Of late, stray dogs have triggered fierce controversies in parts of India. A section demands their summary slaughter or confinement in ‘shelters’, a term which has become a euphemism for canine concentration camps; another strongly opposes both courses. Unfortunately, rhetoric has obscured a simple fact: the only solution is the implementation of the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme for dogs which involves picking up stray dogs, neutering them and returning them to where they had been taken from. Besides, it is the only legal method in India, having been prescribed by the Animal Birth Control (Dog) Rules which, issued in 2001 under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, is a part of the law of the land.
Nowhere has killing or confinement in concentration camps ended the presence of stray dogs. An example is Bangalore, where municipal authorities slaughtered several thousand stray dogs last year. It is now complaining about an increase in their numbers. The suspension of the ABC programmes by NGOs following non-reimbursement of expenses incurred — to say nothing of non-payment of the advance they should get — by the municipal authorities, might have contributed. The main cause, however, has clearly been the total dislocation of the programme by last year’s killings and relocations.
It is remarkable that Bangalore’s municipal authorities failed to foresee this. In their preface to the Guidelines for Dog Population Management (Henceforth Guidelines), issued by the World Health Organisation and World Society for the Protection of Animals in 1990, Ken Bogel and John Hoyt, state, “All too often, authorities confronted by problems caused by these [stray] dogs have turned to mass destruction in the hope of finding a quick solution, only to discover that the destruction had to continue year after year with no end in sight.”
In its Eighth Report (WHO Technical Report Series 824), WHO’s Expert Committee on Rabies, which met in September 1991, stated, “There is no evidence that the removal of dogs has ever had a significant impact on dog population densities or the spread of rabies. The population turnover of dogs may be so high that even the highest recorded removal rates (about 15 per cent of the dog population) are easily compensated by survival rates.”
In its report (Technical Report Series 931), WHO’s Expert Consultation on Rabies, held in October 2004, identified three prerequisites of any successful programme for controlling stray dog populations — “movement restriction, habitat control and reproduction control”. Movement control, according to the Guidelines, means preventing restricted or supervised dogs or family dogs from cutting loose to either mate and return or merge into the stray dog population.
Each habitat has a specific carrying capacity for each species, which is determined by the “availability, distribution and quality of resources (shelter, food, water) for the species concerned”. Since garbage is an important source of food for stray dogs, the Guidelines prescribe measures for garbage management as a part of habitat control. Reproduction control means effective implementation of the ABC programme for dogs. The Technical Report Series 931 states, “Since the 1960s, ABC programmes coupled with rabies vaccination have been advocated as a method to control urban street male and female dog populations and ultimately human rabies in Asia.”
Effective implementation of the ABC programme requires a concentrated area-wise approach. Dogs being territorial, sterilised dogs, immunised against rabies just need unsterilised and unimmunised dogs kept out of their locality. After sterilising and immunising stray dogs in one area, those implementing the ABC programme can move to another. Slowly, an entire region is covered and stray dog populations decline as their members live out their biological spans of life. If sterilised and vaccinated dogs are removed, unsterilised and unvaccinated dogs from other areas move into their areas. And the programme has to be implemented all over again in these.
An important part of the programme is the annual revaccination against rabies, without which stray dogs lose their immunity. The problem is catching them. According to the Guidelines, “In general, there are very few areas where dogs have no referral household and no attachment to at least one person….” Many in India feed stray dogs. Their help should be enlisted in an institutionalised manner for catching dogs for revaccination and sterilisation.
Finally, there is an urgent need for countrywide implementation of the ABC programme, which is now confined to important cities.
(Hiranmay Karlekar is the author of the soon-to-be-released Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression )