Thursday, January 1, 2015

An urban Scourge: Stray dogs and Rabies

This is an article by Mr. Theodore Baskaran, an author, film historian and retired civil service member of India. The article was turned down by 'The Hindu' [a leading newspaper] in India and subsequently published in 'Madras Musings' a few years ago.   I reprint it here with permission from Mr. Baskaran. Those among us who are taught to accept the position of dog as man's best friend and have never questioned our value system may find it difficult to read a differing viewpoint, but it is valuable to understand all sides of an issue.  There is a socioeconomic component to dog bites and dog fatal attacks. Non-affluent sections of societies may be disproportionately overburdened by dog-bite related injuries than affluent sections. This is why the affluent section of the population, which invariably sets policies especially in developing countries needs to have a better understanding of all of the ramifications of the dog - human interaction.

The action of some well-meaning, over-enthusiastic supporters could ruin a good cause and trigger a backlash. This has happened in quite a few fronts in India; wildlife conservation for instance. The problem seems to be lack of adequate information on the subject and the temptation to muster support by emotionalizing the issue. The latest is animal rights and the issue of stray dogs.

Consider the facts. Rabies or hydrophobia, the deadliest of all infectious diseases and a major public health hazard, claims 35,000 lives in India each year, that is 81% of all the rabies deaths in the world. This lethal virus is passed on to human mostly by stray dogs. (There is no stray dog in Lakshadeep and no rabies either). Each year in India, about one million get bitten by rabid dogs and go in for anti-rabies shots. Most of the victims are poor and 40% are children. I have seen a 5-year old son of a dear friend of mine die of rabies. He was bitten on the head and even immediate shots could not save him. I have had anti-rabies shots twice - 14 pokes around the navel in those years - and for twenty days attended office in a loosely tied dhothi.

A virus that attacks the central nervous system and kills the victim in a few days through convulsive seizures causes rabies. Once infected, death is certain. The trouble is a rabid dog, appears perfectly normal in the initial few days and gets close to humans as usual. Often, you would realize that a dog had been rabid only after the damage is done. So how do you deal with the problem of stray dogs? Can we prevent them from being carriers of rabies by castrating them or hysterectomising them?

What do we do with rats in a plague epidemic? Do we catch them, neuter them and hope to eradicate plague? No. You fumigate. Or is it feasible at all to administer anti-rabies vaccine (Rs.80 per shot) to all stray dogs? Even if we manage to do, how do we ensure booster doses?

Remember in India we have 25 million stray dogs, the highest in the world, not just in absolute numbers but highest in proportion to human population. In our cities there is a stray dog for every 35 humans. A survey reveals that in Hyderabad and Secunderabad at any give time there are 12000 rabid dogs spreading pain and death. India, along with Bolivia and El Salvador, is one of the eleven nations where the risk of contracting rabies is highest in the world. You see warning posters to this effect stuck on notice boards of travel agencies in Europe.

Is it possible to contain the population of stray dogs by neutering them? The Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Hyderabad had done a census of stray dogs in the twin city and the figures show that spaying is a pointless exercise. A pair of dogs can produce 400 dogs in three years and 7000 in seven years. Unless you operate all the dogs, male and female in one go, it is impossible. While you operate a few, a thousand others are littering away. As the Tamil proverb goes, you cannot jump across half the well. For certain problems there is no partial solution. In Australia, dingoes were preying on farm lambs and posing a threat to wool industry. As one of the solution, the Animal Rights groups suggested catching the dingoes, castrating them and leaving them off. A bewildered farmer exclaimed "Sir! The dingoes are eating the lambs; not mating with them".

Moreover, it is not just the strays that add on to the population of ownerless dogs. In an act of utter irresponsible dog-ownership, some abandon pups in public places. In Bangalore, during littering season, it is common sight to see dozens of pups abandoned in Lalbagh and Cubbon parks. The ones that survive join the packs. So what is the point in neutering a few? One may be satisfied for having done something good. That is all. Look at the cost. It costs R.300 to remove the uterus from a bitch, postoperative care not counted. Who takes care of them after the surgery? A veterinarian friend tells me that 50% of the strays that are operated die due to lack of postoperative care.

The only way to check rabies is to eliminate stray dogs. Period. This debate had run its course many times and most of the countries see the strength of this argument. In June 1997, following incidence of rabies in Taiwan, the government organized the largest ever in history, mass extermination of stray dogs. 7 lakhs of them were destroyed in a matter of days. Countries that have traditionally set the standards for dog care, like the United Kingdom, destroy strays. If a dog is not claimed in two days, an inspector of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals puts the canine to sleep.

This insight, that destroying stay dog is the only way out, is nothing new. Decades earlier, the municipalities were authorized through an act to destroy strays. Section 218 (The Destruction of Stray Pigs, Stray dogs and Monkeys) of The Madras City Municipal Corporation Act of 1919 authorized catching and killing them. One of my childhood memories is my visit to the municipal office in my home town to get license tags for our dogs. The dog unit was an essential part of all municipalities and unlicensed dogs were rounded up . In any old municipal office building you could still see the gas chamber in the backyard. In the early seventies, the number of stray dogs destroyed by the Madras Corporation was so high, that the Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai designed products- such as neckties and wallets- made from dog skins. But the dog license regulation, like many other civic rules that made our lives safer in the olden days, had fallen into disuse. Remember the days when you cannot ride a bicycle in the night without a light?

