A blast from the past

By Lekshmi Parmeswaran
In Issue 6
March 7, 2016
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The 1994 plague outbreak in Surat is a lesson for all on how not to manage stray dogs

stray-dog“Why are people so indiscriminate? Is it so difficult for them to see the impending disaster” asks Maya N., a visibly fuming animal rights activist. Associated with the NGO, People for Animals, she is referring to the Kerala Government’s policy of culling the stray dogs that has garnered widespread criticism from all quarters. And with this issue becoming a major plank on which the local body elections were fought in Kerala, the time has come to review this policy and take a look at the scientific soundness of such a step.

The voices to exterminate stray dogs keep getting heard from not just the Indian cities but across the world. The United Kingdom, China and Turkey are some of the countries that have successfully culled its stray dog population. In India though states like Tamil Nadu in 1996 decided to handle this problem in a more mature manner by sterilizing the dogs, time and again there props up the idea of killing them.

Over the years, there is this one fact that has slowly faded from the public memory. It is the 1994 Surat plague and how one thoughtless action led to a disaster that was beyond anybody’s imagination. The then government’s decision to wipe out the street dogs turned out to be an unfortunate event for which both the government and the people were least prepared for.

The forgotten case of Surat

How could a policy that had the best interests of both the people and environment go so terribly wrong? It did because it was a decision that was taken without considering the other factors that were involved in maintaining the essential ecological balance. In the epidemic that broke out, 52 people were killed and thousands were affected in the resulting chaos. Though it lasted for just weeks, it had by then made over 3 lakh people migrate to escape the clutches of this disaster. Many who remember the times say that the situation in the city resembled 13th century Europe when it was gripped by Black Death.

The inherent mistake that the policymakers did was to overlook the role played by each and every organism in nature’s ecological cycle. When the decision was to kill all the stray dogs, the point that was missed out was that they exist for a particular purpose. In a country like India, where there is no proper mechanism for waste disposal, it is the stray animals that clean up the mess. When the entire dog population was erased, what it did was to clear the way for other rodents to thrive. This increased the rat population in the city and it went to the extent that their population explosion became unmanageable.

At that time little attention was paid to the dangers posed by such rodents. The recent findings by the team at University of Oslo stating that it might not be rats but Asian Gerbils that might have been the real cause of the plague outbreak in Europe gives further clarity to what happened in Surat. The warm weather conditions of the Indian subcontinent make it ideal for the gerbils to thrive. These are now believed to be the harbingers of the deadly bacteria Yersinia pestis. The panic that the disease could reach other parts of the country due to the floods that followed was in all respects unprecedented.

Probably all it needed was a little common sense to avert this disaster. When dogs are taken out of the ecosystem, it is only natural that the other scavengers will flourish. The growing number of rodents will automatically increase the number of snake population in an area as they feed on rats. This gives rise to a cycle that will do more harm than good to the environment. In the end, the only permanent solution that the Gujarat government saw to avoid a recurrence of a tragedy of this scale was to reintroduce dogs from the nearby areas to the city.

The threat of rabies

The reason that is often cited for the annihilation of stray dogs is the threat of rabies. But various studies and surveys conducted have shown that the facts and figures are in most cases lack credibility. If the data from Ernakulam district General Hospital, Kerala is anything to go by, it is recorded that 75 per cent of the dog bite cases have been because of pets. That brings down the threat risk to a considerable extent. In numerical terms it would mean that the danger of a stray dog whether rabid or not attacking a human is just one in 1000.

Moreover, the example of Jaipur proves that sterilization of the stray dogs is a much effective step than the mindless killing which is often carried out in brutal ways. Ever since the implementation of the birth control measures by the Help in Suffering-India, the cases of rabies have witnessed a steady decrease with the numbers reaching zero in 2002. Another city that has done similar work in controlling the dog population is Chennai where the implementing agency is Blue Cross of India.

Also it needs to be noted that the awareness among the public about rabies has been found be very low. The very mention of the disease gives rise to a lot of unexplained fears without realizing that effective treatment to prevent is available in all hospitals and in most of the government hospitals, the treatment is free.

“What is not understood by many is that not every rabid dog can get violent. There are two types of rabies, one is furious rabies and the other is paralytic rabies. It is only in the former that dogs get aggressive. The latter is a slow degeneration of the central nervous system and it is always best to quarantine the affected animals and inject them so that they can die a peaceful death”, opines Dr Arun Kumar, a veterinary surgeon.

A look at the legislations

In Article 51 A of the Indian Constitution which deals with fundamental duties, compassion for living creatures forms an important part. The Animal Birth Control Rules formulated in 1960 under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act have laid down three conditions on which dogs can be killed. They are: a) rabies afflicted; b) incurably ill; and c) mortally wounded. Regarding the dogs that are a ‘nuisance’ to the society, the act only says that such dogs can be taken away and be sterilized as such a step is known to bring down the aggression.

It is this part of the law that the State governments have interpreted to suit their needs. It is often seen as a license to capture and kill the dogs. The provisions of animal shelters which form part of the act have been discarded long ago due to their impractical nature.

Exploring the humane possibilities

The February 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court in recognizing the need for some compassion in dealing with the issue of stray dogs has allowed for this issue to be dealt with in a more rational manner. Though there is no doubt in the perils posed by rabid dogs and the need to cull them, it should also be understood that not every barking dog is rabid. Also dogs being territorial animals have a tendency to move into places that are empty. Any action taken should be in line with the modern civilizational values and it is time for states to understand the benefits of systematic sterilization.

Another way is to devise ways for effective garbage disposal so that dogs do not wander around aimlessly only to be perceived as a threat by society. In addition to this, legislations should be in place to clearly demarcate the pet dogs and the stray dogs so that the former do not get abandoned on the streets.

Lastly, it needs to be remembered that dog bites are an answer to the tortures they are subjected to by humans. All that is needed is a little bit of empathy to be shown to these canines so that they can continue with the task of safeguarding the environment.