By Shwetha Sivaraman
As of 2022, India has the largest stray dog population in the world, standing at more than 35 million. Given that stray dogs are ubiquitous, it is no surprise that their presence has caused conflict with and amongst humans. Kerala, in particular, has garnered national attention over the last year. The state health ministry disclosed that more than 95,000 people had been bitten by stray dogs, 14 of whom died. Granted, this suggests that death by stray dogs is uncommon.
Moreover, while stray dogs may bite, individuals could be told to get vaccinated against rabies to mitigate substantial harm. Yet, this undermines the complexity of the issue. Five of the 14 people who died were vaccinated against rabies. The death of a 12-year-old girl, Abhirami, this month in Kerala from rabies after being bitten triggered national outrage. Abhirami, who had received three doses of the anti-rabies vaccine, became the 21st person to die from rabies in Kerala. Her death once again spotlights the longstanding rift between, on the one hand, animal rights activists seeking to protect stray dogs and, on the other hand, individuals and the government who turn to violent measures like culling to reduce human harm.
Of course, worries concerning the prevalence of rabies in stray dogs and its fatal consequences for humans are understandable. However, protecting humans has been weaponised as a justification for acts of animal cruelty, namely shooting and hanging stray dogs. Take Jose Maveli: in 2016, Maveli was charged with seven cases of animal cruelty for running a campaign to kill stray dogs. He also offered to pay 500 INR whenever someone killed a street dog. Animal cruelty is a serious offence and one that India has attempted to tackle via laws. For instance, section 428 of the Indian Penal Code states that punishment for killing any animal worth more than ten rupees will be fined or imprisoned for two years. Section 11 of India’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, cruelty against animals is a criminal punishment. It is punishable by a fine of 50 rupees for first-time offenders or imprisonment for three months. Still, killings go unpunished, and the penalties that do exist, particularly under the 1960 Act, seem lax and thus fail to be taken seriously. This is especially clear when we compare the 1960 Act with similar laws like that of the UK, whereby animal cruelty crimes can lead to £20,000 fines or even a lifetime ban from owning pets. Legal reform of animal cruelty acts and making punishments harsher is one way to inhibit cruelty against stray dogs. But this fails to strike a balance between protecting stray dogs and humans. While it may reduce acts of cruelty against stray dogs, this does little to help street dogs be healthier and tamer.
So, what else can be done? First, NGOs and other animal welfare organisations could continue vaccinating stray dogs to lower rabies cases. Second, the adoption of street dogs could be encouraged. Admittedly, this is easier said than done; owning a dog is time-consuming and expensive, which many people cannot afford. A manageable and humane solution would be to collect, sterilise and vaccinate dogs before returning them to where they were found – a process implemented by the Animal Birth Control rules in 2001 but has so far been poorly executed. All of these ways help humans and dogs. However, each method would work best if a) efforts to carry each one out are high and b) they are implemented concurrently. Together, these methods are powerful in helping humans and dogs, and the government and welfare groups must collaborate to protect both beings using these diverse tactics.