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The Street Dogs of Kerala and My Dog Story

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

My Puppy, Juan

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The Good Old Days of Community Dogs

Street dogs were not street dogs to us, the children of the rural hamlet where we lived. They and we lived in companionship with cows, crows, goats, cats, and poultry. They were free to roam around, as we were. Everyone in the village knew everyone else. Every dog that was fed by a family, had a name given to it, most probably by a child in the family. Apart from them being an integral part of our routine village life, we never had to think about street dogs much. From my childhood days, I remember all of them being healthy and in good spirits. They were all the nondescript Indian breed dogs. Some had a little furrier coat than the others. Some had a curious resemblance to foxes. Foxes also lived around in the thickets and bushes that were part of the rural landscape those days. In the dusks and dawns, the prayer calls from the mosques and temples would rise and echo in the atmosphere and the foxes would join the chorus. The stray dogs would also try to imitate that high-pitched choir of howl. It was all part of the bliss and charm of an otherwise peaceful rural life. The stray dogs generously wagged their tails to everyone around and stayed well-fed and friendly.


The Entry of Foreign Breed Dogs

I do not remember exactly when stray dogs started not being a part of our community life. It happened parallel to my growing up. I believe it all started when foreign breeds began to catch the imagination of the people of our country and my state, Kerala. The newcomer dogs had all kinds of fancy looks and furrier coats though they might indeed have felt the tropical sun of our place punishing. They all originally hailed from colder climates. The net result of this change was that no one anymore wanted to own a local breed dog. The foreign breed dogs became a symbol of status to such an extent that in the late 70s and 80s, many rich men and women characters depicted in our regional language films happened to be proud owners of foreign breed dogs.

Winds of Change; Disinherited and Lost

The people of the state were changing in many aspects. All the homesteads started having formidable compound walls built around them. The plunder and sale of natural resources like sand, soil, granite, and water became an industrious business and vocation. Big houses built using granite from tip to toe stood shoulder to shoulder on every street. All the roadside plots were purchased and houses built on them. The 'real estate boom' brought in easy money into the society and the making of typical consumer society was almost complete. Animal husbandry became the vocation of the poor people alone who had no other choice for a job. Domestic animals almost disappeared from our mainstream.


Street Dogs: A Common Sight in Kerala

The Street Dogs are Back!

Now, a pause, and the picture changes. Walk with me a couple of kilometers on any street in Kerala. You will spot a street dog for sure in five minutes or even before. Also, you will most probably see a man/woman/child picking up a stone to throw at it. Street dog menace is now popular middle-class chatter. The reports of stray dogs attacking the cattle, and even humans grab headlines every now and then. Cows, goats, and poultry began to fall prey to the packs of stray dogs that roamed around. Many such instances were reported from different parts of Kerala. Dogs in a few rare instances also attacked small kids and old people, the reports say. A panic reaction ensued. More rational voices lamented that the stray dog menace was a manifestation of the failed animal birth control policy of the state government. Veterinarians of Kerala, the state of India where I live, began to issue warnings that it was when we stopped feeding the street dogs (which was part of our age-old village culture) and began to throw stones at them at every sighting, that the dogs that usually live as loners started getting organized into packs for food hunting.

The Stray Dog Facts

Dr. M.K. Narayanan of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University has been a veterinarian who issued a warning many years ago that the stray dog population in Kerala was about to explode. The animal birth control program was losing steam. It seems no one listened to him at that time. Presently there are about 2, 70,000 street dogs in Kerala, a small state with a geographical area of about 40, 000 square kilometers.[1] In the three years spanning from 2013 to 2016, it was reported, 3, 34,000 people were bitten by dogs in Kerala but only 33 of the victims died of rabies.[2] At this point of discussion, it has to be remembered that Kerala produces 8000 tons of domestic waste per day and there is no proper waste processing mechanism, making the people leave at least half of this garbage on street sides, and unguarded government and private properties.[3] Stray dogs that are starved owing to the apathy of the local communities naturally ate from these garbage dumps and proliferated in the context of failed ABC (Animal Birth Control) program of the government.


[1] Kumar, A.J. (November 6, 2016), Why Kerala turned on its street dogs, The Times of India, Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/Why-Kerala-turned-on-its-street-dogs/articleshow/55271521.cms

[2] Kumar, A.J. (November 6, 2016), Why Kerala turned on its street dogs, The Times of India, Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/Why-Kerala-turned-on-its-street-dogs/articleshow/55271521.cms

[3] Kumar, A.J. (November 6, 2016), Why Kerala turned on its street dogs, The Times of India, Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/Why-Kerala-turned-on-its-street-dogs/articleshow/55271521.cms

