Ramankutty, a 65-year-old labourer, was walking by a paddy field one afternoon at Kavumthara, his village in north Kozhikode, when he was attacked by a stray dog. Without any provocation, the dog jumped at him and bit his hand. When he fell down, it bit his face too.
A dog-owner himself, he saw the dog turn towards three young girls who were just a few feet away. He grabbed the dog by its feet, inviting more ferocious bites on his hand. “The dog was new to the area. Some say it had been attacked in the place it lived in earlier, forcing it to flee. Or maybe it was just a mad dog,” said Ramankutty.
He had to take over two dozen painful immunoglobulin injections and vaccines, on his face, hands and elsewhere. He could not go to work for a month. “The treatment was more painful than the bites; the worst pain I’ve suffered,” he recollected after a month. “I feel terrified now when I see dogs approaching.”
Ramankutty’s is one of around two lakh dog bite cases reported in Kerala so far this year. Of this, 21 people, including three children, died of rabies. But what caused panic was the fact that six of them who died had been administered anti-rabies vaccination and/or anti-rabies serum.
The case that got the most attention was the death of 12-year-old Abhirami from Pathanamthitta district, who was bitten by a stray dog on the morning of August 13. Her mother said it was a pet-turned-stray German Shepherd. Despite medical care, Abhirami died 23 days later.
ALSO READ: Pouring hardship
“Stray dogs are now a public health issue in the State, which I don’t see being addressed properly,” said Dr V. Ramankutty, a public health expert. The government has set up an expert panel to check if there are any quality or efficacy issues in the anti-rabies vaccines in the State. Meanwhile, there have been several instances of people taking matters into their own hands, including poisoning strays. The government is trying to focus on vaccinating and sterilising street dogs and strict licensing of pet dogs.
A recent video grab of Sameer T., a resident of Bekal in Kasaragod district, carrying an air gun as he escorted some children to a madrassa drew attention. “The children were worried and returned home when they saw a group of dogs barking and fighting. I thought the air gun would cheer them up,” said Sameer. “That morning, a dog had bitten a child on the way to the madrassa.”
The police charged him with provocation to cause riot and seized the air gun. “I am now moving the High Court to get it back,” he said.
Although it makes the news regularly, Kerala’s situation may not be as bad as that in other States. It has 83 dogs for every 10,000 people, as per an analysis of the latest national Livestock Census. The number for Karnataka is 163, Gujarat 132, and Goa 183. When it comes to dog bites per million people, Kerala’s number was 1,470 in 2021 as against 2,731 in Tamil Nadu, 2,107 in Goa, and 2,732 in Gujarat. Despite the high dog population, the number for Karnataka is relatively low, at 1,297. The number of actual dog bites in Kerala may actually be much lower. “I have seen people coming here and taking rabies shots when their own puppies have nipped them in the teething stage, counting even that as a dog bite,” said Anoop A.T., a health worker at a government hospital.
Committee for compensation
The State’s people, however, are perhaps the loudest in the country when it comes to raising concerns about stray dogs. It is the only State that has a judicial body to deal exclusively with compensation for people affected by strays: the Justice Siri Jagan committee. It was appointed by the Supreme Court in 2016 and has received 5,327 claims since then, of which it has approved 881.
The amounts ranged from around Rs.20,000 to Rs.39 lakh. Justice Jagan pointed out that 95 per cent of the people who approached the committee were poor and had suffered pain and loss of income. “We are able to help them,” he said.
While in his office, this correspondent met Bose, a man in his late 60s from Puthanvelikkara in Ernakulam district, whose 33-year-old son Jobin, an electrician, fell off his motorcycle when a dog jumped across the road. The fall resulted in two broken ribs, leaving him bedridden for three months.
Justice Jagan has his own grievances. His latest status report to the court says payments to him and his staff have been irregular and inadequate and there is no Wi-Fi yet in his office. He says, however, that it is the satisfaction of helping people that keeps him going.
Sitting in a cabin at the corner of an office with four other staff, over two dozen chairs, and bulky files and reports piled up on tables and shelves, Justice Jagan says the responsibility for controlling the street dog issue should be shouldered by local bodies. The Kerala High Court, too, is of this view.
But do the local bodies, with their limited funds, have the capacity to pay such amounts as compensation? The president of Naduvannur Panchayat, where Ramankutty resides, said they set up a relief fund for Ramankutty after he filed a complaint at the Panchayat. The fund is mainly the contributions that functionaries receive when they attend events and finctions.
An official at the Local Self Government Department who preferred anonymity said that panchayats struggle for funds. “When judicial bodies award hefty amounts, they don’t understand this,” he said. “Local bodies are the face of the government. They interact with people. With very limited and overburdened staff, they find it really hard to deal with the stray dog issue.”
While speaking to government functionaries at different levels, this correspondent found that there was also the issue of fixing responsibility and coordination among the Health Department, the Animal Husbandry Department, and local self governments at various levels to implement vaccination and animal birth control measures.
“We handed over the fund we had for dog sterilisation to the district panchayat as we only have a single veterinary doctor here, who cannot handle all this. But the district panchayat is also stuck; it has some issues at its facilities,” said a panchayat functionary in Kozhikode who did not want to be identified.
