National

Why Villainising Animal Birth Control Is Short-Sighted

Villainising sterilisation programs without taking fair account of those animal birth control programs in Indian cities and towns that have worked and learning from aspects that have worked is akin to throwing the dog out with the dishwater.

Incidents involving street dogs have been increasingly reported in recent time.
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For many decades leading up to the 1990s, the typical response to street dog concerns in India usually involved mass lethal culling that meant great pain, suffering, and terror for the animals before their deaths by clubbing, starvation, poisoning, or electrocution. 

Like the culls that began in colonial times, these responses were often shaped by the fear of rabies. They were also ineffective and self-defeating as a means of managing dog populations over the longer term. 

The first set of Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules, promulgated by the Union government in 2001, were intended to put an end to these brutalities and instead offer a more humane and practical solution. Emphasising the need to shift to focused programs of sterilising and vaccinating street dogs, these rules rendered killing, maiming, and relocation of street dogs illegal. 

Recently, however, with increased reports of conflicts between humans and street dogs, a few skeptics have voiced the concern that sterilisation programs in India have failed. By implying that ABC programs are expensive, resource-intensive, and unproductive, these critics have suggested doing away with these programs, without proposing any alternate solutions — the exception being a proposal to gather all street dogs in dog shelters. 

It is certainly true that we could improve many ABC programs throughout the country. That said, India is already home to some high-quality, high-volume ABC programs. These programs have been effective at stabilising dog population densities. Just as importantly, they have helped to transformed a landscape laden with conflict into a more peaceful one where humans and street dogs coexist in harmony. Villainising sterilisation programs without taking fair account of those ABC programs in Indian cities and towns that have worked and learning from aspects that have worked, is akin to throwing the dog out with the dishwater. 

The fact that the Animal Birth Control Rules have been revised twice now —first in 2010 and recently in 2023— is a positive indication that our law is moving along with the times. The 2023 Rules highlight the need to imagine, plan, and implement ABC in a more holistic way, transcending the narrow goal of simply sterilising and vaccinating street dogs. These Rules push for an approach that emphasises assessment and monitoring impact, a high standard of veterinary medicine and surgery protocol, and a strong human behaviour change component.  

More specifically, the 2023 ABC Rules prescribe: 

•    A planned, strategic, and data-driven approach: Dogs are territorial. Adopting a geographical framework with a quantitative strategy helps systematically achieve high sterilisation rates in large cities, making for efficient ABC. Conducting regular surveys and setting up a complaints response process are crucial.

•    Focus on animal-welfare: No relocation, no overcrowding, introduction of hand-catching, humane euthanasia — except in rabies cases, which needs to be addressed.

•    Project recognition by Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI): Projects not recognised by the AWBI can be shut down, improving accountability. 

•    Training ABC organisations: Only entities appropriately trained and with the adequate resources to conduct high-quality animal birth control (ABC) will be allowed to conduct sterilization programmes.

•    Reporting: Regular monitoring using geo-tagging technology to ensure transparency, tamper-proof evidence, and real-time progress. 

•    Close monitoring for all ABC projects: Stricter monitoring, surprise visits, and the possibility of being blacklisted will discourage the unchecked growth of poorly implemented ABC programmes.

•    Community engagement and human behaviour change: Informed communities and residents are invariably more engaged and responsible as well, so social marketing techniques that win support at the local level are of incalculable importance. 

•    Complaints management: A process for handling complaints goes a long way in reducing conflict between humans and street dogs.

•    Improved waste management: Garbage left in the wrong place quickly becomes a site of attraction for street dogs who go looking for food scraps. However, garbage does not sustain a dog, people do. Better waste management will create improved neighbourhoods for humans and street dogs alike and will also reduce human-dog conflicts. 

To achieve maximum success, the revised Rules will require support in the form of planning, infrastructure, resources and most importantly, the will and consent of local agencies and citizens. A national action plan bolstered by resources and commitment from governments at all levels will ensure that even more ABC programs flourish. 

In the eyes of some observers, shelters sound like a promising alternative to the ABC approach. However, shelters mean a lifetime of food, veterinary care to prevent disease outbreaks, and round-the-clock services that must ensure a decent quality of life for all dogs. There are examples worldwide that demonstrate the limitations of sheltering as a solution to the challenges involved here. For India, the case is a simple one: shelters for millions of dogs would entail a drain of resources while also becoming sites of cruelty and disease. That’s no kind of solution.

The vision we should nurture and pursue is one in which dogs and people live safely together, in harmony. If we are to get there, ABC will be a key pathway. However, it must be done well and the implementation of ABC requires high quality hands-on training as well as adequate resources. Expecting animal welfare organisations to manage the sheer volume without necessary support is unrealistic. A successful ABC initiative will also require strong collaboration from scientists, government, and implementing bodies. More science and research can aid in our understanding of ABC’s benefits and in its implementation. 

Millions of Indians and countless citizens of other nations who have travelled in our country have found cause to lament the plight of street dogs in our communities. But we have the knowledge and ideas needed to make India a model for all nations seeking to address this problem. Now we need to muster the will, the resources, and the collaborative frameworks necessary to tackle the challenge in earnest.

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(Keren Nazareth is Director of HSI/India's street dog program. Over the past seven years, she has worked on street dog issues in Asia and Africa, resolving stray animal conflicts in communities, and has led an array of community-based work in India.

(Dr Vrushti Mawani is Senior Manager, Community Engagement at HSI/India. Dr Mawani holds a Ph.D. in Planning from the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia. Her work focuses on the politics and dynamics of human-environment relations and engages the fields of urban planning, political ecology, and infrastructure politics to inform her approach to engaging communities for street dog welfare.)

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