Professor M.K. Sudarshan of the Rabies Epidemiology Unit, Kempegowda Institute of Medical sciences, Bangalore, speaking at the Second Commonwealth Veterinary Conference in Bangalore in February 2000 pointed out that most of the rabies victims are the poorest of the poor who have no access to anti-rabies vaccine. Workers who return home late, people who live in dimly lit streets and children who walk to school. India's estimated need of anti-rabies vaccine for humans is 1500 litters per year. Since all vaccine produced in the 12 centres in India falls short of our requirement, we resort to import of the vaccine, from France and Germany. He pleaded that public must be educated first about stray dogs and about this dreadful disease.

Rabies is not the only threat from stray dogs. Last year in Hyderabad, a 4-year old girl Swapna, daughter of a labourer was ripped apart by a pack of stray dogs even as people watched. Instances of newborn babes being snatched away by strays from one of our crowded government hospitals are reported periodically. Strays are also the source of a disease that is transmitted to humans from the feces of dogs. Add to this the number of road accidents caused by stay dogs. In October this year, former principal of Christian Medical College, Vellore, Dr.Bhushanam, died in a road accident near Pondicherry caused by a stray dog. These dogs are not the pets one associates with homes. Stray dogs are urban dingoes. So, some local administration resort to desperate measures and a storm is raised. Panaji Corporation had on its payroll a sharp shooter who set out in his van every morning, with his .22 rifle and a box of cartridges. Tourism was being affected by the presence of strays there.

The question often raised against eradication of stray dogs is an ethical one. Can you kill a dog, or a bandicoot or a rat? When the choice is between the life of a poor child and a street dog, I have no problem deciding.

- S.Theodore Baskaran

To read more on somewhat similar and rarely discussed themes, follow the links below.

...Deepak Kumar, 6, had an angry slash across his back from a dog that charged into his family’s shack.
“We finally closed the gates to our colony and beat the dog to death,” said Deepak’s father, Rajinder.
No country has as many stray dogs as India, and no country suffers as much from them. Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children. An estimated 20,000 people die every year from rabies infections — more than a third of the global rabies toll.
Packs of strays lurk in public parks, guard alleyways and street corners and howl nightly in neighborhoods and villages. Joggers carry bamboo rods to beat them away, and bicyclists fill their pockets with stones to throw at chasers. Walking a pet dog here can be akin to swimming with sharks.
A 2001 law forbade the killing of dogs, and the stray population has increased so much that officials across the country have expressed alarm...

 ...The Animal Welfare Board of India has reportedly spent Rs 22.5 crore on animal birth control programmes over the last decade which is the only legal method of controlling dog populations in the country. These have not worked effectively anywhere in the world, and are not working in India either. The problem is not that sterilization programmes don’t work per se, but that they have to be conducted in a sustained manner and on a large scale to have significant impact... 
'A dogged problem' in Conservation India.

...[Vickey Chauhan] came upon a neelgai (Blue bull) that was being savaged by dogs from a nearby village at the Indroda Nature Park, Gandhinagar (Gujarat). Chauhan had gone to click migratory birds when he saw the neelgai cornered in the water...There were about five dogs in the water and seven waited outside. "As reinforcements arrived, we were able to chase away the dogs. The injured neelgai staggered away but we saw the dogs had got it later and were eating it," recounts Chauhan. The dogs were habituated to killing wild animals. The park's staff, as is the case with forest officials in many other wilderness areas of India, are resigned to the dogs' predation and do little to stop this...
Stray dogs and wildlife.  Bliss of a dog's kiss. Hindustan Times.

...wild species comprise only 11 percent of a dog’s diet because people feed them and there is plenty of garbage. However, the cumulative impact of numerous dogs on wildlife can be devastating. In the nearby Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary, during a good breeding season, there are six fledglings. It only takes a couple of dogs to wipe out an entire year’s breeding effort. ...
...Over the nine years that the avian influenza (H5N1) threatened public health, millions of chickens and other domestic fowl were destroyed. Its human toll was just 329 people worldwide (an average of 36 people a year). More than 18,000 are estimated to have died from the H1N1 virus over 15 months around the world, and health professionals tackled it as a medical emergency; it is now being debated whether it was ever a pandemic. Yet, our response to a virus that kills 20,000 Indians every year is extremely inadequate. While we spend millions of rupees subsidising anti-rabies vaccines, we don’t have a policy to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place. Nor do we have a wildlife management plan to curtail dogs’ access to wild ecosystems. 

The government’s current dog control policy is to vaccinate, sterilise and return them to their haunts. To be effective, more than 70% of the dogs in a population have to be sterilised within six months. Even urban centres do not have the capacity to handle such large numbers, and in rural areas, implementation is non-existent. While sterilising dogs may bring down their numbers over time, it does not prevent them from ranging over conservation areas around Nannaj and elsewhere in India. There is no doubt that the overpopulation of dogs in India has contributed to a tremendous amount of disruption and killing of wildlife.
How dogs have played a part in killing wildlife. Current Conservation.