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The Sitapur  killings

Dog killings in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district is a serious matter that needs to be thoroughly investigated and recurrence must be prevented

The killing of 12 children, attributed to stray dogs, in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district since November last year needs to be thoroughly investigated and their recurrence prevented. For this, the causes of these ghastly and tragic incidents have to be found out. Why did the series of killings, which have no recorded precedent, start suddenly?

The whole thing is most surprising.  Not only dogs, animals are in general far less aggressive than humans. Erich Fromm, one of the foremost philosophers and social psychologists of our time, writes in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, “If human aggression were more or less at the same level as that of other mammals — particularly that of our nearest relative, the chimpanzee — human society would be rather peaceful and not violent. But this is not so. Man’s history is a record of extraordinary destructiveness and cruelty and human aggression, it seems, far surpasses that of man’s animal ancestors, and man is in contrast to most animals, a real ‘killer’”.

Fromm also distinguishes between “benign aggression” and “malignant aggression.” The former, a response to threat to vital interests, is not “spontaneous of self-increasing but reactive and defensive.” Malignant aggression, according to Fromm is “..characteristic only of man…; its main  manifestations — killing and cruelty — are pleasureful without needing any other purpose…”

Dogs, including stray dogs, have co-existed with humans (children included) for between 12 to 14 millennia. They are generally eager for affection from humans on whom they depend, directly or indirectly, for food, water and shelter. Konrad Lorenz, one of the greatest authorities on animal behaviour ever, writes in Man Meets Dog, “The whole charm of the dog lies in the depth of the friendship and the strength of the spiritual ties with which he has tied himself to man.” Normally, it is humans who are cruel to dogs — hitting them, kicking them, taking away and killing their puppies. Till the other day, municipal bodies were empowered to pick up and kill stray dogs just because they were there. Even now there are periodical illegal massacres like the one in Bengaluru and elsewhere in Karnataka from January to April 2007.

Given this background, it is imperative to investigate the circumstances attending the Sitapur killings. Were local stray dogs, or wild dogs like Dholes, responsible? This is an important question. Spreading human settlements are destroying habitats and sources of sustenance of wild animals, forcing them to come into cities and towns in search of food.

 Stray dogs, familiar with the area where they live, know where to find food, the dos and don’ts, who is a friend and who is not, and what are the sources of danger. Hence, they are generally not tense and aggressive from a sense of insecurity. Wild dogs moving into a new area are unaware of what it holds. They are, therefore, ever tense and alert fearing danger, and ready to attack as a form of defence.

If, as seems likely, the dogs that are killing have moved in from elsewhere, then killing and driving out the local stray dogs is the most unwise thing to do. Dogs being territorial, their instinct would be to keep the newcomers out. In fact, they are the first line of defence against feral canines. In any case killing will not reduce their numbers. As stated in Guidelines for Dog Population Management, issued jointly by the World Health Organistaion (WHO)  and World Society for the Protection of Animals in 1990, “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.”

WHO’s Technical Report Series 931 says, “Since 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. The rationale is to reduce the dog population turnover as well as the number of dogs susceptible to rabies and limit aspects of male dog behavior (such as dispersal and fighting) that facilitate the spread of rabies. Culling of dogs during these programmes may be counterproductive as sterilized, vaccinated dogs may be destroyed.”

Unfortunately, the implementation of the animal birth control programme, under which stray dogs are picked up from their habitats, neutered, vaccinated against rabies and returned to their habitats, has been very tardy. The process should be accelerated considerably throughout the country.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)