistakenly thought it was with an informed scientist but now I have as much enthusiasm for the fact as you. Ugh.

  19. Abi

    So let me get this straight – you are in favour of one commensal (dogs) over another (rats), because of a fear of an epidemic – well, guess what, we do have one – its called rabies. But I bet you compassionate folks don’t care about the welfare of the rats or for that matter any other living organism that isn’t a domesticate. Remember what I said about attitudes and hypocrisy – case in point.

    This is my last comment on this blog – as a good friend pointed out, you cant make rational arguments with irrational minds.

    Cheers!

  20. Joellen Anderson

    Although it is true that stray dogs are a massive problem in India, the callousness and incorrect facts in this article make me cringe.

    “This was achieved through massive and sustained culling campaigns in the early and mid 20th century. However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.”

    There is valid support for this belief for anyone who understands dogs. When dogs are killed, there are no dogs left to defend that territory, allowing other dogs to move in and breed. The ones that move in have a wealth of resources (whether or not people feed them, there is enough trash to go around) and so the population is able to explode. These dogs also then fight with each other as they have new neighbors and territories must be established. More fighting does not only mean dogs become more fearful and aggressive towards people, but also that the increased incidence of dog-on-dog biting accelerates the spread of rabies.

    Also, the stray problem in countries like the US and England are not done now that there was one mass cull. Government and independent shelters house millions of dogs and cats, and millions are killed every year. The stray problem is not fixed.

    “Recent studies have shown that to achieve a 70% reduction in population size over a 13-18 year period, it is necessary to sterilize 90% of the dog population. Less than 40% sterilization coverage will only maintain populations at current levels.”

    You need 70% of dogs sterilized to maintain a population size, as HIS in Jaipur will tell you. This is difficult, no doubt, but the issues caused by culling far outweigh the problems with ABC.

    Furthermore, you call on people who care for stray dogs to either bring them in to their home or stop feeding them. Obviously, bringing all the stray dogs inside is a ridiculous proposition as there are so many. I agree to a certain extent that one should not just feed the dogs. As a caretaker of a stray population it is your duty to also make sure that they are sterilized, something that our non-profit (app.worldlywags.org) is trying to enable people to do.

    To suggest that mass culling (even what the author recommends as humane euthanasia…a nice dream in India where culling is horrendously cruel) will solve this problem is folly. The only solution that will work long term is sterilization.

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