Wild dog populations have haunted India for centuries, but urbanization and pollution have made the problem more widespread and serious in recent times. For the past three years, groups of fugitives have made the residents of this densely populated port city in India’s southwestern tip feel like hostages. Dogs descend in the shade all day, when temperatures rise above 100 degrees, and then begin hunting and pestering at dusk. Evil tusks often block streets and sidewalks, destroy property and sometimes stand on the stairs of homes and roar over residents. “I fear for my life,” says Kavya Krishna, a high school student, “We can’t go out of the house. These dogs bite and tear off mats, shoes, plastic, pipes… They also cause scratches on our car.”
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, passed in 1960, criminalizes “hitting, kicking, torturing, mutilating, giving a harmful substance or cruelly killing an animal,” so people have to be creative in how they protect themselves or they may end up behind bars. Shanta Shekar and many Kozhikode residents line their walls with broken glass, sharp nails, or even barbed wire. She says the dogs that rummage through the trash for food scraps leave behind a huge mess that is bothersome and dangerous for her and her family. Sheker says dogs often squabble over litter—small scraps of food or chicken bones—resulting in loud howls at night, along with barking and scratching at their door that keeps her family awake. “I was woken up by horrific screams from dogs bothering each other,” she says. “I feel bad when I hurt dogs because I know they are just trying to survive, but they are encroaching on my property and putting my family in danger.”
The dominant breed is the Indian Castaway, which is a medium-sized, short-haired dog that often has relatively long legs and a curly tail. The strays travel in packs that sometimes grow up to 50 dogs in size in major cities of India, such as Bangalore and Mumbai. In Kozhikode, pack size varies by neighborhood, but more people and more litter usually means more wild dogs. The Indian Ministry of Health says there are more than 2,000 animal bites every year in Kozhikode. india times I recently reported that in Kerala, around 100,000 people have been attacked by stray dogs since early 2015 and that nationally, more than 16 million people are bitten each year. It also says India has about 20,000 rabies deaths annually.
Sulochana Nair, a domestic worker in Kozhikode, was bitten by a dog on her way to work. She was unable to locate the dog, so she had to take preventive measures by receiving a series of rabies injections on a daily basis for about a month. “I am very upset,” she says. “Not only did I bear the pain of a maniac dog, but now I can’t go to work.”
Roots of the problem, attempts to help
Wild dogs had been a threat in India for centuries, and their numbers swelled as humans began to establish towns and then cities, which provided plenty of shelter from the elements, and plenty of litter to feed on. There was also a cultural basis for the crisis: for a very long time Hinduism was the dominant religion in the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka), and it teaches that all life is sacred. This means not to kill a stray. When the British ruled India, he was patient with religious restrictions, and the government oversaw the killing of about 50,000 dogs annually, but the dogs bred faster than the British could have killed 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, castrating males, vaccinating them, and then returning them to the wild. A one-year pilot program ran in 1994 in a small area north of Kozhikode, capturing approximately 1,500 females. The incidence of rabies has decreased significantly, as has the number of wild dogs. Based on these results, the program has been disseminated at the national level. ABC’s Bangalore sterilized more than 500 dogs per month in 2014.
However, some cities are struggling to implement the program. Either they don’t have the funds, or they don’t have enough trained professionals willing to join the fight. The government and NGOs have also not stepped in to help these smaller cities yet, but they are making their way towards them after tackling the bigger cities in the first place.
ABC has mitigated the problem in some cities, but there weren’t enough of them and there was even a large-scale (and illegal) pogrom in Kozhikode in January 2012 after multiple reports of a stray rabies. In just four days, the men captured and killed about 250 dogs – some of whom were electrocuted or beaten with sticks and batons. The local government even paid a bounty for each corpse. The slaughter was only stopped when residents signed a petition protesting that killing dogs was illegal and immoral.
This clipping-like tour of Kozhikode a few years ago hardly affected the population, and a deep hatred for dogs continues to fester. Some residents paid retaliation. They throw stones from balconies while dogs roam the streets. “I had to sew a pocket on the side of my bike to keep the rocks inside so I could throw them at the dogs following me or chasing me,” says a local worker who wanted to remain anonymous. “These treacherous and disgusting dogs have become a real problem.”
The image accompanying this article has been modified.