Dogs in urban settlements

April 18, 2021

The advocacy against the culling of stray dogs is a question of maintaining the balance of the ecosystem, coexisting with nature and the interdepend-encies amongst species necessary for a healthy society

Lahore has a human population of 11.3 million, alongside countless invisible non-livestock animals. Karachi, the capital of Sindh, and its greatest metropolitan area, has 18 million residents, encompassing over 3,780 square kilometres. It is also the most densely populated urban settlement for stray dogs. Rawalpindi, the fourth largest city in Pakistan, has pockets across its 259 square kilometres that are inhabited by dogs, who subsist on the organic food waste produced in huge amounts by this large human settlement, as is the case in other urban areas of Pakistan.

A mere hint of stray dogs squatting in the same grounds as a dense human population of millions, conjures up images in the minds of most Pakistanis of streets full of gangs of canines – hounding cars, pulling down motorcycle riders, attacking pedestrians and school children and mauling women. However, the question that needs to be asked is whether this is really a true picture. What is actually the threat of stray dogs to the human population, who is responsible and what are the potential solutions?

Dogs in Pakistan hold an unchallenged position as one of the most loathed animals, mostly in the cities. The negative connotation attached to this animal, whose symbiotic relationship and co-evolution with humans goes back at least 15,000 years to the Bonnober Kassel dog, found buried with two humans on ancient grounds. For centuries, dogs of all kinds have been labelled as man’s best friend and most loyal companion, across the globe and in various cultures.

However, native stray dogs in Pakistan, who belong to the streets, still struggle to be given the basic right to exist on our land that is governed by a religion that teaches mercy, acceptance and love for all the creatures of God. These ill-fated animals suffer from a crisis of identity and space. Society deals with stray dogs with extreme intolerance, hatred, unfounded fear, prejudice, apathy and cruelty.

In healthy cities, every stakeholder is cared for. This includes all animals, says Umer Alvie, an urban architecture expert. And this is indeed true. Dogs, being eliminated in the most brutal ways possible, are not the ones occupying the city; it is the city that is occupying their space and not accommodating them. This species has evolved from a wild animal, over centuries of domestication by humans. This adaptation dates back to the wolf assisting the homo sapiens in hunter-gatherer societies.

In rural settlements in Pakistan today, free-range dogs protect the vicinity and help herd livestock animals. The advocacy against the culling of stray dogs in the cities, though mostly seen as an elitist concern among Pakistanis, is actually a question of maintaining the balance of the ecosystem, coexisting with nature and the interdependencies amongst species necessary for a healthy society. Countries like Afghanistan and India, which face the stray dog problem, are mostly in the Third World. Iran did face the problem once but has countered it in the right way and quickly controlled the dog population and eliminated rabies.

Why do our cities face the growth in the population of dogs, despite weekly culls? You cull 15 dogs and soon see 40 more encroaching on the area. If these dogs are entirely eliminated, which is not possible given the policy of culling rather than population control, the organic food waste will become unmanageable. This food waste also results in an uncontrollable rat problem, leading to plague and other diseases. The existence of stray dogs isn’t parasitic for human settlements, rather it can be beneficial.

Dogs, like humans, are living beings and their population is continuously rising, which may not be pleasant for us, but it is also not sustainable for the dogs, who starve and live on the streets. We cannot simply address the issue by killing them. We have to put in time and effort to solve the problem in a sustainable manner. The culling of dogs is an unnecessary, cruel and temporary solution. We need to make efforts to initiate projects to vaccinate and spay or neuter the dogs to maintain their population. Rabies is a real concern. However, the solution is not culling, but rather vaccination and sterilisation.

Dogs, who are being eliminated in the most brutal possible way, are not the ones occupying the city; it is the city that is occupying their space and not accommodating them.

One female stray can produce up to 2,048 puppies in just four years. A study in India (Reece and Chawla, 2006) reported a decrease of 31.8 to 51 percent in the stray dog population in just six years, after 50 to 70 percent of the population was spayed or neutered. Meanwhile, Thailand has seen a decline of 50 percent in just five years, following the same policy. In the case of rabies, South American countries, such as Panama, Chile, Brazil and Argentina, initiated countrywide rabies vaccination drives that have led to them being rabies-free for over 10 years now.

