Interview: “Feeding of any animal, including stray dogs, in public places should be stopped”

Dr Abi T Vanak. Pic: Dr Abi Vanak

The Karnataka government has of late been mulling a solution to the problem of stray dog attacks. Prabhu Chauhan, Minister for Animal Husbandry, has said they are considering making Bengaluru stray-dog-free through vaccination and sheltering. The Karnataka High Court has also issued a notice to the state government on a PIL seeking effective stray dog management.

In this interview with Citizen Matters, animal ecologist and conservation biologist Dr Abi Tamim Vanak weighs in on the issue. Dr Abi Vanak holds a PhD in Wildlife Science from the University of Missouri, USA. He is currently a Professor at ATREE (Asoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), and Clinical and Public Health Fellow at DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance Program.

Dr Vanak says that being allowed to roam free on the streets is harmful to the dogs, human beings and other wildlife. The solution is to get as many dogs adopted as possible, and to create long-term shelters for the rest, according to Dr Vanak. He also suggests humane euthanasia for dogs that are sick or unsuitable for adoption. “These measures are in line with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, as well as WHO guidelines on rabies prevention”.

He also explains how Bengalureans can respond to monkeys, bees and other wildlife found in the city. Feeding of any animal, including stray dogs, should be stopped as it increases their population disproportionately, he says.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What makes stray dogs aggressive? Will neutering reduce the risk?

Aggression in an animal can be caused by many reasons – territoriality, competition, mate-seeking, defense or hunting. There is no evidence to suggest that neutering reduces any of this. Well-fed dogs will also be aggressive for all the reasons mentioned above. A simple example is that of guard dogs. They are well-fed and taken care of, but are still aggressive towards strangers or intruders.

Similarly, dogs on the streets will get aggressive when in packs or when they are “defending” their territory. Chasing two-wheelers or morning walkers is part of this aggression.

In Bengaluru, ‘Canine Squads‘ have been feeding stray dogs/cats, but are also neutering, vaccinating and promoting their adoption. Is this a good solution?

I am opposed to feeding of any animal in public spaces, whether they are neutered or not. Encouraging adoption of dogs is indeed the right thing to do. I strongly feel this is the key area where a policy shift can make a big difference.

Read more: Bengaluru’s Canine Squads ensure well-being of street dogs and the local community

However, by feeding dogs on streets, many dog lovers are shirking their responsibility of taking care of these dogs fully – i.e. ensuring that these dogs have the five freedoms of animal welfare–freedom from hunger and thirst – only partially taken care of by feeding; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain and injury; freedom to express normal behaviour; freedom from fear and distress.

What policy decisions can the government take to promote adoption? Netherlands, for example, is said to have reduced stray dog numbers by incentivising adoption from shelters and increasing taxes on the purchase of bred dogs.

One is making pet registration mandatory. Second is to make the registration fee higher for buying dogs than when adopting from shelters. Basically, it has to be some kind of an incentive scheme for more people to adopt dogs. The Netherlands example is probably a very good one.

Also, currently the government has a policy of not allowing certain dog breeds that are considered dangerous. Government should instead look at it from the perspective of welfare of dogs. There are some breeds that are just not suitable in Indian conditions. For example, there’s a huge demand for huskies, but clearly you can’t keep them in cities like Chennai.

A comprehensive policy is needed on pet ownership – what are the rules and responsibilities for having pets, etc. These are basic policies that exist in every other country. We are the only country that has such a huge problem of stray dogs, and yet our policy actually encourages stray dogs to remain on the streets.

The historical engagement of dogs and cats with humans has resulted in them becoming more of a ‘companion species’. So do we not have a moral obligation to ensure the welfare of strays? Some also believe that community dogs can help keep the neighbourhood safe.

Yes, we absolutely have a strong moral obligation to ensure their welfare. That’s why dogs and cats should not be free-roaming on the streets like wild animals.

On the question of community dogs – people have this idea of keeping their streets safe by having dogs outside. It’s the responsibility of government authorities to keep the streets safe. If you want to keep your house safe, please keep a pet dog. You can’t keep a dog on the street, which may chase vehicles or scare passersby. After all, people also have rights to move about on the streets.

Should there be greater concern against disease transmission from strays, in the current context of increase in zoonotic diseases?

