In the last four months, there have been at least seven deaths due to stray dog bites in Kerala. It has now raised panic among the people, leaving the government to scramble for options to bring the situation under control. According to reports, this year alone, there have been at least one lakh people who were bitten by stray dogs and 21 deaths due to it. There are approximately 2,50,000 stray dogs throughout the state.

According to a report by the World Health Organization, India is endemic for rabies and accounts for 36 per cent of the world's rabies related deaths. Although there is no specific data, the WHO estimates that there are about 18,000 to 20,000 deaths every year. It also says that about 30-60 percent of the reported rabies cases and deaths in India occur in children under the age of 15 years as the attacks often go unreported.

However, what's been very concerning over the last few months is that out of the 21 deaths in Kerala this year, five received their anti-rabies vaccines. Most recently, the death of a 12-year-old girl named Abhirami has sparked an outrage, with people demanding quick solutions to this issue that has been affecting the people for several years now.

Earlier this month, Abhirami had stepped out of her home to buy milk when a stray dog attacked her and bit her arms, legs and eyes. She had received three doses of the anti-rabies vaccines and was put on ventilator support. Despite all that, she died on September 5. This has again raised questions about the efficacy of the vaccines.

While the locals are demanding a solution to this, the Kerala government has found itself in a difficult situation as there are several animal rights issues to be considered as well. On one hand, the public are demanding solutions like culling the ferocious dogs, and on the other hand animal lovers are opposing measures the government suggests to tackle it.

The issue has been debated far too long in Kerala, but has now caught the attention of the Supreme court, after a Public Interest Litigation was filed by advocate VK Biju soon after Abhirami's death, demanding that the apex court give directives to the state to resolve it.

The bench comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna and JK Maheshwari were hearing appeals against the 2015 Kerala judgment which allowed for the capturing and culling of stray dogs. The bench remarked that while people who feed stray dogs should be allowed to do so, they should also be held responsible for vaccinating them and bearing the costs if anyone is attacked.

The court has scheduled the matter for further hearing on September 28 and allowed animal rights groups to intervene. also said that the court would be open to hearing suggestions to resolve the issue. An interim order will be announced on September 30. Soon after the hearing, the Kerala government held a high-level meeting to discuss possible solutions.

The Supreme Court also orally suggested that the Kerala government should work towards finding a middle ground between tackling the issue and observing animal rights. It also suggested that people who feed stray dogs could be made responsible for vaccinating them and bearing costs if somebody is attacked by the animal.

Hearing another PIL against cruelty to animals, the Kerala High Court asked the state government to file a report on what steps it intends to take with regard to identifying, containing and removing stray and aggressive dogs from public places. It also directed the government to ensure that the citizens do not take law into their own hands, as reports had emerged of several dogs found dead allegedly due to intentional poisoning.

There had been several reports of citizens attempting to kill the stray dogs as panic spread across the state. While animal activists claim that these acts are inhumane, many locals claim that they cannot be blamed for taking matters into their own hands to protect their lives.

On Friday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urged the people not to take measures to get rid of the issue on their own and said poisoning, tying up or beating up stray dogs would not solve the issue. He also urged pet owners to ensure their pet dogs are kept at home and not let out on the streets. He added that registration of pet dogs will soon be made mandatory in the state and that the local panchayats would give vaccination certificates within three days of completion of vaccination of domestic dogs.

There have been several protests in the past demanding action. In 2016, Kochouseph Chittilappilly, chairman of the Kochi-based V-Guard business group had initiated the Stray Dog Free Movement, a massive campaign across the state which demanded legislation and action against the risks posed by stray dogs. He had organised hunger strikes to push for the culling of rabies-infected dogs. Protestors claimed that they should be allowed to kill dogs that threatened human life.

After the Supreme Court's directive to the state government to come up with a solution, a high-level meeting was held this week, chaired by MB Rajesh, Minister of Local Self-Government. According to Rajesh, there were some of the key decisions taken at the meeting.

He said, "We have launched an immediate action plan to tackle the issue of stray dogs. Our focus is on vaccinating all the stray rocks, intensifying the Animal Birth Control programme and providing shelter for stray dogs in order to reduce the population. We have planned to conduct a massive vaccination drive for stray dogs, which will begin on September 20 and is expected to be completed within one month. We aim to vaccinate all the stray dogs with the help of the veterinary department and the Veterinary university. We currently have six lakh doses of vaccines. More doses will be procured."

He added that the emergency measures are being taken to address the fear among the public, however there are not enough trained dog catchers. To address this, volunteers and members of Kudambashree will be trained by the veterinary university to catch dogs. The volunteer force that was formed after the 2016 floods and the COVID-19 outbreak will be reactivated for this purpose. He added that the training for this has already begun. The next step would be to set up dog shelters in all panchayats and blocks.

The government will also take immediate action to clear up waste dumps from public spaces as this has been found to be a major factor in the increasing number of stray dogs.

According to Joel Lal, a resident of Kochi, "Every day we see around 10 stray dogs. They mostly follow and try to attack school children. I have noticed that earlier they used to regularly manage waste, but nowadays, we don't see it happening as much. The improper management of food waste is the main issue. Wherever there is food waste, the stray dogs gather and this leads to more breeding. Animal lovers also keep feeding and the dogs will keep coming there. If there's a clean area, they won't gather there as much."

According to Dr Irshad A, State General Secretary, Kerala chapter of the Indian Veterinary Association, the main solution would be to control the population. He said, "As part of IVA Kerala, our opinion is that there is an Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme that we have been following since 2001 in Kerala. Some Local Self Government Departments (LSGD) have even been following it since 1991. If we want to tackle this issue, we have to follow the animal birth control programmes continuously, especially at the block levels."

