When dogs rule the streets and endanger people
Civil Society News, New Delhi
A little girl, all of three years old, playing with other children in a park in Moti Nagar in west Delhi, is mauled and killed by a marauding pack of street dogs. Her father, a gardener, is working nearby in the same park, but can’t save her.
In DLF Phase-2, a neighbourhood in Gurugram, across the National Capital Region (NCR) from Moti Nagar, a 14-month-old girl is pounced upon by a stray dog and bitten in the leg. Her parents, who are taking her out for an evening stroll, aren’t able to prevent the attack.
These two incidents of stray dogs attacking children happened between December 2021 and March 2022. They show the regularity with which attacks on people occur.
There are seven million dog bites in India in a year, according to government figures. Deaths from rabies are put at 25,000 in a year. Both figures are likely to be actually higher because of underreporting and poor gathering of data. It is not known how many stray dogs there are in India. Estimates vary and run into tens of millions. There is also no definitive record of house dogs.
Strays come under the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, known as the ABC Rules. Under these rules dogs are to be vaccinated and neutered, but can’t be removed from the streets even if they are aggressive and have bitten people.
The rules seek to reduce the population of stray dogs and incidence of rabies but clearly neither goal is being achieved though it is 20 years since the rules came into force.
As the population of strays has grown, conflicts over them have multiplied. There are dog lovers who feed strays and don’t want them removed. But equally there are other people who feel threatened and see strays as a menace.
Several cases have been filed in courts resulting in contested orders and judgments. The Supreme Court has had to step in and bring all these stray-dog related matters under its purview. It is expected to hear a bunch of cases in July. Among them is a writ petition filed as public interest litigation (PIL) by the Humane Foundation for People and Animals (HFPA), which says that keeping stray dogs on the streets is being unkind to them and unfair by people. They should either be adopted or removed to well-managed pounds as is done elsewhere in the world. It also calls for firm regulation of dog ownership and breeding.
|Strays become a pack of wild dogs when let loose on the street. And below: They are disciplined and restrained dogs when adopted as pets|
The big question is whether dogs should be on the streets at all. Who should be held responsible when they attack people and sometimes take lives? Biting and mauling can be a traumatic experience even if a dog is neutered and vaccinated against rabies. Better governance is required because the problem can’t be solved by people acting on their own, the situation having spiralled out of control over the years.
With strays being in millions, adoption can hardly be a solution. On the other hand, left out on the streets, without specific owners, dogs can turn wild roaming around in packs. Preventing the spread of rabies and innumerable zoonotic diseases is also a challenge when they are loose.
A dog’s temperament, mood swings and response to different situations are difficult to understand. There are those that are fierce in nature, but even docile dogs bite — and cause serious injuries when they do.
A dog taken into a home and bonding with people can be completely tame. But there are limits to adoption. The Fernandes family in Gurugram, for instance, touchingly looks after dogs with disabilities. Yet ask them to take in one extra dog more than they can handle and they will throw up their hands. In fact, dogs in need of shelter currently far outnumber the homes that may want to take them in.
Internationally, the norm is that dogs cannot be allowed to roam free and harass people. They are picked up and kept in pounds till an owner shows up. If not claimed or adopted over time, they are euthanized.
House dogs, too, in most countries have to be trained so that they don’t make a nuisance of themselves. Forget biting and attacking people, they are not allowed to bark loudly and incessantly at odd hours. Owners of pets are read out their responsibilities and are required to know how to manage their animals.
IN THE COURTS
In India, a combination of poor governance and unrealistic regulation have turned the streets into a conflict zone between dogs and human beings. It is a conflict that has also extended to human beings taking on one another, at times violently, going to the police and filing cases in courts. Of the disputes the most contentious relate to the feeding of strays in public places.
Among the cases before the Supreme Court, the PIL filed by the HFPA is especially interesting because it argues that keeping dogs on the street in poor conditions is to ill-treat them as well as endanger people.
The HFPA’s founders are T.A. Ramkumar and Meghna Uniyal. Their PIL was filed in 2020, but it comes in the trail of a long list of litigation. In 2007, Dr Rozario Menezes and his organization, People for the Elimination of Stray Troubles, went to court in Goa. This case by Dr Menezes ended up in the Bombay High Court along with sundry other cases filed between 2005 and 2008.
In 2009, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by the Animal Welfare Board against the People for the Elimination of Stray Troubles. The board went to the Supreme Court again in 2011 and got a Karnataka High Court order overturning the ABC Rules stayed.
In 2015 the Supreme Court said high courts were not allowed to hear cases on the issue. And in 2016 when people in Kerala began killing stray dogs after a series of instances of dog bite, the Supreme Court appointed the Sri Jagan Committee to decide compensation.