Dogs in India are already responsible for over 20,000 annual deaths due to rabies. In addition, dog feces and urine can be a significant source of pollution to surface and ground water, and also increases the risk of helminth infections (infections caused by parasitic worms). There is no positive value in keeping large numbers of animals homeless on the streets.

Read more: Bengaluru can ensure better health of its residents with the ‘One Health’ approach

You’ve said that the current government policy, largely focused on Animal Birth Control (ABC), is insufficient to control the stray dog population. What should the policy ideally be like?

If dogs cannot be adopted, then NGOs and animal lovers should come forward to support their long-term sheltering (as required under the PCA Act). If this is not possible, then humane euthanasia of animals that are old and sick or unsuitable for adoption should be done. Many individuals run large “dog sanctuaries” on private property. This is also fine, as long as these dogs don’t cause nuisance to others.

Stray dogs
Stray dogs. Pic: Bharath Jackson

Are there laws/rules on who should run the long-term shelters, and how?

PCA Act says that municipalities and animal welfare NGOs should be running these shelters. The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) is supposed to fund them for this purpose. I think there are guidelines on how the shelters should be run, but we should follow international norms.

The role of AWBI and animal welfare NGOs should be to ensure that shelters are run according to some prescribed standards, and to shut them down or fine them if they are not. For example, AWBI teams were sent to inspect the shelter set up by IIT Madras (which had run into controversy after dogs died and suffered diseases). AWBI’s role should not be to encourage keeping animals on the street. Currently that’s what’s happening.

If you want to know what a good long-term rescue facility or hospital looks like, ‘ResQ Charitable Trust’ in Pune is an excellent example. There are also lots of private kennel facilities, so it’s not like this can’t be done.

Don’t ABC Rules (that require dogs to be neutered, vaccinated and returned to their original location), prevent municipalities from moving dogs to shelters?

Yes. But in a ruling a few weeks ago, the Karnataka High Court has said that any dog that’s a threat or causes nuisance, can be removed by the municipal authority or panchayat. This was in relation to awarding Rs 10 lakh compensation to the parents of a two-year-old boy killed by dogs. Municipality can either move such dogs to shelters or euthanise them as per the PCA Act.

Animal welfare activists say street dogs are quite territorial, so it’s unfair to move them to shelters. Is this correct?

No. There are people who keep hundreds of dogs in their households or in private dog shelters, we don’t see territoriality there.

Is there an estimate of the stray dog numbers in Bengaluru? Would it be feasible to build shelters for all those dogs?

It will be expensive. Bengaluru is estimated to have 4-6 lakh street dogs, maybe more. But the city also has a human population of over 10 million. So only a minuscule proportion of people would need to either adopt a dog or support shelters. Currently the rate of adoption is very low.

We know from a study that it’s a very small proportion of households that feed dogs regularly and contribute to much higher dog densities. If you walk into any neighborhood in Bengaluru, you see 3-4 dogs outside some house. The people there feed these dogs regularly, but won’t take any other responsibility such as sterilisation.

What the government should do is identify those dogs and the people feeding them, and ask them if it’s their dog or not. If yes, it needs to be registered and kept inside their house; if not, it will be taken away from the street. This is all according to the PCA Act.

But ABC Rules run counter to this: it created a category called street dogs, which is completely illegal.

Given the high dog population in Bengaluru, wouldn’t a large number of shelters be needed even after adoption?

Certainly. Shelters will be needed on a large scale, and a large amount of money will have to be spent. But this would be a permanent solution, whereas crores of rupees are currently spent on the ABC programmes, for rabies control, and for people to feed dogs on the street.

Besides, ABC will be effective only if done in more than 90% of the dog population. Nobody in India has estimated what it will take to get this done. It requires huge facilities, which don’t exist anywhere in the country. When we asked under RTI, the government said it has no data on the number of dogs that have been sterilised in India.

So AWBI’s funds for NGOs to conduct ABC programme can be diverted to municipalities, primarily for setting up shelters.

Are there better alternatives to euthanasia?

The policy in many American and European cities is that animals are taken to shelters maintained by NGOs. They are kept there for between two and four weeks. If nobody adopts them within that time, they are euthanised.

There are also ‘no-kill shelters’ where they are not euthanised – they are kept in the shelter till they are adopted or die. If there are people willing to spend lakhs of rupees every year feeding dogs, they can instead subsidise the cost of such long-term shelters.

