Four legs good, two legs doubtful

Are feeders, carers and non-governmental organisations that look after street animals at fault? They act out of the kindness of their hearts, often emptying their own pockets to give good food and provide medical care to street dogs

Vidya HebleUpdated: Thursday, December 08, 2022, 11:27 PM IST
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Representative Pic | Pixabay

Consternation was caused in mid-October when the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court directed animal activists to stop feeding street dogs, and to take them to their homes and do so if they really wanted to.

The verdict, in a 2006 public-interest litigation case filed by activist Vijay Talewar seeking action against the dog menace, delighted those who are opposed to street dogs. WhatsApp groups bristled with triumphant messages, and dog feeders and carers encountered even more antagonism as a result.

However, with all due respect, the judge in this case took the same position as the dog-haters — that it is activists and feeders who are held responsible for the dog menace. This is a fallacious view; in fact feeders are at the end of the chain that makes up the street dog ecosystem, but being most visible, they bear the brunt of people’s anger, especially when dogs attack humans. Even when pet dogs bite people, street dogs by association get caught up in the fallout.

But are feeders, carers and non-governmental organisations that look after street animals at fault? They act out of the kindness of their hearts, often emptying their own pockets to give good food and provide medical care to street dogs. They are doing nothing wrong. On the contrary they are abiding by the Constitution of India which, in Article 51A(G), states that it is the duty of Indian citizens “to protect and improve the natural environment and have compassion for all living creatures”. In this respect the judgment went against the Constitution as well as the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) rules regarding stray dogs. The AWBI has detailed guidelines for feeders as well as residents’ welfare associations and housing society managements, which are supposed to provide suitable feeding spots for street dogs. Some housing societies do this, some go the extra mile and provide shelters for the dogs too, while the majority do nothing except complain.

Who is supposed to look after these animals? Under the law, municipalities are supposed to undertake regular sterilisation and vaccination drives to keep the street dog population in check. They usually work with NGOs as well as individual feeders and carers. During the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, the dog divisions in many municipalities were shut and populations have risen as a result. Individual carers take it upon themselves to get dogs — especially females — sterilised in their respective areas, but these efforts cannot cover numbers in the way that an organised official programme does.

Granted that sterilisation programmes are necessary, but why feed these dogs? What would happen if organised feeding were to be stopped and dogs were left to fend for themselves, as most dog-haters demand (and as the High Court, too, said)? Apart from the distress the dogs would experience, eventually they would obey the impulse of hunger and turn to finding food wherever they can — dustbins, garbage dumps, neighbourhoods. Passersby holding carrier bags would be subject to attack. Eventually the dogs would turn feral. Cases of children being attacked by feral dog packs in Kerala are already in the news. Recently, it was reported that feral dogs are emerging as the dominant predator in Sikkim, endangering wildlife — in particular the slow-moving red panda. Once dogs turn feral, capturing them for sterilisation or other treatment is practically impossible. It is therefore in our own interest to ensure that dogs remain manageable and friendly towards humans, and that their numbers are not allowed to increase.

The point that dog-haters make is that the dogs should not be fed in public places and that feeders should take them to their homes and feed them. While this sounds ideal, the reality is that dogs are territorial — the point that is also overlooked when housing societies and RWAs demand that dogs be taken away from their localities. Taken away to where? Anywhere, is the answer, as long as it isn’t here — i.e., “not in my backyard”. Proponents of this suggestion are obviously ignoring the fact that the problem will not be solved, just transferred elsewhere. Moreover, as the AWBI itself states, relocation of streets dogs is not advisable; the space vacated by them will be taken up by other dogs eventually as dogs gravitate naturally towards human habitation, for food and also companionship. (The Sikkim dogs too were observed to congregate near the Indian Army’s encampments, hence the forest and wildlife authorities are working with the Army to control the animals.)

The answer, therefore, is not to just ignore the dogs. Neither is it to treat them as pests or wildlife. Dogs are going to be part of human environments and this has to be accepted and worked with. Judgments such as the High Court’s — which has been stayed by the Supreme Court, as it happens — only end up worsening the divide between the pro- and anti-dog brigades.

For their part, dog feeders need to ensure that food is given to dogs in areas that don’t obstruct public movement, and that the place is not left dirty. Dog-haters, or those who are against the very idea of street dogs, need to understand that dogs cannot be just wished away. The High Court directed that the dogs should be placed in shelters. But where are the shelters? It’s not practical to confine all the dogs of the city into one enclosed space. Merely envisaging the logistics of it and the ensuing cacophony as they protest against their incarceration is traumatising enough.

The solution is to be united, to accept that dogs (and cats, squirrels and pigeons — topics for another day) are going to be part of the environment. Continuously agitating against dogs, feeders and carers will serve no purpose except to create tension. As the Supreme Court pointed out while staying the High Court’s order, there are laws in place to regulate all aspects of street dogs; we just need to abide by them.

It is, however, easier to train the canine species than to convince the intelligent, rational species of animal — the human.

Vidya Heble is the Edit page editor

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