There are some things everyone loves about dogs -- their loyalty, their unconditional love, those cute little puppies.
But when strays make your street their home, the bad can begin to outweigh the good. They bark and sometimes bite, scare children and disrupt morning walks. They dart into the middle of the street without warning, causing accidents.
Across India, governments have tried and failed to keep their numbers in check. And last week, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot, at least for now, kill strays to keep their numbers down. Instead, they must sterilise and vaccinate the dogs, it directed.
As it turns out, that is not the only possible solution.
In exploding cities where the clashes between human and canine populations have intensified, new formulas for peace are emerging.
In Pune, a young design engineer is making reflective collars to prevent accidents, and now has a network of volunteers across 15 cities stepping in to protect dogs and humans alike.
In Gurgaon, a gated community has tied up with local activists to vaccinate and sterilise the strays in their area -- and train them as guard dogs.
In Mumbai, an animal activist tied up with a major builder to sterilise, vaccinate and create a database of all strays in the Hiranandani area of Powai.
Technologically inclined youngsters are also setting up apps that act as NGO aggregators, allowing residents to just press a button to report an injured, ill or rabid dog.
“These initiatives are a definite improvement on the two extremes we largely see on this issue: the dog lovers who tend to go overboard in wanting to protect strays and the animal haters who want measures such as culling,” says urban development expert Chandrashekhar Prabhu. “These are balanced approaches that takes both sides into consideration and that’s important.”
Sterilisation and vaccination are still key, but any additional help is always welcome, adds Vinod Kumar, assistant secretary at the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). The AWBI, incidentally, was set up under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, to advise the government on animal welfare laws andhas been directed by the Supreme Court to oversee the implementation of its recent order. “Citizen involvement is important,” Kumar adds, “because the more people speak up for strays, the more pressure there will be on the civic bodies and state governments to seek long-term sustainable solutions to the issue of stray dogs in Indian cities.”
Turning strays into guard dogs
For three years, residents of the Nirvana Country gated community in Gurgaon were at war with the 40-odd strays sharing their space. Every two weeks, there were fresh reports of an attack or dog bite.
Then, last April, the two sides -- the animal lovers and those tired of the barking and biting -- got together to try and find a feasible way out. The initial plan was to tame the dogs, but after brainstorming for a bit, they decided to try something different – train the strays to be guard dogs. They contacted local animal welfare NGO Wildlife SOS to help them broaden the scope of their idea.
In July, two volunteers from the NGO began a three-month effort of befriending the dogs and mapping their territories. The 20 friendliest dogs were then trained to walk with the residents and play with them. The next five months were spent helping the security guards bond with the dogs -- starting with daily interaction, then walks and finally feeding of the strays.
“So far, 20 dogs have been won over and now accompany the guards on their rounds,” says Sanu Kapila, president of the Nirvana Residents’ Welfare Association (NRWA). “The children now playwith these dogs and residents feed them. And we’ve had just one dog bite incident in eight months.”
Even the residents who had reservations about the plan are now coming around. Little Mehek Jain, 5, for instance, no longer has to go to daycare after school because she’s too afraid to walk home. “My daughter can walk about, go out and play,” says her dad Neeraj, a management consultant. “My wife and I too are more comfortable stepping out of our homes.”
Wasim Akram of Wildlife SOS Delhi says the NGO is now in talks with five other gated communities to replicate this model.
“We too need to address the stray dog issue in our society and this appears to be an interesting way to do it. We are monitoring the progress closely,” says Anurag Agrawal, treasurer of board of managers for the nearby Close South society.
Flashy collars for a cause
Kalu is a jet black stray with a shiny orange-and-silver collar -- and the reason it shines is because it lights up at night. In the dark, any available light bounces off its reflective surface, warning motorists that there’s an animal in the road.
Kalu and his pack at Pune’s bustling Karve Chowk got their reflective collars in July, as part of a voluntary non-profit initiative started in that month by Pune resident and design engineer Shantanu Naidu, 24. “I was tired of seeing dog carcasses on the road,” Naidu says. “And when I talked to people in my area about the accidents, most of them would say the driver had no idea the animal was there. Making the dogs visible, even from a considerable distance, was the obvious solution, so I designed these collars.”
