Visitors to Kerala now may find something strange with the state’s mainstream media: besides politics and sleaze, they have a new obsession - stray dog menace.
This obsession is so strong that the general impression one gets is that of a raging epidemic or a disaster situation in which the risk of getting bitten, or even being mauled, by street dogs, is very high. Obviously, it comes with the threat of a miserable and fatal disease called rabies.
It’s like the unusual warning-boards that greeted visitors at the Ambon airport in Indonesia’s Maluku province which in 2012 witnessed a rabies outbreak. There are no official signposts yet in Kerala, but the newspaper headlines and scary pictures make up for them. They are more than good enough to warn and disconcert people.
Although it has been going on for months, since August when an old woman was killed by a pack of street dogs, the media haven’t taken their eyes off the menace. Scary dog-bite stories are headline news every day and it’s as if feral and rabid dogs are ruling the streets everywhere. It’s really an unsettling situation, particularly for a state that earns about Rs 25,000 crore from tourists every year.
Unsurprisingly, it has caught the state government on the wrong foot because it hasn’t been able to find a solution. As the clueless state drags its feet, justifiably because of the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) rules enacted by the central government in 2001 under an old (1960) Cruelty to Animals Act forbids culling, there’s a virtual war going on between animal lovers and anti-dog vigilantes. Most of the media, general public and political leaders side with the vigilantes because the problem is real. People want them off the streets and the only way known to them is to kill them. But the rule of law prevents any such short-term cure.
KT Jaleel, the state minister concerned, was initially quite frontal in his support to the popular sentiment of killings dogs, but went soft when the Animal Welfare Board and activists told him that his idea was illegal. Initially, he had said that the government would instruct local bodies to kill dangerous dogs that pose a threat to people, but subsequently went silent. On 30 August, the government issued orders for a comprehensive plan on dog menace, that talks about databases, rehabilitation, and dog parks instead of culling. It certainly wouldn’t solve the immediate crisis.
Anti-dog activists are obviously miffed. A woman panchayat member, incidentally from the ruling CPM, was so enraged that she reportedly led a small scale culling. People and the media supported her and even hailed her as a hero, but the state police booked her under the Cruelty to Animals Act and IPC. Anti-dog activists, led by a homegrown industrialist, Kochouseph Chittilappally, have promised legal support not only to her, but also to anybody who is willing to kill. Chittlilappally is the “chairman” of a “stray dog free movement” that is pressing for culling and amendments to existing legislation.
The popular demand is for a short-term solution to the threat because getting bittern by the dogs and contracting rabies is real. But, the only short term solution is culling, which is illegal. What the law suggests, since 2001, is Animal Birth Control (ABC), which means removing them from the streets, sterilising them and then releasing them back where they belong. Animal lovers and research literature say that this will work in the long term because it will reduce the numbers and make the dogs better-behaved, but the panic-stricken people don’t want to wait that long.
Without anything drastic, the streets and thoroughfares of Kerala are not going to be free and safe because they are teeming with free-roaming dogs. The state health minister had told the assembly that in 2014, about 1.19 lakh people were bitten by dogs compared to about 88, 172 the previous year.
Any disaster or epidemic warrants both short term and long term solutions: short term to mitigate the immediate impact, and long term to find a sustainable, lasting solution. Therefore, the law and the central government (thanks to a steadfast Maneka Gandhi and the Animal Welfare Board) insisting only on long term solutions is inimical to public interest. If not culling, the authorities have to find some alternative in making its streets safer. Applying ABC and waiting for a few years (at least five years) for it to begin showing results is like formulating a long term public health policy in response to a spiralling epidemic such as Ebola.
The sustainable solution, however, is certainly not culling because if the underlying reasons for the multiplication of dogs are not addressed, they will fill the streets again. Both animal lovers and vigilantes are unanimous in their opinion that the stray dog population has multiplied manifold, they have become more aggressive and they reproduce more. There are two reasons - one, environmental degradation, and two, the government’s inability to apply ABC although it has been the rule of law for the last 15 years.
In the last few years, the state's solid waste management has collapsed and people dump waste, which also includes meat from illegal abattoirs and food-retailers, on the streets. This has become a regular source of food for the dogs, which have not only become healthier but also aggressive. Animal activists say that this has contributed to a higher fertility rate as well - female dogs that used to deliver, on an average, once a year now deliver thrice a year. It means a single female dog adds at least 24 new dogs to the streets every year.
Had the government implemented ABC, the numbers would have certainly come down because the average lifespan of a dog is 10-12 years. Had it started in 2001, along with strict vigilance on the proliferation of pet dogs, the street would have been freer. Some estimates show that a single un-neutered female dog can produce more than 60,000 puppies in six years. Even a partial success in ABC could have made a big difference.
A steady supply of food through mounds of waste dumped on the streets and no sterilisation have ensured the perfect ecosystem for the fast-breeding of dogs. The government needs short term and long term plans to address both. Unfortunately, nothing tangible seems to be in sight.
The street-dog menace is a co-creation of the people and the government and it’s a live example of how environmental degradation and official inaction can rollback the state’s hard-earned development gains. Infectious diseases that appeared to have been eradicated years ago have come back and diseases alien to the land are raging. The state is losing the sheen of its eponymous model because it’s undoing the socio-economic transition of a century.
That feral dog on the street is both real and metaphoric. It summarises the fast-spreading physical decay of a state, known for its stunning looks, and the reversal of some of its famous public health gains.