Stop being dogmatic: Kerala needs a middle ground in the stray dog debate

The discourse around Kerala’s stray dog problem has been quite polarized: it has boiled down to animal lovers/activists vs. ‘others’.
Stop being dogmatic: Kerala needs a middle ground in the stray dog debate
Stop being dogmatic: Kerala needs a middle ground in the stray dog debate
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In August, a 65-year-old woman was mauled to death by stray dogs in Thiruvananthapuram. In a separate incident later, eight others were attacked by stray dogs and suffered serious injuries. There were also incidents of children as young as four being attacked by dogs in Kerala. The ‘stray dog menace’ has been causing much furor in the state ever since.

According to Kerala’s State Health Department, the number of cases of stray dog bites went down in 2015 from 2014 and 10 of these resulted in deaths in both years, respectively. And till August this year, four people had died of dog bites in Kerala and over 51,000 had been bitten.

The discourse around Kerala’s stray dog problem has been quite polarized: it has boiled down to animal lovers/activists vs. ‘others’, which include those who want the dangerous stray dogs culled as well as those who want indiscriminate culling.

The problem of creating binaries is that there is no room left for grey areas. On the one hand, there is considerable public anger and fear of the brutality of some of these dog attacks, which animal rights activists are accused of ignoring. On the other, animal rights activists accuse those calling for action as unsympathetic and cruel.

Nibu John, an advocate from Kerala, says an encounter with stray dogs caused him to meet with an accident. “A pack of dogs came in front of my bike. In an attempt to avoid hitting them, I ended up with a defunct bike, sprained hand and a few bruises,” he says.

He adds that while animal rights activists are calling for long-term solution, people are reacting with extreme measures because they cannot afford being mauled or bitten in their immediate reality. “My 10-year-old daughter is afraid of going alone to nearby shops. We will build a dam later, but what we now need is a boat to fight the flood that is hitting the roof,” he says.

Calls for mass culling as a way to tackle the stray dog problem have gotten much louder. Take for example a shocking incident on Monday, where members of the Youth Front (Mani) killed around 10 stray dogs and paraded them on a pole in Kottayam as a protest against Maneka Gandhi’s opposition to culling.

Nibu also points out how the discussion often takes the form of an anti-Kerala rhetoric, where the barbaric nature of the culling incidents is juxtaposed with the high literacy in the state. “A dog is not asking you to write your name when it comes after you. Being literate will not help when you have a stray breathing down your neck,” he argues.

In painting both sides black and white, there is vacuum where nuanced debate about solutions can be. So is there a middle ground which can be struck here?

Animal rights activist Antony Rubin denies that the issue is about animal welfare over human. “It's not animal rights vs human rights. It's the latter we're talking about too. In order to create a safe environment for ourselves, we need to tackle the problem at its root, a major part of which is waste management,” he says.

The Chennai-based activist explains that because of the indiscriminate dumping and open butchering, dogs are drawn to meat and raw blood. With the regular supply of food, dogs begin to live and breed there, making it their habitat.

Sally Kannan, a member of Humane Society International in Thrissur agrees. However, she concedes that dogs in Kerala have become more aggressive in the last two years and explains how we are also to blame.

“There are two problems here: the media has fuelled the fire against stray dogs. They often use pictures of dogs just sleeping on the road and go with sensationalist headlines. People will be scared. They start carrying sticks and stones and will often attack stray dogs when they see them. The dogs become more aggressive because even the friendly ones have been beaten at a point of time,” she says.

Sally also explains how there are three kinds of strays: the friendly ones, who tend to approach people harmlessly, the ones who are more scared and do not approach you because of past trauma and the third kind is the dangerous and aggressive one.

The problem with culling is that it doesn’t take into account this differentiation because it’s the first two who are easier to catch and hence, usually the ones who get killed, both Sally and Antony say. “And the terrain of Kerala is such that you cannot capture all stray dogs. Many of them will go and hide in forest areas here, out of sight,” Antony argues.

“Culling is like emptying a bucket elsewhere and temporarily dealing with the problem. You have to cut off the supply by closing off the tap,” insists Sally, referring to the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programs. “One bitch will give birth to about 24 puppies, so by sterilizing her and many like her, you are stopping hundreds of stray dogs being born into the streets,” she adds. Antony also says that ABC can help reduce aggression in stray dogs by controlling their hormones.

However, he also agrees that programs like this can take time. Sally concedes that it is important to acknowledge that everyone cannot love dogs and that incidents like these leave people feeling scared. “One thing we can do in the immediate future is create awareness about how one should behave when they see stray dogs. For instance, people are told to scare dogs with a stick when they see them. Things like these amount to wrong information being circulated,” she says.

(Follow the comments on this thread to understand how polarised the debate is.)

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