Naidu calls his initiative Motopaws, and what started with a team of 15 colleagues and friends in Pune has turned into a 15-city initiative run through a network of 200 volunteers across Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Jammu, Panaji, Dehradun, Indore and Chennai, among other cities, spreading with the help of a short video posted online, showing how the original Pune group works.
Watch: The Motopaws video that went viral online
Volunteers collar strays with the help of local activists; repeat visits are done to check that the collars are intact.
The collars use denim for durability, covered in the kind of orange mesh used in street cleaners’ uniforms. They are all made by two tailors in Pune, and were paid for by donations. Six months ago, Ratan Tata heard about the initiative through a Tata Group newsletter (Naidu works at a group company) and has pledged about 70% of the production costs.
Motopaws has collared 3,000 strays so far, and local residents are grateful for their out-of-the-box approach. “A collar saved me from having an accident three months ago,” says Pune businessman Aniket Bhute. “I was riding home from work when I saw a flash at a turning near my house. I was able to brake in time, but without the collar I would’ve hit the dog and crashed.”
Taking the bite out of ailing canines
While trying to find a lost puppy in the area outside his office, Mumbai businessman Jayesh Shah says he realised that a lot of people care for strays but don’t have the money to treat them in case of injury or sickness.
So Shah decided to turn a spare godown into a veterinary clinic. The three-month-old HELP Animals & Birds Association has space for 40 dogs and 24 cats, an OPD section, an operating room and CCTV cameras. It is staffed by one fulltime vet, two part-time vets and six cleaners.
The entire operation costs Shah about Rs 1.7 lakh a month, but it has allowed him to treat over 200 stray dogs already, for everything from a broken leg to tumour surgery. “Every stray we get is sterilised and vaccinated so that when they go back on the street, they’re safe,” he says.
It’s very fulfilling work, adds Dr Prashant Mali, the full-time vet. “We tell everyone to bring strays here for treatment. The more love and attention you shower on them, especially when they are injured, the less likely they are to attack or bite.”
Canine behaviourist Niharika Gandhi lives in Hiranandani Complex, a plush 3,350-acre township in suburban Mumbai. For a decade, she has been feeding and caring for the strays here, but when it came to sterilising them, she knew she needed help.
“The BMC’s sterilisation drives are few and far between, so I thought, it’s a planned township run by Hiranandani builders, why not ask them to help,” she says. The builders had been getting complaints from residents about the growing number of strays and the disruption they were causing on the streets, so they agreed to pay for the sterilisation.
Over the past decade, the joint initiative has resulted in nearly 1,000 sterilisations, a drop in the number of strays, and a database of which dogs have been sterilised and vaccinated, and when.
“We realised that we had to find ways to coexist peacefully with the strays,” says Sudipto Lahiri, senior manager for administration and facilities for the Hiranandani Group, Powai. “When we began in 2005, we had so many strays we couldn’t keep count. Now we have about 450 across 3,350 acres. We even help with a proper burial for the complex dogs that die.”
Neighbouring residential complexes have now begun to call Gandhi for help with strays in their areas.
“The builders’ support has given me the backing to inculcate some knowledge about how to deal with strays, among housing societies in the area,” Gandhi says. “People are willing to listen when I suggest solutions.”
Canine trouble? There’s an app for that
Four months ago, Anjali Kakati, 35, a deputy operations manager in Delhi, noticed a dog with a broken leg on her way to work. She didn’t know what to do, so she took a photo of the dog, uploaded it on the app ResQ Rangers, and waited. Animal lovers and NGOs in a 5-km radius were immediately tagged and notified. In 10 minutes, she got a response from an activist who came by in her car and took the dog to a nearby animal hospital. “We communicated entirely through the app at first. Then we exchanged numbers so that I could get updates on the dog’s condition,” Kakati says. “Even if you’re not an animal lover and do not want to wait, you can just upload a picture and someone will respond.”
ResQ Rangers was launched in May as an animal crisis mobile app, but most of its alerts have been about street dogs. “We wanted to make it easier to collaborate, find ambulances, get help, and organise adoption drives,” says Aneesha Chhikara, 39, working as Director Global Alliances in an IT MNC, who created the app with a friend, Arun Budakoti, 37, working as Head of Sales - North & East - India in a Telecom MNC.
Of the 100 incidents so far, 40 needed and received immediate attention. “If no one responds immediately, which happened in about 10 cases, we attend to the animal ourselves or coordinate with NGOs that have ambulance services,” says Budakoti.