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Beware of dogs

Print edition : Apr 06, 2007 T+T-

Stray dogs kill two children in Bangalore. But the methods used to control the menace anger animal lovers.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

THE death of a four-year-old boy in Bangalore in early March, after a pack of stray dogs attacked him, has changed the fortune of many a dog in the city. The boy was the second child in the city to meet such a fate in recent months - an eight-year-old girl was attacked fatally by a pack of dogs in January. Both these incidents happened in garbage-strewn areas.

Bangalore has an animal birth control (ABC) programme that is aimed at keeping the stray dog population in check but this has been ineffective for a variety of reasons ranging from lack of resources and mismanagement of funds to lack of clear thinking. The Municipal Corporation, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), has not been able to keep pace with the city's rapid urbanisation and a galloping population, which tops 80 lakh now, up from 65 lakh in 2001. The newly created Greater Bangalore will cover 741 square kilometres as compared with the 225 sq. km. area of erstwhile Bangalore.

There is hardly a road in the city where garbage is cleared in time. Unauthorised eateries and shops, including those selling meat, have sprung up everywhere. The waste they generate is dumped on the streets and officials turn a blind eye to this practice. In the circumstances, the stray dog menace was just waiting to happen.

India accounts for 70 per cent (or roughly 20,000) of the world's rabies-related deaths. However, for the past one year or so, Bangalore has not contributed to this piece of statistic. According to the figures received from the BBMP, between April and December 2006 there were 13,419 cases of dog bites, with pet dogs accounting for 41 per cent, or 5,544 of them. Also, Bangalore's share of all dog bites cases in the country is only 0.11 per cent; the average in the rest of India is 1.75 per cent.

Now the bitter part about Bangalore's dogs. The number of stray dogs at present is close to 100,000 as against 55,000 in 2003. Following the death of the boy in March, the Municipal Corporation, on the orders of Karnataka Health Minister R. Ashok, set out to catch a thousand dogs a day. But there was a catch: it did not have trained dog catchers or adequate dog pounds to keep the dogs. Nevertheless, spurred into action by an angry citizenry, the BBMP began picking up strays. It enlisted dog catchers from the Malabar region of Kerala and a neutering expert from Ahmedabad. Dogs identified as diseased or aggressive were culled.

Soon, animal rights activists began crying foul, complaining of "inhumane methods" being used to contain the stray dog population. They alleged that the municipality was dumping the dogs on the city's outskirts, thus transferring the problem to another area instead of eliminating it. The activists demanded that all canines, including strays, should have a licence and that a stray dog management advisory committee should be constituted.

The Health Minister, on his part, announced that all stray dogs would be euthanised in a month. He also questioned the usefulness of the government-funded ABC programme, which has been implemented for the last six years by the Animal Husbandry Department with the help of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), Krupa, Animal Rights Foundation and Karuna. Incidentally, the areas where the two children died are not a part of the ABC programme.

Said R. Ashok: "We'll intensify the culling operations without any mercy. I'm not happy with the NGOs' work. A committee formed under Dr. M.K. Sudarshan [Principal, Kempe Gowda Institute of Medical Sciences] will submit a report on whether the NGOs have served their purpose. On the basis of the report, I'll decide if we need the services of animal rights activists or not."

Ashok later admitted that he was not aware that under the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001, which were added to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, no street dog, unless incurably ill, mortally wounded, ferocious or rabid and diagnosed as such by a qualified veterinarian, could be euthanised. Meanwhile, animal lovers, including Governor T.N. Chaturvedi, raised voices against the BBMP's methods to contain the population of stray dogs.

According to Dr. Prakash Reddy, Deputy Director of the Animal Husbandry Department, nearly 200,000 dogs have been sterilised in the past six years at a cost of Rs.6.25 crore. The stray dog population has gone down by 30 per cent, he says; but no one is buying this figure. The popular perception is that the management of the programme has been shoddy.

The NGOs complained that the ABC monitoring committee did not often meet and even when it did the issues they raised - such as shortage of ambulances, dog pounds and steps to make the programme effective - were not addressed. They also said they were not to blame for the BBMP's inefficient monitoring methods.

Said Suparna Ganguly of CUPA: "There is a need to extend the programme to all areas. There is also a strong co-relation between the human population, garbage and stray dogs. You can't control stray dogs without effectively tackling the other two."

The Sudarshan Committee, which consists of experts from community medicine and veterinary science, has been asked to undertake a public audit of the effectiveness of the ABC programme. It will study whether the programme has been successful in reducing the canine population and controlling rabies and will also suggest improvements to the programme that costs the State Rs.1.6 crore annually. The committee will present its report in the first week of April.

However, most people believe that the programme is a waste of money. Had it been effective, the stray-dog population would have come down drastically in six years, they say.

Critics say no pre-programme dog survey had been conducted to determine how many dogs there were in each area. There was allegedly no proper planning, monitoring or accountability in the way the programme was carried out. The NGOs are accused of not maintaining proper records of the programme. One allegation is that the municipality fixed targets that the NGOs were incapable of achieving.

One opinion is that culling will have to be resorted to if the stray dog population is to be brought within manageable limits.

To make the annual rabies vaccination process more effective, there have been demands for a way to identify vaccinated dogs so that they are not picked up. Embedded microchips or a tattoo in the inner ear canal could help identify vaccinated dogs, but both are expensive methods. A way out could be to implement the ABC programme as a time-bound, measurable and accountable project.

Veterinary experts point out that for the ABC programme to be effective at least 80 per cent of the dogs in an area must be neutered before the programme moves to the next area. For this, the support of resident welfare associations is essential. Or else, man's best friend could turn out to be his worst enemy.