Demonizing the Stray Dog Problem, Ignoring the Solution

It was at this point of time that as a media professional, I did a television documentary on the 'stray dog menace' that was catching eyeballs in Kerala. As I went on traveling around and talking to people, I could see that the tribal people of Kerala, who still fed street dogs, were not facing the ‘stray dog problem’. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu (our neighboring state) where life is not yet as urbanized as in Kerala, and people still have a certain level of tolerance and acceptance towards street dogs, there is no such problem. When I interviewed him, Dr. Narayanan told me it would take at least 11 years to complete neutering and spaying all the street dogs of Kerala, even if we implement the ABC program in full vigor. The alternative he suggested was for the people to adopt stray dogs either as house dogs or community dogs, feed them and cultivate a friendly relationship with them. He also suggested that the government should make it the responsibility of the owners and the community to spay and neuter the house dogs and community dogs. This along with the government-level ABC program could resolve the issue, he said. However, the mainstream media and social networking sites were full of hate stories about dogs and his suggestions of reason fell on deaf ears.

The government promised stringent birth control measures for stray dogs. The laws of the country which were earlier in favor of culling the excess street dog population had been amended in 2011 and the Animal Birth Control Rules formulated. According to the Rules, no street dog can be killed, or harmed, or driven away from a place where it lives. The only possible action that is legal is to pick up street dogs and spay them in a scientific and humane manner and then leave them in the place from where they have been caught. Instead of doing that, the panic reaction of the people of Kerala resulted in hundreds of street dogs illegally being killed in public by gangs of the 'anti-dog crusaders'. They even hanged street dogs from poles!

Here is a link to the documentary I did on the street dog problem in Kerala. It is in the regional language, Malayalam.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv_a1RmJl34

A Personal Journey with Street Dogs

After almost two years of screening this documentary, I took a break from my job as a television journalist and moved from the state capital back to my village. I started farming rice and vegetables and had a few cows and goats, mainly kept for manure. To protect my goats from the street dog packs that roamed freely around (and attacked and killed one of my goats), I decided to adopt three street dog puppies. There was also this wish to do my part as a citizen in removing street dogs from the streets.

The puppies I adopted were friendly with the goats from the very beginning and even ventured out to taste goat milk directly from the source. The goats did not seem to mind. Even when one of my goats gave birth and there was plenty of blood around in the process, my dogs stood by, unmoved by the smell of blood. And once we cleaned up the newborn, my female dogs licked it with love.

Soon I began to worry about neutering and spaying my dogs. Two of my dogs were females. If they gave birth to a litter of puppies, I wouldn't be able to take care of all of them. I also knew that it would be impossible to find any friends or neighbors ready to adopt them. The media and the people had moved on to other sensational news stories but there was no change in the attitudes towards street dogs.


Dr. Narayanan and his staff

The Plight of Dog Owners

When I made inquiries about veterinary services nearby to spay and neuter my dogs, I realized I will have to take my puppies to a hospital 80 kilometers away from my place. The government machinery for implementing street dog birth control was as lackadaisical as it used to be notwithstanding the recent dog attacks and media attention. There was not even a single facility in my entire district that I could find to do the surgery; even though the state had just witnessed about 4, 00, 000 street dog bites! There was no nearby government veterinary hospital equipped to do the surgery and an equivalent private hospital was further far off.


Jill, My Adopted Street Dog

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To Own or Not to Own a Dog

Days and months went by. I was caught up in some urgent job deadlines as I was working as a freelance documentary maker. Meanwhile, my one and half-year-old female dog, Bella, gave birth to four puppies. My parents with whom I was living were up in arms and I submitted meekly to their insinuations as an 'irresponsible' dog owner. Only one of my puppies got adopted. Three others remained with us. Their playful and watchful barks populated our nights.

I continued searching for a solution. Eventually, I could find a government-run special project team doing animal birth control in street dogs in my own district- at a place 30 kilometers away from my home. I took all my dogs and puppies to them and in a single day, to my relief, got all of them spayed and neutered. The team that did the surgeries was fantastic; an ABC program coordinator, a veterinary doctor, and 3 assistants. They also came by to my village in their mobile animal birth control unit. The unit spayed, neutered, and released back many stray dogs of my village to the relief of the goat and cattle owners. However, to my knowledge, the situation is bleak for many other districts.

Bella, My Adopted Street Dog

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The Street Dog Story Continues

Sally, the coordinator of the Animal Birth Control project team that helped me, narrated an incident of finding an illegal zoo in Kerala. The zoo was owned by a private higher education institution and she made to shut down. The reason being they fed their python with the puppies just delivered by a street dog living nearby. Sally said, in other states of India, her team just will have to give a biscuit to catch a street dog but in Kerala if they show the street dog a biscuit, it will run for life. The behavior of the people in our state has taught it to assume that every hand extending to it, held a stone to be thrown at it. I wonder when will we be able to become a little more objective and kind. The so-called "street dog problem" in our state continues.

© 2018 Deepa

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