India is full of dogs. Full of gorgeous, terrifying, menacing, cute, mad, hungry, desperate, rabid, emaciated, sleek, playful and murderous dogs. They are everywhere, in the way that Rome is full of cats, and then some.
According to Wikipedia (I struggled to find any useful figures elsewhere)
“India has a population of feral dogs numbering in the tens of millions.”
This huge population is largely made up of so-called Indian Pariah dogs, a breed which is estimated to have existed for roughly 14,000 years, and mixed-breed mongrels descended from pure-bred dogs that have mated with the pariahs. The abundance of exposed garbage and the tendency to keep dogs as free-roaming pets has created conditions very favourable to sustaining a large dog population. As India’s urban population continues to grow, so does the urban dog population. That’s not only a potential hazard, but a lot of extra mouths to feed.
Dogs in India are considered a growing menace. Take this for a statistic – India has the highest number of rabies deaths per year – estimated at between 20,000 and 35,000 – and 99% of those cases of rabies come from dog bites. Indeed, the number of dog attacks each year is staggering. In 2011, in Mumbai alone, an estimated 80,000 dog bites were reported. The actual number of unreported bites is open to speculation, but the real figure could be considerably higher. In one attack alone in Nizamabad this year “a stray dog suddenly went berserk and started attacking people.” No less than twenty people were injured and had to be treated for bites. In truth, it’s a tragedy for everyone involved, dog included.
It’s worth pointing out that my purpose here is not to malign dogs, or India in anyway, but rather to highlight something that has come to fascinate me during the three and a half months I’ve spent in India on two different trips in recent years. I’ve always been a real lover of dogs, having grown up with them, and was, at times, just as moved by the living conditions of the dogs as the people in India. They too are just doing their bit to get by, as they have done for millennia. Some of the dogs seem to be very healthy and robust, whilst others are in dire states of sickness and physical deterioration. One thing I noticed – purely anecdotal evidence though it is – was that the least healthy dogs were in towns that were strictly vegetarian, such as Varanasi. Dogs are omnivores and certainly eat their fair share of vegetables, yet I wondered if there might be a connection here – the lack of any meat to supplement their diet caused them to suffer physically.
The dogs I saw in Darjeeling, on the other hand, a town where a lot of meat is sold and consumed, seemed in very good health. Indeed Darjeeling had the largest concentrated population of dogs of any of the places I visited, something I noted in particular during my last visit there, in January of this year. During the day they tend to lounge around in the sunshine, where possible, curled up into tight, lazy bundles. They are mostly docile and friendly during the daylight hours, and very pattable. When given the chance they are sweet and affectionate, and it was difficult to resist approaching these dogs and stroking their ears.
Darjeeling is a town which shuts down very early, and is quite dark at night, with relatively low-levels of street lighting. Once the night sets in, the dogs set off to scavenge and hunt, roaming the streets either as individuals or in packs. Much of the time they simply plunder the ample garbage piles for scraps and leftovers, but they have also been known to attack people and certainly fight amongst themselves. From our lovely room up the top of the Dekeling Hotel in the centre of town, we were kept awake until late each night by the constant barking and yelping of dogs down in the square below. It is little wonder that they sleep all day, having exerted themselves so much in their nocturnal prowling.
Two days after leaving Darjeeling, we read of a savage attack on a local man by a pack of dogs. It was another in a string of such incidents. The victim, 22-year-old Sahdev Lepcha, said: “It was around eleven at the night when I was returning from a friend’s place… I was attacked by some dogs… I tried to get out of the situation but the dogs more then eight in numbers were unyielding and forced me on to the ground and started biting me from all sides.”
Despite the apparent daytime harmony between the people and dogs of Darjeeling, this is, in effect, a story of competition and conflict between two integrated populations for space and resources, and this story is repeated right across India. In practical terms, the dogs constitute a minority group, scattered throughout Indian society. Loved and hated in equal measure, they are hounded and harassed, as well as being treated with deference and kindness.
There are, of course, organisations working to stem the spread of street dogs in India such as the Vishaka Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (VSPCA), which vaccinates stray dogs against rabies as well as neutering them. There are ways to contribute to this charity from abroad, either directly or through third parties, such as The Animal Rescue Site. Their website paints a dramatic picture: With each litter born on the streets, canine overpopulation worsens, leading to malnutrition, untreated injuries, and the spread of disease, especially rabies. They also offer an important reminder of India’s ancient laws and traditions of respect for and protection of animals – Ahimsa – and it is worthwhile remembering that whilst many see the dogs as a menace and treat them cruelly, there is a great deal of acceptance and love for dogs in India as well. Indeed, the laws prevent them from being euthanized, acknowledging that dogs too have a right to exist.
In the meantime, however, the problem seems to be worsening with the dog population growing and more and more people being bitten. Without denying dogs access to the litter that feeds them, or having a more comprehensive program of neutering and vaccination, Indians will have to continue living alongside them, for better or for worse.
As a dog-lover it is easy to feel sorry for these poor mutts. There is even a Facebook page called I Love Indian Stray Dogs, and I guess I love them too. This, however, is from the relatively comfortable and naïve position of not having been attacked or threatened by them. Either way, I hope a solution can be found that works for both humans and dogs. Ever since humans first allowed dogs into their lives thousands of years ago, we have been co-existing and co-evolving towards a kind of mutual dependency. When dependency changes into competition, it is a sorry situation for both parties.