Dogs at rescue shelter
Dogs at a rescue shelter. Pic courtesy: CUPA/Facebook

Are there cities managing stray dogs without euthanasia?

No, worldwide there isn’t. In India we’ve let the problem get so out of hand, it’s become an insurmountable task. India has around 60-80 million dogs. There’s no country in the world that has as many dogs roaming around, killing people, as India does.

Is euthanasia supposed to be for dogs that are dangerous or for those not getting adopted?

It could be either way – that’s a call to be taken by the government.

Which dog is dangerous dog, is also subjective. Because a dog, when it forms part of a pack, can attack people. The same dog will be perfectly fine when in a house. So it’s not possible to make a blanket statement that a certain dog is dangerous. Animal feeders will say that the dogs they feed are not dangerous; that’s because they’re feeding those dogs. For somebody else passing by, especially on a cycle or other two-wheeler, it could be a dangerous dog.

So in the Indian context, given that large numbers of people are already engaged with dogs, the solution could be shelters. But euthanasia would also be required, especially for dogs that are diseased. Humane euthanasia is mentioned in the PCA Act, and is also well-practiced across the world. Animals shelters or hospitals regularly euthanise dogs that are sick, injured or rabid.

The Supreme Court has made an observation that stray dogs can’t be indiscriminately culled and they also have a right to life. Even under the ABC Rules, dogs which are sick, injured or incurably ill (except rabid dogs), are allowed to be euthanised.

Stray monkeys seem to be more common in the outskirts of the city that are newly developing. State government has proposed measures like sterilisation and relocating them to forests. What approaches would work?

Monkeys are wildlife, and cannot be called “stray”. They are highly adaptable commensals of humans, and will gather wherever resources are available. All feeding of wildlife should immediately be stopped, as it is an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act; the government should strictly enforce this. Sterilisation and relocation have no basis in science and are cosmetic and knee-jerk reactions with no value whatsoever. There’s no silver bullet to solve the problem – it will take time to resolve.

The only way forward is to stop feeding all wild animals – whether it is crows, pigeons, monkeys, and certainly dogs. Because the more you feed them, the more they’ll breed. So in essence you’re feeding the problem.

Once feeding stops, the population will reduce in 2-3 years. And over time, they will move to areas where they’ll get food.

There have been instances of leopards and elephants being spotted in the city outskirts. Would retaining the forests around Bengaluru reduce this problem?

So what if leopards are spotted around cities. As long as there is no direct conflict, we should learn to tolerate them. It is ironic that we mandate that dogs, which actually attack and kill people, are allowed to be on the streets, but wildlife are seen as dangerous by their mere presence. As our human footprint is expanding and wild spaces are shrinking, some species have become better at adapting to increasingly human-modified areas.

Cities around the world are trying hard to make themselves more wildlife-friendly, whereas Bengaluru, a unique city with large charismatic wildlife in its backyard, is trying hard to get rid of them.

On the one hand we are feeding animals and also saying they are creating nuisance, and on the other hand we are destroying whatever habitat is left for them around the city. You can’t have it both ways.

There are many cities around the world being re-wilded to encourage urban wildlife – there are coyotes in New York Central Park, leopards in Mumbai, foxes running around in London and Birmingham. It takes a lot of careful planning, education and awareness, but it’s very rewarding. There are several examples that the government can look at for this.

Urban parks itself can become great places for wildlife. Chennai has a national park next to IIT campus. Though ironically, dogs have been killing the wildlife there.

Apartment residents in Bengaluru tend to remove bee hives on their balconies and premises; and the bee population in urban India is said to be declining. Is coexistence possible?

The Xylocopa latipes is India’s biggest bee, and the world’s second largest (Need to confirm). This is a female who has collected pollen and is carrying it on the fine hairs on her legs. Xylocopa’s wings are iridescent not due to pigmentation but due to light refracting through nanostructures in their wings.
Xylocopa latipes, a solitary bee native to India. Pic: Arati Kumar Rao

If only bees had as many friends as dogs do, and a law that made relocating them illegal, we would not have this problem. Most people are afraid of bees, even though the probability of getting stung by them is very low. My colleagues at ATREE have started a bee hotel for solitary bees to encourage more people to enjoy both the company of bees, and the valuable services they provide.

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