Dr Anindita Bhadra of Dog Lab, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, is an expert in dog behaviour. “There are many reasons why dogs turn aggressive and bite. A protective mother dog bites if she feels you pose a threat to the puppies. You might get attacked if you get in the middle of a dog fight,” she said.
“Dogs are also scared of humans because of their actions or because of past traumatic experiences from interacting with humans. And then, finally, there are the rabid dogs that tend to bite.”
Sally Varma, an animal welfare advocate from Kerala, believes that people fail to connect emotionally with dogs. “We want them to be ‘guards’ that bark at strangers. Most people don’t even come forward to adopt dogs from the street and always prefer a ‘breed’,” she said.
“As far as street dogs here are concerned, each day is a struggle for survival for most of them. They are terrified, as people generally scare them away and throw stones at them. They live a life of fear and go through lots of pain and suffering.”
K.S. Sreejith, a senior journalist, now has a dog at home, something he could not have imagined until a few years ago. “I used to be so terrified of dogs that if I saw one on the street, I would take another route.” It was a stint in Delhi that changed his fear.
“I saw that people were not afraid of street dogs. They feed them, clothe them in jackets in winter, and do not try to scare them away. So the dogs too are friendly.” On his return to Kerala, he adopted a dog to keep his backyard free of rats and snakes. “Now he is a great companion for all of us. He keeps the house alive,” said Sreejith.
Do we need dogs on the street?
Kochouseph Chittilappilly, a leading businessman, is one of the most vocal voices in Kerala against stray dogs. He is the chairman of the K. Chittilappilly Foundation, which undertakes public charitable activities. “I was drawn to the issue of stray dogs after the foundation started getting applications from people for financial assistance after they suffered dog bites or road accidents because of dogs, or lost their livelihood animals to dog bites,” he said. “People like me can travel in cars and dogs don’t attack me. But it is the lower classes of the society that suffer.”
According to Chittilappilly, if not killing or culling, the government should at least undertake the sheltering of strays at the local level so that the streets remain free of dogs. “I have been pursuing this issue for a long time, but nothing meaningful seems to be happening to address the issue,” he said. The Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001, do not allow the culling of dogs, which was an earlier practice to control the dog population. It only provides for the sterilisation and vaccination of strays. “Dogs serve an important ecosystem service by being scavengers of waste food. This also helps to keep the population of rats and other rodents under check,” said Dr Bhadra, citing the plague outbreak in Surat in 1994 that followed the mass culling of dogs that was undertaken there.
The way ahead
Experts have pointed out that the problem of managing waste is one of the main reasons for the rise in the canine population in Kerala. In July, the National Green Tribunal pulled up the government for not fixing accountability for the continuing gaps in managing solid and liquid waste generated in the State.
When this correspondent spoke to shopkeepers in the main town of Naduvannur Panchayat, most of them agreed that the number of dogs in their area had come down after the panchayat mandated meat sellers and hotels to send their waste every day to an agency for processing and started to impose hefty fines if any waste was dumped outside. “Proper waste management is really important to address the stray dog issue,” said Dr Ramankutty.
Scientific evidence shows that culling is not an effective strategy to reduce rabies or the dog population as it was once thought to be. When some dogs are removed from an area by killing or other means, it increases the survival rates of the other dogs, and in the long term, the overall population does not decrease, according to a paper by the World Health Organisation.
Another study from 2009 in Sri Lanka found that the district of Colombo, with zero incidence of human rabies, had the highest estimated dog population, whereas Mannar, which had one of the highest human rabies death rates, was among the districts with the lowest dog population densities.
Vaccination and birth control by sterilisation is a relatively well-accepted method, which the Kerala State government has also relied on. The inability to do this when COVID was raging in the State is often blamed for the current rise in the stray population. But this may not necessarily lead to reduced number of dog bites.
ALSO READ: Clue to a kingdom long lost?
Dr Bhadra said a common mistake governments made was to let loose a dog in a different place from the one in which it was caught. “Dogs are territorial, if you leave them in some other place they get attacked by other dogs, making them aggressive in turn,” she said. Insensitive ways of catching dogs for vaccination and sterilisation can also traumatise dogs and make them aggressive, she added. And what about shelters? “Dogs have their own family system and strict territories,” said Dr Bhadra. “A shelter disrupts that natural way and leads to stress and aggression. That is inhuman.” Clearly, Kerala must find a humane way to share its streets with the strays.
Sruthin Lal is an independent journalist and co-founder of the Archival and Research Project, which works to promote Kerala’s cultural heritage.
- Stray dogs are now a public health issue in the State.
- Experts have pointed out that the problem of managing waste is one of the reasons for the rise in the canine population in Kerala.
- The government is trying to focus on vaccinating and sterilising street dogs and strict licensing of pet dogs.
- When it comes to dog bites per million people, Kerala’s number was 1,470 in 2021 as against 2,731 in Tamil Nadu, 2,107 in Goa, and 2,732 in Gujarat.
- Kerala is the only State with a judicial body to deal exclusively with compensation for people affected by strays: the Justice Siri Jagan committee.