No Street for Street Dogs?
Dog feeding and biting do not necessarily have a causal relationship, the issue is learning how to coexist peacefully
On November 16 2022, the Supreme Court of India, put a stay on the order of the Nagpur High Court (HC), which prohibited and penalised anyone who fed a street dog. The SC explained that "You cannot insist that people who want to feed them must adopt them".
This is a huge relief to me as a citizen of India, a country that has a legacy of compassion and kindness before cruelty and violence, including towards animals. It reassures me that we are progressive in our thoughts for their overall well-being and that of our children and society.
Such orders can have far-reaching consequences, as people choose to interpret the law as they see fit. When the Nagpur HC order came out, immediately, some resident welfare associations (RWAs) went into action laying down what they thought was the law. Those community members who fed dogs were suddenly ostracised with purpose and confidence in an environment of fear.
In recent years, there have been a slew of cases against or for the existence of street dogs with varying orders, almost all of which have been compassionate in recognition of the illegality of killing street dogs and the need to balance the welfare of street dogs with public safety. The recent Nagpur High Court order raises several moral, rights-based issues and questions.
The issue of feeding dogs isn't the core issue. Dog feeding and biting do not necessarily have a causal relationship. The issue is learning how to coexist peacefully and tolerantly with a species that thrives due to the outcomes of human settlement – street dogs. Our relationship with dogs is a long-standing one and it is changing rapidly as our cities change and grow.
We must stop making the issue about dogs versus humans and vice versa. It is about coexistence. It is a mistake to assume that the way of the West, that taking them into homes or putting them into shelters or euthanising them is the ultimate solution.
Shelters are not the solution and never will be. Adoption of select dogs could certainly help alleviate the issue, but these must be carefully implemented and regulated, as certain homes can also become places of extreme cruelty including but not limited to hoarding, which needs to be recognised as an animal welfare issue.
When designing 'smart' cities, how can we plan for citizens living peacefully with street dogs? Can India move forward and remain compassionate? Where do we start the cycle of positive change? The recent judgement by the Delhi High Court which also included laying down some guidelines for resident welfare associations, may be the start of the change.
Through Humane Society International/India's community engagement program called Abhay Sankalp – a resolution to be free from fear, the goal is to create a peaceful environment for both animals and people. This program runs alongside the municipality funded Animal Birth Control (ABC) projects in Lucknow, Dehradun, Rishikesh and Vadodara, acknowledging that while dogs must be able to live where they are born, people have an equal right to a safe neighborhood.
The ABC programs should include not only dog sterilisation, but also include community-led solutions to resolve dog-related conflict. These can include workshops on dog behaviour, education on rabies prevention, avoiding dog bites and developing responsible dog feeding habits such as locating water and feeding spots in a space which is convenient to all and ensuring streets dogs do not depend on solely one person for their food.
An important consideration is having a mechanism whereby dog-related complaints from the public can be mitigated or addressed. Municipalities now have various ways people can submit complaints or concerns pertaining to street dogs – apps, websites, letters, and helplines.
In our experience, a city the size of Lucknow can field more than 500 calls a month pertaining to street dogs. Resolving these issues can be done through a variety of ways – patiently listening to people about their stresses due to street dogs, counseling and providing information on the law on relocation (viz a dog cannot be relocated from where it lives on the street), to going to meet the people who have called in with their issue - visiting the location and meeting with residents. The ultimate intervention would be to pick up the dogs for sterilisation and vaccination and return them to the location.
It wouldn't be wrong to assume that similar issues arise in Nagpur, as they do in Lucknow and other cities where we work. This would mean that there is an opportunity to resolve issues peacefully.
In cases of suspected rabies, or allegedly aggressive or biting dogs, along with what the law prescribes, there can be innovative and resourceful ways to handle these. To ensure the veracity and genuinity of complaints, videos and last/ frequently visited locations of the suspected rabid or aggressive dogs can be requested before sending in a team, or pictures of bites if and where possible. This reduces the chance of fake calls, wasted resources, and helps address real issues swiftly.
Like with any other issue, information, outreach and engagement are important to bring about change. So, it must be for the issues regarding street dogs. Urban local bodies must put out information, billboards, advertisements, and use social media platforms to educate the public about the animal birth control process, laws pertaining to street dogs, how street dog feeding should be done, where one can get the post-bite rabies prophylaxis and what should be done if a dog bites, both for the human and the dog.
There are bite cases from pet dogs too, which are often unreported, and this is indicative of the need for proper training and socialization of pets and more responsible pet ownership. In the cases of pets, there is even less being done in the country to ensure a harmonious living.
While pet ownership is rapidly growing, the regulations and enforcement pertaining to pets, breeding, and pet shops are far from ideal. Street dog or pet dog, the need of the hour is to define the new boundaries within which we live, which will ensure a safe, healthy environment for both people and dogs.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 continues to guide us for in its very essence it is about the protection of life and the prevention of unnecessary pain and suffering. While we strive to achieve a safer, smarter, healthier India, may we never forget the compassionate India we live in and our fundamental duty to ensure compassion for all creatures.
Keren Nazareth is the director for the Companion Animals and Engagement program of HSI/India. Views are the author's own.