International Stray Dog Crisis - India

April 15th, 2008

Homeless and hungry, hiding in the shadows. That’s life for thousands of dogs on the streets of India, it’s an International stray dog crisis. Jilea Carney, a board member of Vets Beyond Borders reports exclusively for Dogs Life on the organisations life-saving work and healing of broken hearts and spirits.

It’s five o’clock on a cold Spring morning in Sikkim, the mountainous north-eastern state of India. In a tiny village on the outskirts of the capital, Gangtok, a young man rugged up against the cold searches the shadows. Hes looking for dogs.

Phurba Bhutia (known as Bucchu to his friends) is a veterinary aide for the Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health program (SARAH). The program was set up by Vets Beyond Borders and is jointly funded by the Sikkimese State Government and Brigitte Bardot Foundation. Its a life-saving program in more ways than one. Around 30,000 people a year die of rabies in India, for which the authorities persecute the street dogs.

Without proper street-dog control programs, such as those provided by Vets Beyond Borders, dog populations are controlled by poisoning, shooting, drowning, electrocution, strangulation or beating to death. Sometimes dogs are trucked across the border to a neighbouring state and dumped, where they risk further inhumane treatment. The method varies from state to state, but the reason is always the same the communitys fear of rabies.

Bucchu is a vital link in stopping this cycle of suffering. It is his job to bring Gangtoks street dogs in for anti-rabies vaccinations, desexing and any other treatment they need. As a result, Gangtoks local hospital has seen only one case of human rabies in the past 12 months.

After desexing and vaccination, the dogs are returned to their homes on the street, but only after they are fully recovered. The cost of treatment is very little in Australian terms. Ten dollars vaccinates 20 dogs and $40 pays for desexing.

Problem quick-fixes

Protection of animals in India predates the country’s constitution. Now, it is enshrined in the constitution. Enforcing it is another question. There are many challenges.

One of these is India’s enormous bureaucracy and the authorities need for a quick fix to the problem of street dogs.One of the worst and most moving of these quick fixes we saw in India was in Jodhpur. Here, despite an excellent street-dog program run by the Marwar Animal Protection Trust, street dogs are rounded up whether they are desexed or not and put in the local pound.

A walled paddock contains around 400 dogs, slowly dying of disease in filthy, overcrowded conditions. There is no full-time vet to treat them or to put them to sleep, and even if there were the religious beliefs of the pounds Jain funders prevent euthanasia. The Jain religion also forbids feeding meat to the dogs because of their opposition to the cruelty of the slaughterhouses. Unfortunately, that means the dogs waste away on a diet of rice and lentils.

Then there is prejudice. Many of the street dogs are not adoptable. Hybrids of the indigenous Pye dog (Pye is from Hindi, meaning outsider), they have not evolved as domesticated dogs. Indian dog owners often choose purebred imports.

But in Sikkim, Vets Beyond Borders work proves that once street-dog numbers are contained to smaller, healthier populations, free of the threat of rabies, people are more likely to adopt or feed them in exchange for the protection the dog gives them.

Before my recent trip to India with photographer David Darcy, I always believed that cruelty was a first-world issue, that in Australia at least, we are cruel to animals because we can be. Because they are our property. I believed animal suffering in India was related to poverty, not to cruelty. But in India, I found some people as cruel to the street dogs as they are to donkeys, elephants, horses and camels.

One day I watched a queue of people standing on a small flight of steps up to a bank. Each person who walked up the steps had to step over the body of a dead puppy lying at the bottom. No-one seemed to care enough to remove the dog. Perhaps they had stepped over it while it was taking its last breaths. There was no-one to help it while it died and no-one to care that it did. Of course, there are kind people in India, people who would stop for a sick puppy, but a lack of knowledge about where to get help, a lack of resources or maybe the lack of a local shelter, leaves them feeling powerless.

Whenever I got close enough to a street dog to pat and comfort it, the dogs response was always the same. As I rubbed ears or stroked chins or ruffled chests, there was never any reaction. Its as though the dogs have given up on life. But it was that universal characteristic of dogs their loyalty that was so evident to me in India. Many dogs in India never have their needs met. They can live their whole lives beside a cafe or a restaurant and never be given a scrap of food. And yet they choose to stay, to live near human beings. No other animal in India has a choice elephants, horses, oxen are all forced to stay. Its only the dog who chooses people.

And, although organisations like Vets Beyond Borders offer enormous hope to the street dogs of India, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As I left India in March, the worlds animal-welfare community was on fire with outrage at a mass dog extermination in Bangalore. For the second time in a year, a young child had been killed by a pack of street dogs. This was proof, the authorities claimed, that the desexing programs do not work. As I boarded the plane at Delhi, it was to the sound of the voice of Bangalores Health Minister ringing in my ears. We will intensify the culling operations without any mercy, he proclaimed.

But, as Scheutze from Vets Beyond Borders says, we have to start somewhere. And there is hope. At first, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and didn’t think I could do anything to make a difference, she says. Then I desexed and treated my first dog and saw what a difference it made to that dog. So we have to continue, one animal at a time.

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