A journey through North India last week brought with it a number of happy moments but also its share of annoying situations. Among the latter were facing a pack of aggressive dogs on an empty street one night in Agra and being kept awake by another a few days later in Delhi’s Greater Kailash; being stuck in a jam caused by an obdurate bull in Mathura; and watching rhesus macaques snatch aviator glares from a tourist and lunch from a woman’s hand in Vrindavan.
Feral and free roaming animals are a massive problem across urban India, and an even worse threat in the hinterland. Yet, strict animal protection laws, vigilantes, and activists prevent ameliorative action from being taken against damage caused by cows, monkeys, and dogs.
Sanjay Patel, who lived in Kalol in Gujarat, died after two cows suddenly came in the way of his motorcycle on a state highway. Instead of tracking the cows’ owners, the police forced Patel’s father to file an FIR against his dead son for rash driving. Perhaps those cows were among tens of thousands abandoned by farmers unable or unwilling to maintain unproductive cattle. Herds of such animals are devastating crops in states like Rajasthan.
The problem is most acute in Uttar Pradesh, creating a headache for the Adityanath government, which has cracked down on licensed as well as unlicensed slaughterhouses and encouraged cow vigilantes. The solution proposed by those who support the ban on cattle slaughter is to increase the number of shelters, but these have a mixed record in fulfilling the task assigned to them. Cows frequently starve to death in gaushalas for want of funding for fodder.
The menace of stray dogs has not increased at the same rate as that of free roaming cows, but isn’t getting better either. India accounts for one in every three deaths caused by rabies, somewhere around 20,000 fatalities each year. Recently an American woman died after being bitten by a puppy during a yoga retreat in Rishikesh. Most rabies victims are young children playing with street dogs in their neighbourhood unaware of the fatal threat they pose.
When India’s richest cities like Bombay, Pune, Gurgaon, and Amritsar face shortages of the rabies vaccine, it is unlikely that those living in places far from metropolitan hospitals will have any access to treatment.
It is equally unlikely that a nation unable to provide a simple supply of vaccines will be able to efficiently conduct the complicated routines of sterilisation recommended by dog lovers as an alternative to euthanising aggressive canines. The lone shining example in the vaccination and sterilisation protocol has been Jaipur. The city’s success in neutering dogs has been led by Help in Suffering, a charity founded by a British woman named Crystal Rogers in 1980, and helmed by a British veterinarian Jack Reece for the past two decades. Even the very commendable efforts by Help in Suffering, however, have fallen short, as complaints about street dogs mount in Rajasthan’s capital.
Outside areas covered by the NGO, the situation is grave, leading to gruesome massacres like in Surjanser near Bikaner earlier this month. While Surjanser’s residents complained of dogs attacking cows and goats, more distressing pack attacks occurred in Sitapur district near Lucknow, where stray dogs mauled and killed at least 13 children in 2018, injuring many more. One theory connected the increased viciousness of dogs to the closure of Uttar Pradesh’s slaughterhouses, which spurred dogs deprived of meat to turn into child eaters.
Fatal attacks by dogs are very rare, but even sterilised, vaccinated canines remain dangerous. They can transmit a number of infections, including Pasteurella, Salmonella, Brucella, Yersinia enterocolitica, Campylobacter, Capnocytophaga, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Coxiella burnetii, Leptospira, Staphylococcus intermedius and Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. They also compound the threat posed by humans to wildlife, by preying on species like the endangered Green Sea Turtle and the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard.
United in despair
The triumvirate of feral and free roaming mammals running amok in the country is completed by monkeys, especially the rhesus macaque ubiquitous in Central and North India. An acquaintance of mine who owns farmland in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district tells me of farmers leaving their grounds fallow because monkey attacks have ruined agriculture in the area around his home. Some switched to cashew production, but most of the flowers would fall off the trees before the fruit could mature, thanks to the weight of monkeys jumping from branch to branch. The state offers compensation for damage sustained by farmers, but that money is eaten up by sarpanches and other middlemen as ravenously as simians eat crops.
In Shimla, farmers fed up of monkey attacks have rented their land to Maruti Suzuki company to park its inventory of cars. In Telangana, hundreds of farmers have taken to growing cotton, often with disastrous results, because monkeys ruin any food crops they plant. Farmers from Kashmir to Bihar are united in despair in the face of rampaging macaques.
In February 2019, one of the states worst affected, Himachal Pradesh, declared monkeys vermin for a year, allowing for a cull of the animals. The culling hasn’t been a success, partly because devout locals who associate monkeys with Hanuman will not participate in the drive. Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, who, as Minister of Culture with additional charge of Animal Care, drove the 2001 legislation that defined how street dogs were henceforth to be treated, berated the environment ministry for allowing the change in monkey classification, accusing the ministry of a “lust for killing”.
Gandhi is the most influential among a breed of animal lovers who see no justification for killing dogs or monkeys under any circumstances. If you speak of dogs being aggressive, even ferocious, to these people they invariably suggest it is the fault of humans in some fashion. An exchange I read on my Facebook timeline a couple of days ago was typical. A renowned conservation architect wrote of a Japanese tourist being nearly mauled inside one of Delhi’s most famous tourist sites. A common friend responded by insisting those dogs were perfectly docile, saying she would prove it the next time she was there. His eyewitness story counted for nothing in the face of her faith.
Disregarding the small though influential group of fanatics, it is time we realised that slaughtering unproductive cattle, euthanising aggressive dogs, and culling monkeys, has to be part of a solution to the immense dislocations caused by animals roaming free within human habitats. Slaughtering, culling and euthanising are not pleasant practices, but are accepted as a necessary evil in most affluent democracies.
In Australia, over a million kangaroos are legally killed each year. PETA, the animal activist organisation that in India agitates against any killing of canines, euthanisesup to 80% of the dogs in its care in the United Kingdom and the United States.
As for cows, the supposedly scientific or utilitarian reasons for preventing their slaughter are demonstrably false, and serve as a cover for inserting into a secular polity legislation based solely on religious faith.
I am not suggesting that amending policies offering animals blanket protections will solve the problems described in this article. These are long-standing issues that have been exacerbated by bad legislation but not caused by it. For instance, the lamentably high deaths due to rabies have little to do with the fact that it is illegal to euthanise dogs in India. Having said that, it is high time legislators and courts stopped shrugging and looking the other way while rampant cattle, dogs and monkeys ruin lives and livelihoods across the nation.