Updated |In the bustling Indian city of Kozhikode, many residents live in fear, terrorized by man’s best friend.
Packs of wild dogs have haunted India for centuries, but urbanization and pollution have recently made the problem more prevalent and more dangerous. Within the past three years, packs of strays have made residents of this densely populated coastal city at the southwestern tip of India feel like hostages. The dogs loll in the shade throughout the day, when temperatures can go well above 100 degrees, then begin to hunt and harass at dusk. The often-vicious canines block streets and sidewalks, destroying property and sometimes parking themselves on the steps of houses and growl at residents. “I fear for my life,” says Kavya Krishna, a high school student, “We can’t step out of the house. These dogs are biting and tearing mats, footwear, plastics and pipes… they are also making scratches on our car.”
The nation’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, passed in 1960, makes it a crime to “beat, kick, torture, mutilate, administer an injurious substance, or cruelly kill an animal,” so people have to be creative about how they protect themselves or they may end up behind bars. Shanta Shekar and many other residents of Kozhikode have lined the tops of their walls with broken glass, sharp nails or even barbed wire. She says the dogs that rummage through her garbage for food scraps leave behind enormous messes that are a hassle and a hazard for her and her family. Shekar says the dogs often fight over garbage—small scraps of food or chicken bones—which results in loud, high-pitched howling at night, along with barking and scratching at her door that keeps her family awake. “I have woken to bloodcurdling screams of dogs harassing each other,” she says. “I feel bad hurting the dogs because I know they are only trying to survive, but they trespass into my property and put my family in danger.”
The dominant breed is the Indian Pariah, a medium-sized, short-haired dog that often has relatively long legs and a curly tail. The strays travel in packs that sometimes grow as large as 50 dogs in India’s large cities, such as Bangalore and Mumbai. In Kozhikode, the pack size varies by neighborhood, but more people and more trash usually means more wild dogs. India’s Ministry of Health says there are more than 2,000 animal bites each year in Kozhikode. The Times of India recently reported that in the state of Kerala, about 100,000 people have been attacked by stray dogs since early 2015 and that nationally, over 16 million people are bitten each year. It also says India has about 20,000 deaths from rabies annually.
Sulochana Nair, a housemaid in Kozhikode, was bitten by a dog on her way to work. She was unable to locate the dog, so she had to take precautionary measures by receiving a series of rabies shots on a daily basis for about a month. “I’m extremely upset” she says. “Not only did I have to endure the pain of a maniac dog, but now I can’t go to work.”
Roots of the Problem, Attempts to Help
Wild dogs have been a menace in India for centuries, their numbers swelling as humans began creating towns and then cities, which offered plenty of shelter from the elements, and plenty of garbage to feed on. There was also a cultural basis for the crisis: For a very long time Hinduism was the dominant religion on the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka), and it teaches that all life as sacred. That meant no killing of strays. When the British ruled India, they had patience for religious restrictions, and the government supervised the killing of about 50,000 dogs per year, but the dogs bred faster than the Brits could kill them.
In 1990, a nationwide sterilization program was implemented. The Animal Birth Control program (ABC), developed by the World Health Organization, involves capturing dogs, spaying females and castrating males, vaccinating them, and then releasing them back into the wild. A one-year pilot program was run in 1994 in a small region north of Kozhikode, with approximately 1500 female dogs captured. The rate of rabies significantly declined, as did the wild dog population. Based on those results, the program was spread nationally. Bangalore’s ABC program sterilized more than 500 dogs per month in 2014.
Some cities, however, struggle to implement the program. They either don’t have the funds, or they don’t have enough trained professionals ready to join the battle. The government and NGOs have also not stepped in to help these smaller cities yet but are making their way toward them after the larger cities have been primarily addressed.
ABC has alleviated the problem in some cities, but not enough of them, and there was even a large-scale (and illegal) mutt massacre in Kozhikode in January of 2012 after multiple reports of a stray with rabies. In just four days, men captured and killed about 250 dogs—some were snared with nooses and choked, others electrocuted or beaten with sticks and clubs. The local government even paid a bounty for each carcass. The slaughter was only stopped when residents signed a petition, protesting that killing dogs was illegal and immoral.
That vigilante-like round-up in Kozhikode a few years ago barely made a dent in the population, and a deep hatred for the dogs still festers. It has prompted some residents to retaliate. They throw rocks from balconies as the dogs roam the streets. “I had to sew a pocket on the side of my bike to keep rocks inside so that I can throw them at the dogs that follow or chase me,” says a local worker who wanted to remain anonymous. “These treacherous and disgusting dogs are becoming a real problem.”
The picture accompanying this article has been changed.