Interview with Abodh Aras, CEO, Welfare of Stray Dogs, Mumbai.
Kali, Patchy, Lily, Shaggy, and Sheru are some of South Mumbai’s cherished pets. These dogs proudly wear collars bearing their names and diligently watch over their assigned territories in the island city. They are friendly, well-kept, and typically won’t attack unless provoked. It is common to see people, including children, petting or feeding them. There are many Kalis and Sherus in the city, easily identified by their clipped ears, which indicate they have been vaccinated and sterilised. If their tails are wagging, it’s a sign that they are safe.
These dogs are a testament to Mumbai’s success in addressing the issue of street dogs, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to animal welfare. The organisation has spearheaded sterilisation, vaccination, adoption, health, and education programmes that have made life better for over 150,000 dogs. Frontline talks to Abodh Aras, CEO, Welfare of Stray Dogs, Mumbai about the NGO’s mission, India’s stray dog phenomenon, and more. Edited excerpts:
In March 2023, the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition regarding an issue with feeding stray dogs. Although it was regarding a particular case, the order dealt with overall animal welfare. Your thoughts.
The case involved a building society in Navi Mumbai where residents were in conflict over the feeding of dogs. The court considered the new Animal Birth Control rules set by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairying, and emphasised the need for compliance with these rules. The new animal birth control rules state that Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) are responsible for ensuring that dogs are fed by designated feeders. However, strict adherence to the guidelines is required. For instance, feeding must not occur near children’s parks or areas where citizens walk, and the timing of feeding should avoid recreational activities.
How can the problem of people being attacked by street dogs be solved in a humane way?
Incidents such as these are indeed very sad. It is important to consider that such incidents generally occur in areas where there are packs of dogs, indicating a lack of effective sterilisation measures in those areas. Sterilisation is known to break up packs, which is why you won’t find packs of dogs in south Mumbai where the sterilisation programme has been successful.
So, until sterilisation programmes are systematically implemented in every district across the country, this problem is unlikely to be resolved. For the programme to be successful, the government must play a significant role. Despite the efforts of animal welfare organisations like ours (WSD), we often face financial constraints. Another major challenge is securing adequate space to conduct sterilisation drives. In Mumbai, we operate out of old facilities that were once used as killing pounds but have now been converted into sterilisation centres. It is crucial for the government to prioritise this issue. While many metropolitan areas have implemented sterilisation programs, smaller places are lacking in this regard. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to prioritise sterilisation programs in smaller areas as well.
“We must understand that street dogs are often pets of the underprivileged. In Mumbai, for example, over 50 per cent of the population lives on the streets or in slums, and they may also want to keep a pet. Stray dogs are often looked after by the community as free-roaming pets.”Abodh ArasCEO, Welfare of Stray Dogs
How did Mumbai manage the street dog issue? WSD played a crucial role in changing people’s perception about strays there.
In 1994, we presented facts and figures to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to highlight the need for action. Prior to that, an average of 50 people per year were dying of rabies. Culling, which has been practised for 200 years, is not a viable option and has not yielded any solution. A historical nugget of information worth noting is that in 1832, the Parsis rioted to stop the killing of stray dogs.
We suggested to the BMC to explore an option that has been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is considered the most effective way of reducing the stray dog population. We implemented a multi-pronged approach, focusing on specific areas. Our initial target was south Mumbai. We launched a mass sterilisation and vaccination program and conducted education campaigns to raise awareness about bite prevention, rabies prevention, and safe interactions with dogs. This resulted in a significant decline in the street dog population.
It’s important to note that every area has a carrying capacity for dogs, based on the availability of food. Dogs are territorial, which is why culling is not effective, as even if dogs are removed from an area, others will move in and reproduce.
I would also like to highlight that Mumbai has a robust public health system, with readily available injections for post-dog bite treatment, which are provided for free at public hospitals. This has also contributed to the reduction in rabies cases, with only one reported death in the past five years. Complaints related to stray dogs have also significantly decreased.
Could you speak about government support in Mumbai?
Naturally, the government needs to step in to give space. In the case of Mumbai, the government has been cooperative and willing, but there is room for improvement. Currently, there are only five centres in the city, which is insufficient. In the western suburb, from Bandra to Borivali, there is only one centre, resulting in significant pressure on that facility due to high demand. Unfortunately, the limited availability of space remains a major constraint. For years, the government did not reimburse people for sterilisation, despite court orders. However, recently the government has started reimbursing NGOs for these expenses.
Where do stray dogs find their origins?
Let’s go back 14,000 years ago when humans were hunter-gatherers. They domesticated wolves primarily for security and companionship, and those wolves eventually became the first dogs. Free-roaming dogs have always existed in villages, but as villages evolved into towns, the population of stray dogs increased, partly due to garbage becoming a source of food.
It’s important to note that in countries where people live on the streets, there will inevitably be stray dogs. Furthermore, in Indian culture, we grow up learning to feed animals, such as cows and birds, and to help animals in need. This is why you often see street dogs in poorer countries.
Additionally, we must understand that street dogs are often pets of the underprivileged. In Mumbai, for example, over 50 per cent of the population lives on the streets or in slums, and they may also want to keep a pet. Stray dogs are often looked after by the community as free-roaming pets. This is a human element that we often forget - in any given area, there will likely be someone who cares for and looks after these animals.
The man-animal conflict has so many layers.
Yes. But how can we minimise conflicts in the context of stray animals? We need to acknowledge that street dogs will always exist and play significant roles, such as providing emotional support, security, and companionship to the poor.
The solution is sterilisation, vaccination, and education. Unless we prioritise these measures, the conflict between humans and animals will persist in cities.
Killing and attempting to wipe out street dogs can lead to other issues as well. In Mumbai, for example, as the street dog population has decreased, the population of cats and rats has exploded. Anything related to animals must be thought through, as living beings are interconnected. We are gradually moving towards a garbage-free city, but then dogs may not get their food, leading to increased incidents between humans and animals.
Wildlife organisations can collaborate with animal welfare NGOs to conduct awareness programmes. We must understand that people who work with animals are not anti-human. We need to learn to coexist with animals.
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WSD’s pioneering work has you playing an advisory role for other cities.
We have gone to places like Kashmir and Gujarat to share the learnings from Mumbai. However, I believe that now there is enough technical knowledge to effectively manage the issue. The only thing left to determine is the methodology for how it should be managed.
In fact, the government’s Animal Welfare Board has published a module on the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for sterilisation. All procedures are well-documented, and there is ample material available on the issue if the states require it.
The Animal Birth Control programme will only be successful if it is implemented. Therefore, government participation and willingness are crucial. If a State’s sterilisation numbers are low, it is likely because the government has not given it enough priority. There are success stories beyond Mumbai, such as in Jaipur, Chennai, Goa, and Sikkim, where the programme has worked. It can be replicated throughout India if undertaken with a sense of urgency.