There is not an epidemic of rabies in Pakistan and the panic is overblown. It is the hype that justifies the violence. Not every dog bite causes rabies; it is more a question of how to coexist with dogs and figuring out humane ways to deal with them. As per a study by the World Health Organisation in 2010, around 97,000 dog bite cases are reported every year in Pakistan. However, the exact number of deaths caused by rabies has not been recorded. Nor does the veterinary data show a significant statistical record of dogs being diagnosed with active rabies cases.

Achieving herd immunity amongst the dog population is the key to eliminating rabies from Pakistan. This means that when at least 70 percent of the stray dogs in the country are vaccinated against rabies, it will provide indirect protection or immunity amongst all dogs, even if a small percentage of the dogs is left unvaccinated. When we vaccinate dogs for rabies, it reduces the chances of infection in humans too, explains Rabies Free Pakistan, an initiative in Karachi to combat rabies and the dog population in a humane and substantive manner. The government’s solution to the spread of the deadly disease is dog culling. It is a brutal and outdated practice that still exists in a few countries around the world. If we look into why these cases of bites are happening, the answer is simple:

“If a dog’s tail or ears are chopped off, or a puppy’s mother is poisoned in front of him, or a dog is hanged by a telephone pole or has acid thrown on her or pelted by stones or run over by a car or motorbike and left to die or simply shooed away consistently simply for existing, how can you expect the dog to not be aggressive? Wouldn’t you be? – Ayesha Chundrigar, Founder of ACF for animals.

The behaviour of the dogs in an area is a direct representation of how they are treated in that area. The stray dogs in Turkey are fed, cared for and accepted. Thus, they have become a significant and healthy part of the country. As Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. To seek to reduce the suffering of those who are completely under one’s domination, and unable to fight back, is truly a mark of a civilised society.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Dream of the Ridiculous Man, “I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind.” We can ponder what has led us to the point where we have ceased to extend our compassion outside a limited circle. We can make a conscious choice not to let this lack of compassion remain the norm.

Our relationship with this ill-fated animal in Pakistan is multi-layered and multifaceted but it is high time that we re-evaluate it on all grounds – moral, logical and ethical – and aim to eliminate the problem and not the animal.

Rubina, an animal rescue worker, who has saved about 500 animals, was initially hired as domestic help and is now an avid animal lover. She has had no formal education or previous counselling on animal rights, except for her father who showed her, by example, how to care for injured animals. She explains her stance on compassion itself being an education. She says that the only way people can learn is through awareness and engagement with animals. No amount of formal training, according to Rubina, can inform the heart, one has to do the work from within.

My project, Faltoo Say Paltoo, involved children and was meant to address cruelty to dogs at the community level. Through creative practices and interaction with stray dogs, the children established an understanding with the animals. Empathy is a learned behaviour; so is apathy and it can perhaps be unlearned. The children who had been taught that the street dog is a vicious creature, no longer feared them when they interacted first-hand with stray dogs and puppies.

Nishtar Colony, near Rohi Nala in Lahore, is one of the communities that was identified during the project, where the locals intervened in the practices of dog culling and condemned the practice. There are several shelters made by the locals. Many street dogs were adopted as pets as well. The dogs of that neighbourhood were not traumatised and were integrated as parts of the community, with the children actively interacting with them, unlike other areas, where they were apprehensive and scared. If such an example can be set in one area, then why not the rest of the city?

But reversing the apathetic attitudes of the general public on a mass scale will take a lot more than just interaction with animals. The public has to be counselled on all angles through mass media through repetition and also held accountable for the offences when it comes to animal abuse. Animals are routinely tortured for sport, raped, beaten, dragged behind cars and culled in inhumane ways. Pakistan has not passed an animal protection bill till this date. The last one was passed in 1851 by the British. The legal aspect is crucial to solving the problem.

The status of dogs can be improved if a less distant approach is adopted towards them and if society evolves past the negative connotations attached to them. A more socially aware and responsible approach can be adopted when it comes to our fellow beings. What has been instilled over the years can be questioned and negated, if we value morality and compassion over social conditioning. We can reason our way out of traditional practices and instead of dominion, we can take the position of stewardship of this land and its creatures if we are to exist in a just and equal society.

The writer is an animal rights’ activist, researcher and rescuer based in Lahore

Dogs in urban settlements