Irresponsible reporting on dog bites may backfire, warn Kerala activists

While a section of the media may have gone overboard while reporting on dog bites, data shows that rabies deaths in Kerala have been doubling since 2020, reversing the trend post 2011.
Street dogs
Street dogs

Print and TV media in Kerala has been filled with the news and visuals of dog attacks in the past few weeks. Animal rights activists are of the view that media coverage of the issue has led to mass hysteria and created hostile sentiments in humans towards street dogs. Calls for massive culling of dogs are being made almost every day. Instead of sternly focussing on the failed implementation of the animal birth control (ABC) programme, media reports serve to create fear and panic among audiences, they allege.

“Instead of working towards a sustainable solution, the media has instilled in people’s minds a fear for their lives,” said Sally Varma, who is an honorary animal welfare officer with the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). She added that even if a media house was taking a neutral stand on the topic, the repeated playing of visuals of dog attacks on television contributes to the paranoia.

“There are instances where an increase in dog bites have been reported from the same areas. It is likely that people in the area have turned hostile towards all street dogs there,” said Angels Nair, general secretary of the Animals Legal Force Integration.

His panchayat Rayamangalam does not face any such issues as the dogs there are regularly fed, said Angel. Recently, at least four cases of dog bites have been reported from Arakkinar in Kozhikode district in the past four days. Aggression in dogs is often the result of what dogs perceives as threats or territorial factors.

Rabies deaths have doubled every year since 2020

While a section of the media may have not highlighted the problem of bad policy measures while reporting on the attacks, data shows that rabies deaths in Kerala have been doubling since 2020, reversing the trend post 2011. From five deaths in 2020, the number jumped up to 11 in 2021. A total of 21 deaths have been reported in the first eight months of 2022 alone. This along with data on dog bites over the past few years, point towards the failure in the state’s ABC programme. 

Data on deaths from the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI) show that the state reported 10 rabies deaths in 2010. It registered a sharp fall to one in the year 2011 and the numbers stayed in single digits till 2020. However, this is inconsistent with the figures stated in an RTI reply by the Kerala government's Department of Health. It stated that 42 deaths were reported from April 1, 2016 to July 25, 2021. 

The DHS data on communicable diseases available on their website does not include rabies deaths until 2019. The CBHI has published only provisional numbers for 2020, which is four and is at slight variance with the DHS figure which has a count of five.

An RTI reply from Kerala’s Health Department quoted by The New Indian Express in September 2021 shows that incidents of dog bites increased from 1.35 lakh in 2016 to 1.6 lakh in 2020. Another report by the Times of India says that this jumped to 2.21 lakh in 2021. The report also says that 1.21 lakh dog bites were reported by August 2022. The National Action Plan for Dog Mediated Rabies Elimination from India by 2030 measured dog bites per million population from 2014 to 2020, excluding 2017. It says that Kerala reported between 2,993 and 5,032 cases per million population from 2014 to 2016. The numbers fell to between 1,000 and 2,993 per million population from 2018 to 2020. 

Media narrative compounding the issue

Sreedevi, who is a People for Animals (PFA) trustee, said that even harmless dogs lying on the roadside are now perceived as dangerous beings, thanks to the media narrative. “Absolutely baseless statements such as that mutations in dogs are causing them to evolve back into wolves are being made. PFA will submit an evidence-based report on the media’s role in the increase in attacks in the Supreme Court during the upcoming hearing,” she said. The Court is slated to hear the appeal for interim relief in the street dog issue on September 28. 

“The discretion that media houses show in reporting other instances of violence seems lacking here. It is a clear violation of journalistic ethics,” she argued. She also expressed suspicion regarding manipulation of visuals since the events before the attacks are never shown, and hence the reason behind the dogs’ aggression is never brought to light.

Official records say that 21 people died of rabies this year. But only five of them had received vaccinations. According to Sally, effective implementation of the ABC programme, along with responsible pet ownership, promoting adoption of indie dogs, as well as proper waste management, form the ideal sustainable solution. 

ABC not effective

ABC can successfully eliminate mating and maternal aggression. But the programme has been far from effective in Kerala. The standard operating procedure (SOP) prescribed by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) is seldom followed, activists alleged. When the programme was run by Kudumbashree, it was accused of using unqualified persons in capturing, neutering and releasing the dogs. This resulted in sloppy surgeries, dogs with unhealed wounds being released on the streets, and dogs being released at places other than from where they were picked up. There have even been reports of supposedly neutered dogs giving birth. Sreedevi alleged that matters were so bad in some places dogs were stitched up by tailors post-surgery. The High Court ordered the state government to prevent Kudumbashree units from undertaking ABC procedures in December 2021.

“Most street dogs in Kerala experience human touch for the first time when they are captured for ABC or vaccination. Often, the poor handling of the procedure and releasing the dogs in different areas from where they were caught, can make dogs perceive humans as threats, and even make them aggressive towards them in the future. This is where the Kudumbashree ran into problems in Kerala. The agency did not have recognition from the Animal Welfare Board of India and no dog catchers trained in humane handling,” Sally said.

“The sole human experience of the dog gets defined by extreme pain, hunger, thirst and relocation to a strange place. All this will lead to hostility,” Sreedevi said. The monitoring committees, consisting of the district collector, veterinarians and representatives of animal welfare organisations, responsible for overseeing the ABC programme, are seldom summoned, she added.

The immediate solutions put forth involve either culling all street dogs or housing them in shelters. In fact, news anchors were seen actively pushing for culling during debates. Neither of these solutions are sustainable, activists argued. Shelters run by the panchayat or other government initiatives without proper monitoring will undoubtedly be like a dumping ground, Sally said. “Dogs from different territories, possibly with different injuries will be housed together. Fights will break out, and it will be a breeding ground for infections. Who will be responsible for their upkeep?” she asked.

According to her, the only immediate solution is a vaccination drive for street dogs across the state.

Responsible reporting on the issue should compare current instances of dog bites with data from the past, Sreedevi said. “Media reports on the issue should make clear the number of domestic bites, third degree bites, or nibbles or play bites that make up the total number of dog bites. Official reports have shown that about 63% of reported bites were domestic,” she said. Reports should not cause more agitation, as increased agitation is sure to lead to increased dog bites, she added.

Sally also said that most street dogs in Kerala are abandoned. These dogs are rarely vaccinated or sterilised, resulting in more dogs on the street. “If more people adopt indie dogs from the street and give them loving homes, instead of buying breed dogs, it will help to a large extent to bring down the number of dogs on the street, along with all the other measures undertaken,” she said. Education and awareness among the general public is also important. “Parents of young children advise them to carry stones or sticks when they go out. This is the exact opposite of what should be done,” Sally added.

Animal welfare activists feel that well-fed, vaccinated and sterilised community dogs on their streets pose no threat to humans and they can coexist with each other. The assurance of feed makes them calm. Vaccination of street dogs also becomes easier when they are friendly. Speaking from her personal experience, Sreedevi said, “Regular feeding will reduce aggression among dogs by almost 70%.” 

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