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A smart way to ensure animal-friendly cities

Animal Welfare Board of India’s primary task is to implement the Animal Birth Control Programme for dogs. This needs to be systematically implemented in a planned, phase-wise manner in each State

The Chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India, SP Gupta, did well to refer, at a Press conference on June 14, to reports that animals were being thrown out of Smart Cities, and say that the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) has taken the initiative to ensure that such cities were animal-friendly and did not remove animals that were an important part of civilized society. He reportedly further reasoned that if the Smart Cities plan could provide for parks, shopping complexes, residential and commercial areas, “then why should it not have place for animals?” Stating that animals had to live in the cities, Gupta added, “We will take stringent action” if animals were driven out “while establishing Smart Cities.”

Gupta’s announcement was most commendable, as was his assertion that no city was complete without animals. In respect of stray dogs, however, his proposal for setting up hostels/shelters in these cities need to be very carefully harmonized with the implementation of the Animal Birth Control programme which the AWBI has adopted on a national scale with the twin objectives of eradicating rabies in the country by 2020 and optimizing the management of dog populations. Its Revised Module for Street Dog Population Management, Rabies Education, Reducing Man-Dog Conflict states, “The Animal Birth Control (ABC) Program is mandated by the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001. The Supreme Court and several High Courts have, in their judgments, emphasized on the need for implementation of the ABC Rules, 2001, in letter and spirit.”

The programme, in its essentials, provides for catching stray dogs in a humane manner, neutering them and vaccinating them against rabies, and releasing them in the places from which they had been picked up. The importance of returning them to their original habitats can never be overstated. Dogs are territorial. Those living in one area will not allow dogs from other areas to come in. That is why one notices that each area has its own resident stray canines with very rare additions to their ranks. With sterilized and vaccinated dogs returned to their areas keeping unsterilised and unvaccinated dogs out, the authorities implementing the ABC programme can progressively move into other areas, leaving each to be guarded by sterilized and vaccinated dogs. Proceeding area by area they can cover an entire city or country within a pre-fixed period — returning only occasionally to areas already covered to take care of sundry unsterilised and unvaccinated dogs that might have sneaked in. 

If dogs from an area, say XYZ, are killed or relocated, dogs from other areas will move in. Those conducting the ABC programme will then have to return to XYZ, where the newcomers, with no other takers for the resources of the area, will have proliferated rapidly, and begin neutering all over again. Indeed, the experience of XYZ will be repeated in all other areas and the exercise of sterlising and vaccinating stray dogs will have to be carried on indefinitely.

Not surprisingly, Dr K. Bogel, Chief Veterinary, Public Health, Division of Communicable diseases, World Health Organization (WHO), Switzerland, and John Hoyt, then President, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), as well as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), made this clear in their joint preface to the Guidelines for Dog Population Management (Henceforth Guidelines), released by the WHO and WSPA in May 1990. They stated, “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 find that the destruction had to continue, year after year, with no end in sight.”

According to the Guidelines, killing was practiced in the past to a large extent “simply because knowledge of the composition and dynamics of dog populations” as well as “crucial data on the density, composition and turnover of dog population” were lacking”. These add, “Removal and killing of dogs should never be considered as the most effective way of dealing with the problem of surplus dogs in the community: It has no effect on the root cause of the problem, which is over-production of dogs.

Of course, far from advocating the killing or removal of stray dogs, the Chairperson, AWBI, had asserted at his press conference on June 14, “We will take stringent action” if animals were driven out “while establishing Smart Cities.” Unless, however, clarified carefully, Governments and local self-governing institutions like municipalities may interpret his talk of providing hostels/shelters for animals, including stray dogs, as a call for setting up pounds for incarcerating them. Besides being worse than death for free roaming strays, such a step will be disastrous for the implementation of the ABC programme, which cannot succeed if neutered and vaccinated dogs are not released at the places from which they had been picked up.

There is another aspect. Stray dogs that are familiar with their surroundings, know who is a friend and who is not, what spells danger, places where food and shelter are available, and have referral households that support them, are at peace with their environment. In contrast, stray dogs moving into a new area are often aggressive because they are under attack from local dogs, cannot distinguish between friend and foe, do not know where they can find food and shelter and are hence always on the edge.

The proposed hostels/ shelters should be for stray dogs that are too old and/or ill to fend for themselves, and puppies that have become separated from their mothers. Trying to herd all stray dogs in these will have disastrous consequences. The ABC programme constitutes the only effective and humane method of controlling stray dog populations. In its report, Technical Report Series 931, WHO’s Expert Consultation on Rabies, which met in Geneva from October 5 to 8, 2004, 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. 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 behaviour (such as dispersal and fighting) that facilitate the spread of rabies. The culling of dogs during these programmes may be counterproductive as sterilized, vaccinated dogs may be destroyed.”

Unfortunately, the Module cited above, points out, “Though the Animal Birth Control (Dog) Rules were notified in 2001, they are still not mass implemented with the seriousness they deserve. Hence, they need to be systematically implemented and enforced across the country, in a planned phase-wise manner in each state. Sporadic unplanned efforts do not ordinarily show the desired results.” The AWBI’s first task would be to ensure the programme’s large-scale, India-wide implementation. For this to happen, many more neutering centres will have to be established and a sufficient number of veterinary surgeons trained in the “side slip” method of neutering bitches, which involves taking the ovaries out through a small incision in the flank, and which will ensure early post-surgery release. All this would require a significant increase in the allocation of funds for the ABC programme, and the AWBI should do everything possible to ensure that it comes.

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