“We get calls every day about many abandoned puppies. However, many animal welfare organisations have long crossed their threshold to accept more dogs,” said an animal welfare activist.

A woman, wearing a red kurti and face mask, feeds stray dogs at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi. Representative image/PTI
Delve Animal Cruelty Wednesday, November 17, 2021 - 15:51

On a rainy day on October 22, 2021, Prajish found five newborn female puppies abandoned in a lonely building near NSS Engineering College in Kerala’s Palakkad district. He managed to feed the puppies, however, the weaker one among them died a day later. Prajish had a tough task ahead — finding new homes for the surviving four female puppies. “I aggressively posted on social media for three days and informed the residents in my area, but nobody wanted female dogs as they didn’t want to take the responsibility of neutering them,” says the 29-year-old resident of Athira Nagar in Palakkad. Finally, Pradeep Payyur, who runs a dog shelter in Palakkad’s Koottupatha, took in the puppies. One of the female dogs at the shelter, Oonthi, fed the puppies.

The scramble to feed and find a home for such abandoned dogs and puppies, especially female dogs, has become a routine yet draining affair for animal lovers and organisations engaged in animal rescue. They are happy to feed and care for strays and find it their calling. However, it becomes quite taxing — personally and financially — when the number of dogs keeps rising. This problem, they said, could be solved if the stray dog population is controlled through a timely and effective sterilisation programme, which is, procedurally, executed by the state-run Animal Birth Control (ABC) centres.

However, several animal welfare activists whom TNM spoke to, pointed to grave systemic cracks in the ABC programmes, which have only left more hapless dogs on the street. While the negligence of state and local government officials amounts to animal cruelty, the state apathy towards the sterilisation programme is also worrying. The onus ultimately falls on animal welfare organisations, and a few empathetic citizens, to rescue, shelter, nurture, sterilise and vaccinate the dogs.

“It has become a burden we cannot afford,” says 73-year-old Thankachi, who is a member of People For Animals, an animal welfare organisation in Kollam district. She also donates most of her salary to the organisation, which focuses on animal welfare and rescue.

Thankachi and other animal lovers and activists put a lot of time and money into rescuing and caring for strays and abandoned pets. In fact, Pradeep Payyur claims that he has mortgaged his mother’s gold to be able to bear his extra expenses apart from the donations he receives. These are just a handful of animal lovers who selflessly dedicate their entire lives towards the welfare of animals, while hoping for government support.

The ABC programme in Kerala

As dogs breed many times, contract diseases/infections and end up being abandoned, residents often view them as a “menace.” Several global organisations and courts have been pushing sterilisation as the practical solution to control the street dog population and eliminate rabies.

In India, Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, stipulates that the population of street dogs should be controlled by local authorities through the ABC programmes, with the participation of animal welfare organisations and private individuals. It also stipulates that the dogs captured for sterilising or neutering should be released in the same locality or place where they were captured. Killing or relocating stray dogs is deemed illegal.

Local government bodies, which run the ABC centres at district, municipal and panchayat levels, work with veterinarians, citizens and animal welfare organisations to capture stray dogs for sterilisation, treat them if required and release them back to their original location soon after their recovery. At the centre, the dogs must be assured healthy accommodation, food and water, the law states. The monitoring committee of the ABC programme must reimburse animal welfare organisations engaged in the sterilisation programme. For every ABC centre, there is an implementing officer and a veterinary surgeon.

The Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme comes under the purview of the State Animal Welfare Board (SAWB). Incidentally, many states in India are yet to constitute an animal welfare board. In Kerala, the term of the previous SAWB expired in March 2021. However, no committee was reconstituted until the Kerala High Court issued an order in the case “In Re: Bruno” (dated July 2, 2021) after Bruno, a pet dog, was brutally tortured and beaten to death in Thiruvananthapuram’s Vizhinjam.

Read: Kerala HC renames suo moto case as In Re: Bruno as tribute to dog brutally killed

J Chinjurani, Kerala Minister for Animal Husbandry and Dairy Development, heads the 20-member State Animal Welfare Board, which includes officials from various departments (including local self-government and forest) as well as members engaged in animal welfare activities. The four members from the field of animal welfare activities who are part of the SAWB are G Krishnaprasad, president of Kerala elephant owners association; KT Augustine, secretary, Thrissur Canine Club; Maria, a member of People For Animals; and EC Satheeshan of Kozhikode.

However, many animal rights activists allege that the committee is neither functional nor includes members who genuinely care for animal welfare. “Barring one member, elephant owners, dog breeders and doctors with checkered history are all now part of the ASWB," alleges MN Jayachandran, Secretary of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Idukki.

Read: Viral video on illegal elephant trading in Kerala sheds light on alleged 'mafia' link

How ABC programme fails dogs

Per the rule, the animal welfare organisations should be reimbursed the expenses of sterilisation/immunisation at a rate to be fixed by the Committee. However, when TNM spoke to at least three such organisations, they denied receiving such reimbursement.

According to Angels Nair, the general secretary of Animal Legit Force Integration (an animal welfare organisation handling legal battles against animal cruelty), in most districts, the Zilla Kudumbashree Mission has been part of the monitoring committee, handling the funds for the programme since 2018. However, in a recent suo motu public interest litigation, the Kerala High Court is reviewing whether the members of the Kudumbashree units have the expertise and facilities to carry out the sterilisation programme. There have also been several allegations of mismanagement and lapses in the sterilisation surgery by Kudumbashree.