PRO-DOG, BUT NOT STRAYS
The PIL by the HFPA has gone deep into the problem of stray dogs from a compassionate position. The HFPA says people who truly love dogs should work towards saving them from a miserable existence on the streets by taking them into pounds, getting them adopted and, when required, euthanizing them.
The PIL looks at examples from other countries and suggests that India implement global best practices. Realizing that solutions are required, the HFPA offers a detailed “model policy” for dealing with the stray dog problem.
The model policy promotes responsible pet ownership and breeding, tracking of animals, better regulation and capacity enhancement in municipalities among other things.
ARTICLE 21 VIOLATED?
The basic legal contention of the PIL is that the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules or ABC Rules, are violative of Article 21 of the Constitution that guarantees every citizen the right to a life with dignity, in a safe and healthy environment free from the dangers of disease and infection.
It points out that the Supreme Court itself has held that health, safety, preservation of sanitation and environment fall within the purview of Article 21. But keeping dogs on the streets endangers the health and safety of citizens. The PIL cites the government’s own figures of seven million dog bites and 25,000 rabies cases in a year to highlight the extent of the problem.
The PIL argues that as the only national policy on dealing with stray dogs the ABC Rules are not working. It calls the rules both a “danger and nuisance for citizens”. They require municipal authorities and animal welfare organizations to release dogs back on the streets in the same areas where people had a problem with them biting and being a nuisance.
The PIL also points out that the rules misinterpret World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Far from allowing dogs to be on the street, the WHO calls for responsible pet ownership and going to the source of the stray dog problem. The WHO is for sterilization with firm regulation and civic management.
The PIL places much emphasis on responsible ownership and breeding because this is from where the problem begins. Put simply: people bring dogs into their homes and then when they can’t handle them put those dogs out on the streets where they multiply. In the absence of controls, India’s problem with strays has only become more complex.
ABC RULES AND THE PCAA
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA) was brought to Parliament in 1960 as a private member’s bill by Rukmini Devi Arundale, the dancer, who was an animal lover.
Arundale wanted the law to protect domestic animals against abuse and abandonment. She wanted civic authorities to take responsibility for animals that were let loose so that they didn’t suffer.
The ABC Rules were drafted 40 years later in 2001 by Maneka Gandhi while she was the minister for culture, which in itself is odd. Why should the rules have come from the ministry of culture?
The PIL argues that the rules were supposed to facilitate the implementation of the PCAA, but they actually run counter to its provisions and spirit by allowing dogs to be left on the street. Rules can’t run counter to the law they seek to implement, it is argued in the PIL.
The ABC Rules legalize straying and create a category called “street dogs” for whom no one can be held responsible. These dogs must fend for themselves and, in reality, they die of starvation, thirst, disease and accidents, says the HFPA in its PIL. The PCCA, on the contrary, seeks to ensure that the animals are owned and cared for.
There are several other counts on which the ABC Rules are also questioned. For instance, they are not in consonance with municipal laws that do not permit straying. They also contravene the Indian Penal Code (IPC) when stray dogs bite and injure people.
The rules are based on the assumption that vaccination, sterilization and feeding of dogs will restrict them to their own territories and over time their number will dwindle.
But the rules are not working. In the 20 years that they have been in force, there is not a single example of a comprehensively successful sterilization effort in India that has brought down stray dog populations.
As the numbers have increased so have attacks and there are gory examples of man-animal confrontation.
Upside down love: A man plays with strays while hanging upside down in a park.
The reasons for attacks by dogs aren’t always definable. For instance, why were the two small children in the examples above attacked? There is no ready answer.
Sometimes a dog may attack to protect its territory. Or when it is scared. Dogs in heat, and buoyed by hormonal surges, can also be dangerous and out of control.
Then again, a hungry dog or one that is eating will tend to snap. As the old saying goes: Don’t come between a dog and his bone! Dogs in packs tend to be aggressive and there is invariably a pack leader.
To further complicate matters, people seeing dogs adrift come forward to feed them in one way or the other. They put out leftovers from their homes.
There are also efforts to feed them regularly. These are good-hearted gestures, but no substitute for a caring system. They don’t solve the larger problem of what to do with an ever-increasing population of stray dogs.
The stray dog issue is not a new one. Mahatma Gandhi weighed in on the issue, saying: “The multiplication of dogs is unnecessary. A roving dog without an owner is a danger to society and a swarm of them is a menace to its very existence.”
He described the feeding of stray dogs as “misplaced compassion” by people who didn’t understand himsa in the first place and were therefore imperfect champions of the principle of ahimsa.
“If we want to keep dogs in towns and villages, in a decent manner no dog should be suffered to wander,” says Gandhi. “There should be no stray dogs even as we have no stray cattle.”
The HFPA believes that it is important to strike a balance between people’s rights and those of animals. But in the absence of adequate governance, it is not easy.