He added, "there should be a strict licensing protocol or machinery that works in the state. What we are seeing now is that owners purchase or get a pup and take care of them for a period. But after sometime, they lose interest and simply untie and leave near their homes or their streets. All pet owners should get a license and take care of it till the end of the animal's life. LSGDs should take care of the licensing protocol. There should also be anti-rabies vaccination drives regularly at the LSGD level. Every year it has to be repeated until we get a zero rabies status."

"If food is available unlimited, they will breed uncontrollably and their population will increase. We have to control this because our community may not be able to tolerate that. Among people also, some are very affectionate to animals, some are not. There will always be some human animal conflicts. When the population of animals increases, these conflicts will also increase," Irshad said.

He added, "Until last year, Kudambashree was doing the anti rabies drives along with the ABC programme. But when they were banned from doing it, the stray dog population increased drastically. More conflicts are happening now. So, the first step is to reduce the population or not allow the population to increase. If the population is controlled, stray dogs will easily coexist with humans."

However, he added that the immediate solution to the issue is that aggressive and ferocious dogs should be captured and kept in a shelter. He added, "There is a successful model in Goa which was operated by Mission Rabies. So our animal husbandry department as well as IVA are planning to implement a similar model in Kerala. We will be meeting with them this month, after which we will decide on how exactly it should be implemented."

To address the issue of the ineffectiveness of anti-rabies vaccines in some cases, the government has also constituted an expert committee to look into it. The Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan directed the health minister Veena George to set up a panel to study the potency of the anti-rabies vaccine that is currently being distributed throughout the state by the Kerala Medical Services Corporation.

According to reports, the health minister has since then ordered a complete genomic analysis of the rabies virus found in the state. She also said that all samples of patients taken for the genomic analysis will be sent to the National Institute of Pune for further analysis and that the government would take steps based on the finding." Dr Irshad added that around 83,000 vials were purchased last year and around 1000 vials are left in the department.

There are also some legal hassles that the government is facing before they can go ahead with their action plan. MB Rajesh said that the government would be seeking relief from the Supreme Court to cull mad and ferocious dogs. He said, "We are not at all for culling stray dogs. But there is nothing else we can do about mad and ferocious dogs. They will die anyway within a few days."

"We are also seeking permission to allow Kudumbashree to carry out the ABC programme. Earlier they used to do it and it was very effective. Then the Supreme Court passed an interim order banning them from doing it as they didn't get the approval from the Animal Welfare Control Board. They had helped massively in carrying out the programme until then. In four years, they had vaccinated almost 80,000 dogs. The Supreme Court order was a massive setback."

Dog lovers however and animal rights activists however have been vehemently opposing the Kerala government's decision to cull 'aggressive' and rabies-infected dogs. Some of the activists have approached the Supreme Court, seeking their directives to find alternative solutions that would also protect the rights of animals. Activists have been saying that if the court allowed culling of the strays, it would be defying the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, that restricts killing of any animal (including stray dogs) by any method.

Some organisations like the Better Kochi Response Group (BKRG) have instead come up with completely different approaches to tackle the issue. But the actual feasibility is yet to be understood. The NGO has suggested that all stray dogs should be captured and put in an uninhabited island near Kochi. This would keep them away from the public while also ensuring that they are sheltered and looked after. Gopakumar, President of the BKRG said that never before have stray dogs posed such a threat to human and other animal life and that the government should get their act together.

He said that even sterilised strays should be taken to the island. The action plan that was suggested was to first concentrate on catching female dogs and test them for any infection or rabies, then bring all the female dogs to the island and ensure that they are taken care of with adequate food and water. The male dogs would gradually be added to the island after they are sterilised with the help of the ABC programmed. With this, the island would finally have male and female dogs but the number will not increase since the male dogs are sterilised.

According to the model plan, food for the dogs can be arranged from leftovers of hotels around the area. It was also suggested that the government provide boats and other necessary arrangements for transporting food to the island. If this plan is followed, the NGO said that the stray dog issue could be wiped out in about ten years as they normally live only 10 to 12 years and would have a natural death by then. It also recommended a separate crematorium for dogs that could be built on the island itself.

For food and water provisions, the NGO suggested that arrangements could be made through underwater pipes and electric connections. High pressure jets for cleaning and high finish tiles for food dispensing areas and a small space for vets to examine the dogs if there is any need were also part of the proposal.

The NGO also identified some uninhabited islands for the proposal and said that once the island was developed, strict rules and controls for keeping pet dogs should be implemented. The plan was suggested as according to the NGO, the government's plan of capturing street dogs and sterilising them under the ABC programme won't be as effective as it would be a very slow process as dogs multiply very fast. It also said that if the government's plan was implemented, the problem of rabies would persist as dogs are left back on the streets.

The Kerala government has also decided to invoke provisions of the Disaster Management Act to take over buildings to set up temporary shelters for street dogs. Under Section 65 of the Disaster Management Act, vacant buildings and premises owned by the government, except local bodies, could be taken over to be used as temporary shelters. The government is planning to arrange over 330 such shelters in over 660 hotspots. Volunteers would be arranged to feed and care for the dogs. The government has also announced rewards for dog catchers who could bring stray dogs to the shelter.

The government also plans to conduct training programmes for school authorities and students on topics like how not to provoke a stray dog attack, how to respond in case of an attack and first aid practices.

All Photographs - KP Vishnu Prasad