Can Sindh try to tackle its stray dog population?
A first choice for a household pet for some humans, adored for their loyalty and friendship. But simultaneously, an insult of Shakespearean proportion: dog. Cur. Hound. Bitch. Kutta… Canines have been celebrated and condemned in equal measure throughout the history of the world. And today, as Karachi grapples with a civil society versus government debate on the treatment of stray dogs, two major camps have emerged: pro-culling and pro-neutering.
“A dog is more affectionate towards his master than a father towards his son, or one blood brother towards another,” wrote Ibn al-Marzuban, a 10th Century scholar from Baghdad, in his famous Book of the Superiority of Dogs over many of those who wear Clothes. “He guards his master and protects his household, whether the master in present or absent, whether he is sleeping or awake. The dog does not shrink from the task, even if he is treated harshly. He does not let people down, even if they let him down.” Humans, on the other hand, get short shrift from the author, who describes them as the “worst kind of apes.”
Another work of note is The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn. It was authored in the 10th Century by Ikhwan al-Safa (The Brethren of Purity), a secret society active in the Middle East that has left 52 epistles on various philosophical subjects. As we can infer from the title, animals had a bleak view of human nature. Tired and fed up with human cruelty, they appealed to the Jinn King Biwarasp to help them against humans.
Ikhwan al-Safa notes that the dogs were “drawn to precincts of men” because “with men they found food and drink that they relish and crave – and a greedy, covetous, ignoble, stingy nature like their own.” The dogs “are so wretched, lowly abject, beggarly and covetous that when they see a human being … holding a roll, or a scrap of bread in his hand, or a date, or any morsel, they beg for it and follow him about, wagging their tails, bobbing their heads, gazing up into his eyes, until the person feels embarrassed and throws it to them. Then see how they run for it and quickly snatch it, lest another reach it first. All these base qualities are found in human and dogs. So it was their kindred nature and character that led dogs to leave their own kind and shelter with men, as their allies against the hunting animals who were of their own race.”
Considering that both Ibn al-Murzaban and Ikhwan al-Safa’s works were written around the same time, we can see how divisive the status of dogs was among our ancestors. Dogs are compared to humans, which is something we do not do with other animals. This is perhaps why we have divergent opinions about dogs.
In South Asia dogs have not been popular. They are a few examples of them as pets for royalty in Indian epics and history. The most famous one is perhaps the companion dog of King Yudhisthira of Mahabharat fame. King Yudhisthira declined to enter heaven without his dog, the god Dharma who had disguised himself as a dog to test Yudhisthira. Emperor Akbar had a favourite dog named ‘Mahuwa’. Cats, on the other hand, have been preferred in Muslim tradition and in South Asia as pets. Poet Ameer Khosrow appears not to have been a fan of dogs as he doted on cats. He wrote:
If your heart inclines kindly towards a cat
That is itself a sign of faith’s strength.
A cat stole your heart away and, if not
Go cast it before a dog, for it’s dead.
Few would deny that dogs are loyal or good companions. History is not, however, filled with discussions on their virtues for dogs are also feared. This emerged from the fear of dog bite and is compounded by the dreaded rabies virus. The virus transmitted from the bite of a rabid animal to a human being. Dogs being natural at biting, are the main carriers of the virus.
Cases of rabies can be traced to Antiquity. Greek mythology recognized Lyssa, the spirit of mad rage as the cause of rabies in animals. The scientific name of rabies, Lyssavirus, bears the signature of this long-forgotten Greek spirit. During ancient and medieval times, there was no effective treatment for rabies though people had an understanding that it was caused by dog bite. The one hundred percent fatality rate, added to the fear and disdain for dogs. The first vaccine against rabies was developed by Louis Pasteur in 1885 but despite this, rabies is rampant in poorer parts of the world. In Pakistan, people regularly die of it. The source in almost in all cases is a dog.
Is it wise to judge dogs as carriers of a lethal disease? Most of us would agree that dogs are the main spreader of rabies. But what if rabies were controlled? Would it change our opinion about dogs? In richer parts of the world where rabies cases have been fewer, dogs are widely considered important members of human society. However, in Pakistan, the stray dog population is on the rise, as are dog bite and rabies.
It can be confidently asserted that if we controlled the spread of rabies, our perception about dogs as vicious animals would change. A majority of pet dogs are vaccinated and rabies is problem largely in stray animals. Not every biting stray dog is rabid, but as a precaution the victim must still be treated. In other parts of the world, when a person is bitten by a dog, in most cases the anti-rabies vaccination is not immediately administered. The dog is kept under observation for ten days and if it develops signs of paranoia or dies or if its whereabouts are unknown, then vaccination is recommended. The reasons for this protocol are simple:
Dogs are tracked and monitored
A majority of dogs is vaccinated against rabies
There are not many stray dogs
Not every biting dog is rabid
If we can manage a stray animal population, we would be able to reduce dog bite and bring an end to rabies.
Stray dogs are resilient. They thrive on whatever is available. Fortunately, for them, our cities have a lot to offer. Garbage dumps, roadside food stalls, meat markets and generous citizens ensure an unlimited supply of food. They have fewer health issues as their genetic makeup is more robust compared to pure breeds we keep as pets, who are inbred to have specific traits of our liking, which makes them more prone to certain ailments.
The Sindh Local Government Act, 2013 says that the control and management of stray animals is the job of a municipality. All levers of local government are required to play an effective part in managing stray dogs. Historically, to manage stray populations, municipalities carried out periodic dog culling campaigns. Dogs in large numbers are poisoned and disposed at dump sites. However, in more recent times such maneuvers have come under strong scrutiny of civil society. The extermination of stray animals has proved futile in controlling dog populations. These methods are inhumane and the animals suffer pain greatly.
Fortunately, the Government of Sindh recently promulgated the “Sindh Councils (Dogs Population Control and Mass Vaccination) Rules, 2021”. It says that municipalities are now required to adapt more humane measures to control stray populations. They should neuter and spay adult dogs so they cannot reproduce. Culling remains an option but a monitoring committee has to give that approval.
The Government of Sindh has also rolled out a ‘Sindh Rabies Control Program’ to assist municipalities in managing stray dog populations. The Rs900 million program is designed to help municipalities set up neutering and spaying facilities across Sindh. Municipal staff would be trained to trap dogs and once the procedure is performed, release them in the same area. Stray dog populations would be vaccinated against rabies.
The program is ambitious as the number of stray dogs is huge and it would take a herculean effort to make a change. People would have to act more responsibly as stray dogs thrive on an abundance of scraps. Stray dogs are usually docile and usually do not attack unless provoked or threatened by humans. If we could be more kind to animals, perhaps we could expect kindness in return.
The writer is a bureaucrat