Truth about cats and dogs

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Civic authorities will have to deal with the problem of strays with the seriousness it deserves

.The stray dog controversy has dogged the municipal authorities in Delhi longer than one can remember. For years animal rights activists armed with laws, rules, court rulings, research papers and editorials have scored over tongue-tied municipal officials. Even Mahatma Gandhi has been quoted and misquoted out of context with abandon.

I too profess to be a dog lover and feel sorry for the pathetic creatures that I meet, one eyed, three-legged, eye clouded over with cataract, infested with mites, but still having the spunk to bark. Who owns them? No one. The dogs are there by rights conferred by a rule that directs them to be returned to their “normal habitat”. The rule was introduced in 2001 under the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act, 1960 that enjoins, “Every dog shall be released at the same place or locality from where they were captured.” This is an aberration; it runs counter to the laws governing the performance of municipal functions that emphasise the need to provide safe surroundings for residents.

Privately, the MCD and the NDMC wring their hands lamenting how difficult it is to keep track of thousands of stray dogs that roam the streets of Delhi. According to them there is no way of identifying dogs which have been inoculated. Delhi’s Director-ate of Health Services used 1,70,000 rabies injections in one year. That does not include the figures of Central Government hospitals or those run by MCD that would account for thousands more.

In the Lodhi Gardens three dogs sprawl across the stone walkway. They trouble no one. But who is their owner? Admittedly, none of the dogs are a nuisance but neither are the golden retrievers and St Bernard’s that amble by, accompanied by proud owners or their menials. Both are breaking NDMC’s rules, each powerful group secretly promoting the other. The three dogs and their invisible “owners” do so 24 hours a day as unleashed dogs are prohibited. The other group does so by ignoring rules that expressly disallow the entry of dogs at given timings. NDMC knows it is best to look the other way.

The other day I visited Jeevashram, a veterinary outfit near the international airport. Unlike many vets, I watched Vinod Sharma and his team of vets handling an assortment of dogs. They were undeterred by their snarls, growls, flea infested skin or their pariah parentage. Here were real dog lovers but even so they offered upfront advice on what should be done about stray dogs, which they differentiated from street dogs. The latter live and die on the streets they said. The former are the abandoned progeny of mating episodes that occur because owners are irresponsible. The vets at Jeevasharam quoted several international best practices to fortify the need to legislate on owner’s rights and liabilities, licensing of breeders and removal of unclaimed dogs from public roads and streets to dog pounds. And clearly these people cared for canines.

To take the stand that the dogs must be restored to where they originally came from is bizarre. It does not seem to find a place in any of the world laws on stray dogs in cities. France, Canada, Australia are all dog loving countries, but nowhere do they cart back strays dogs onto the streets.

In the US, roaming dogs are impounded. Issues of human health and safety override everything and each State has its own laws on street dogs. Some US States do not even delegate the function to municipal authorities. “In a highly urbanised society, dogs cannot be allowed to run free, human safety being most important,” says a comprehensive US website. No dog is permitted to “roam at large” unless accompanied by the custodian. In inner London both police and dog wardens are jointly responsible for catching stray dogs and are required to deposit them in a dog pound. The public can demand this service by rights.

The Commonwealth Games are round the corner. Flags flutter down Rajpath as yet another dignitary visits the capital. Roads are restored, trees are pruned and signages spruced up. Incredible India claims that it treats its guests as god. But the menace of stray dogs running amok at railway stations, bus stops, markets, monuments, streets and even hospitals, only grows. Meanwhile, in side streets of the city, dogs are regularly stoned, beaten and maimed, far from the earshot of the cruelty to animals shouting brigade. There lies the difference between ground reality and emotional rhetoric.

Breeders too need to be licensed and covered by regulation. If a pet dog produces a litter, the fine should be hefty and should be deposited in an Animal Welfare Fund that pays for maintaining special pounds for street dogs. Abandoned puppies should not be left to scrounge off the streets in the pious hope that each year they would be caught, inoculated, neutered, treated for infestation and worms and restored back.

Year after year NDMC continues to pay NGOs Rs 500 per street dog for performing this function and a few NGOs are indeed performing an admirable service. But the main roads and precincts of the capital city and a busy metropolis cannot become the permanent repository for stray dogs, while its residents are exposed to the risks of being bitten, intimidated and held liable for road accidents. If there is a conflict of law, surely human safety comes first? A dog’s life cannot become larger than life.

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