The High Court has also directed local self-government institutions to suspend the transfer of funds to Kudumbashree units until further order. Since August 2021, the fundings to these units have been suspended, and the units in some districts have been functioning with existing funds.

According to Joju Davis, the public relations officer at the Animal Husbandry Department in Palakkad, the animal birth control programme is an expensive affair. “An ordinary citizen might not be able to afford it,” he said. “The expenses for neutering, salary for the dog catchers, attenders and veterinarian, and other purchases are being taken care of by the government. Funds are allotted at various levels, such as gram panchayat, block panchayats and municipalities,” he added.

In the absence of a monitoring structure to ensure sterilisation and resource allocation, activists said the burden eventually falls on them. “We get calls every day about many [abandoned] puppies. However, most of the Animal Welfare Organisations have long crossed their threshold to accept more dogs,” said Preeti Sreevalsan, the founder of PAWS, a private Animal Welfare Organisation in Thrissur.

Allegations of animal cruelty

Incidentally, the Animal Husbandry Department had once set the ABC programme in Palakkad district as a benchmark for the rest of the state. “On a district level, the ABC programme was first started in Palakkad district. We used to set a target of 250-300 dogs per month for every Taluk, and we used to achieve that target,” said Dr Venugopal, the veterinary surgeon who had spearheaded the ABC programme in Palakkad in 2015, which had garnered national attention then. “We used to follow procedures that were close to WHO standards once.”

According to Joju Davis, “Currently, there are around 65,000 stray dogs in Palakkad. Till September 2021, we neutered around 42,000 dogs.”

However, a stellar record of the past, and shining numbers of today in Palakkad, has another side. The dilapidated state of the empty kennels at the ABC centre in Palakkad show the sorry state of affairs of the programme. When TNM visited the centre, we found that the kennels had broken meshes, and were placed out in the open.

The kennels at an ABC Centre in Palakkad

A stray dog post operation at the ABC centre in Palakkad

In many instances, animal welfare organisations function as the system of checks and balances. Arunraj, an animal activist based in Thiruvananthapuram, recalled a recent incident when he, along with a group of animal welfare activists, visited a state-run sterilisation centre in Vandithadam, Thiruvananthapuram. They found about 95 dogs caged at the shelter, with a majority of them unhealthy, emaciated, with bent legs and broken spirits. It had kennels where a dog could barely stand, with two or more dogs crammed into one space — a clear violation of section 7 (8) of the ABC (Dogs) Rules.

The team also suspected that some dogs died and were buried there. According to Arunraj, though the police initially refused to believe it, the team and the police officials reached the backyard of the sterilisation centre on October 27 and found heaps of fresh soil. “As we dug, we found two carcasses of dogs, which were probably only two or three days old, infested with maggots,” Arunraj recalled. In the video that one of the activists shot, a woman activist could be heard crying, “Is it [the dog] still alive?”

Dr Kiran, a veterinary doctor at the Vandithadam ABC centre, maintained that infected dogs arrive at the ABC centre nearly every day, and “such dogs would die irrespective of the treatment or surgery.” According to Dr Kiran, the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation doesn’t own a crematorium, and so the bodies of the dogs are buried in the backyard of the premises.

When TNM spoke to Dr Ponnunni, a veterinary surgeon in Palakkad, he said that the dogs are released on the third day after they are caught for sterilisation and/or vaccination. “The chances of their death due to infection or other diseases are very rare; less than 1% probably,” he said, adding his centre has operated on more than 7,000 dogs.

“Incidentally, the police initially could not register a case against the ABC centre officials (including the implementation officer and the vet surgeon), as most offences under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act are not cognisable," said Indira, an animal lover from Thiruvananthapuram who was part of Arunraj’s team that visited the Vandithadam ABC centre.

The Act has several provisions under section 11 to hold a person accountable —  Section 11(1)(e) [confining an animal in a space that prevents free movement], section 11(1)(h) [providing sufficient food, drink or shelter] and section 11(1)(j) [willfully allowing a sick animal to go at large or die in street]. However, these offences are non-cognisable. “This means, the police can accept a complaint, but they cannot register unless they get orders from the Magistrate court,” said Indira, adding, “In the case of the Vandithadam shelter, we moved a petition in the Neyyattinkara court to issue orders to exhume the bodies. We suspect there are mass graves there.”

The Magistrate later directed the police station concerned to register the case and take action, following which a panel of veterinary doctors, an executive magistrate and police officials exhumed 10 bodies on Wednesday, November 10.

A few animal rights activists also alleged that residents approach ABC programme members to relocate or remove the stray dogs from their neighbourhood.

A few alleged that they are aware of the misdeeds of the ABC officials. “They probably want to reduce their work burden. However, I do not speak up fearing hostility from cadres of a political party in Kerala,” said Pranesh (name changed), who feeds about 70 strays every day at a few localities in Thiruvananthapuram. Like Pranesh, other activists, too, refused to mention the party on record fearing retaliation. Even during the search at the Vandithadam centre, the party cadre had intervened and stopped it, despite the police presence, they alleged.

“If I complain and face backlash, I may lose my job. Then, it will not be just me, but the dogs I feed, too, will suffer,” said Pranesh. 

Hemanth Sreekumar is an independent journalist who has contributed to numerous publications. A former travel anchor with Channel'D, Dubai, he has previously worked with TV9 (News9) in Bengaluru. He is currently based in Palakkad.

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