Ramkumar tells the story of the Pune Club of which he is a member. The club set out to be kind to stray dogs entering its premises by feeding and looking after them. Food used to be especially cooked for the dogs and a caretaker too was appointed, recalls Ramkumar.
However, as their presence grew and they began occupying the common spaces meant for members, the club was forced to act. Dogs chasing members on the jogging trails and snapping at their heels was particularly uncomfortable.
“I asked the club’s president why he didn’t do something about the dogs. He said there was nothing he could do because there were some members who wanted the dogs housed and fed," says Ramkumar.
Over time, as more members felt threatened, the club was forced to stop feeding the dogs and once the food stopped, the dogs stopped showing up as well.
The Pune Club's example is typical of feeding initiatives. When strays know there is food available they turn up and as their numbers increase uncontrollable situations develop.
“I live on Boat Club Road in Pune where there aren’t many stray dogs,” says Ramkumar. “But even there we have had cases of dogs biting and threatening residents on the street and yet no one was willing to act.”
Ramkumar is head of special situation investments at Tata Capital. He came across Meghna Uniyal when he read an article written by her, Janaki Lenin and Abi Tamim Vanak on the issue of stray dogs. Her rational and practical approach that took human beings and their safety into account appealed to him.
Unniyal is based in Gurugram and has studied law at Symbiosis International University in Pune. As a student in Pune, she worked with the Blue Cross. So, she is a bona fide animal lover with a broader point of view similar to Ramkumar’s.
When Ramkumar got in touch with her, Uniyal gave him a whole lot of material to read on the issue. It impressed her that he came back to her after having gone through the material in great detail.
They then began working together. HFPA was formed by them in 2018. They realized it was important to provide a a solution to the problem of stray dogs. Soon a model policy began to take shape. It took more than a year to draft and they have also patented it.
Uniyal currently teaches English. Like Ramkumar she feels strongly that the problem of strays hasn’t been properly addressed. “I have no dog now because my husband and I are moving quite a bit. My cat died a couple of years ago. But I’m a lifelong dog and cat owner. I’ve kept pedigrees. I’ve kept rescued animals. I’ve picked them up from the road, from the shelter,” says Uniyal.
It was while working with the Blue Cross in Pune in 1998, then a student in her twenties, that the trend of picking up strays, sterilizing them and putting them back on the street began.
In 2000 the draft ABC Rules were circulated and she sent in objections, but to no avail. Then in 2001 the rules were passed and it became official policy for NGOs to sterilize dogs and put them back.
“I took this up with the Blue Cross management, saying, listen, this is a terrible idea. Why are we doing this? These are homeless dogs. I don’t understand this policy at all or how it works. And they said, ‘Look, we have been asked to do it. We’re getting funding from it.’ That was the end of the story,” remembers Uniyal.
“I wrote to the Animal Welfare Board of India, and said I’d like to know about this policy. I don’t understand it. They said these are the WHO guidelines. So I said, Okay, may I have a copy of the WHO guidelines? They said, We don’t have a copy, you ask the WHO,” she says.
So she wrote to the WHO and received a hard copy of the guidelines from them. The guidelines and the provisions and spirit of the ABC Rules didn’t match.
How dogs react is not easy to understand. In this picture strays chase a car
“The ABC Rules are the complete opposite of what the WHO has suggested and what the whole world is doing,” says Uniyal.
She was convinced that it was not a good idea to be sterilizing animals and putting them back on the street. Far from being a solution, it was complicating the problem.
“I became a kind of an outcast within the dog-loving community because I was saying you can’t be putting them back on the road,” says Uniyal.
She could see realities at ground level. Working with Blue Cross, she would go with vans which put back dogs onto streets and there would be opposition from local people. They didn’t want the dogs that had been taken for sterilization to be put back, she remembers.
Not getting a response from the animal welfare organizations, she started getting in touch with human rights organizations. There was Stray Dog Free Bangalore. There was also Dr Rosario Menezes in Goa who had started People for the Elimination of Stray Troubles.
Such organizations are more in the zone of the kind of solutions that Ramkumar and Uniyal are seeking. But bringing about changes in policy isn’t easy.
Of the innumerable MPs, MLAs and municipalities they sent their draft model policy to for comments, it was only a middle-level functionary in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation who responded, but only tentatively and nothing apparently came of it.
Getting lawyers to represent them in court has also been a huge challenge. The stray dog problem has wide ramifications for the well-being of people and the quality of life in Indian cities. It is a complex issue. But it is difficult to find lawyers who will take up such a case and devotedly pick their way through its multiple layers and nuances.
Finally, sorting out the stray dog problem goes much beyond the courts. It has to do with better governance and social responsibility. There are multiple layers to the problem which are difficult to define.
Not everyone will say stray dogs are a menace and fierce and troublesome. And yet the people they attack get injured, traumatized and some of them, like the child at the beginning of our story, actually lose their lives. Urgent action is clearly needed.